With the weather likely to cause disruptions at Ascot this Saturday - on the track and in the bars - Tony Calvin is bracing himself for a challenging afternoon and some long odds bets...
"Poet's Word won his Group 3 over 1m4f in the soft at Goodwood and it was telling that his trainer was happy to pitch him in Group 1 company next time, especially back over 1m2f, and was rewarded with an excellent second in the Irish Champion Stakes."
I've been looking at the Champions' Day card since Monday and, in truth, it is hard to see beyond the market leaders in most of the races, he said through gritted teeth. But it is the end of a long season for most, the ground is already soft, and the weather at Ascot on Saturday looks diabolical.
Rain and 40mph+ winds could well cause as much havoc on the track as it will in the course's open-style grandstand and when it starts gusting in the bars there, you know about it all right. A great leveller, in every respect. Especially after a skinful.
The weather could also claim a few victims before racing starts, as it can't be a big price that the soft ground could see the second and third favourites, Big Orange and Stradivarius, pulled out of the Long Distance Cup at 13:25. However, I suppose connections of both could give it a go regardless as it is likely to be their last run of the season, anyway.
It won't be ideal for either, though. Big Orange was withdrawn from the Cadran due to the ground and the Gold Cup winner's record on soft ground reads 5464.
And while Stradivarius finished an excellent third on good to soft in the St Leger, and will be very much suited by stepping back up to 2m, connections are on record as saying they are worried about testing ground for him.
Torcedor could cause an upset
I think this is one race where you can legitimately take on the market leaders - the improving Doncaster Cup winner Desert Skyline is also unproven on soft ground - and I am happy to back Torcedor at 30.029/1 win and 5.04/1 place.
He has nine lengths to find with Big Orange and Order Of St George on their Gold Cup form but, even though he stuck on well enough up the straight, I don't think he was at his best at that 2m4f trip.
Of course, he also has nine lengths to find with the favourite on that Irish St Leger form last month, but he was having his first race since Royal Ascot there and Jessica Harrington could have been keeping him fresh with this race in mind.
He had a wind op before his winning first start for the stable in April (from David Wachman) and then made all to beat Order Of St George, having his seasonal reappearance, over 1m6f at Navan. I think soft ground over 2m could be his optimum conditions and he could well spring an upset.
There is no doubting that Duretto also comes here a fresh horse too, as he was sidelined with a setback after reappearance third in the Ormonde Stakes in May and was having his first start since at Chester last time.
He has never raced beyond an extended 1m5f before, but it is interesting that the trainer's wife immediately name-checked this race as an option after the Chester win in heavy ground, and he will encounter similar conditions here. And in five starts at the track he can boast two wins and a brace of seconds.
The problem is that he was 16/1 when I first started warming to his chance yesterday morning and at the time of writing he is now just 11.010/1 on the exchange. So it's a very reluctant pass on him.
Some no bets - reluctant and otherwise
If what I saw in person at Haydock is replicated, then I find it hard to envisage Harry Angel being beaten in the Sprint at 14:00. He was something else that day, treating Tasleet and The Tin Man with contempt, and very few horses win Group 1 sprints by four lengths.
He certainly looks far more the finished article than he was when softened up by Intelligence Cross and then overhauled by Caravaggio in the Commonwealth Cup - it could be more of the same, I suppose, with Intelligence Cross and Alphabet in here - and he more than deserves his price of 2.166/5 on more recent evidence, with the ground no issue.
The natural move in these circumstances is to look for an each-way alternative and Quiet Reflection fits that bill around the 13/2 mark. She is a Group 1 winner on soft ground, has won a Commonwealth Cup over course and distance, and won well after a break in Ireland last time. But this is a race you can easily leave alone.
So is the Fillies and Mares at 14:40 unfortunately, as I wouldn't be surprised if soft-ground lover Bateel, last year's winner Journey or Hydrangea, stepping up in trip, won.
They basically fill the first three places in the betting, though, and I can't see a definite bet outside of the trio.
I did seriously toy with Left Hand win and place at 16/1+, stepping back up to 1m4f after being beaten just a length in the Opera last time - and the similarly-priced Horseplay will love the ground, too - but I think the claims of Bateel, who finished last in this race on good ground last year, and Journey are outstanding.
Bateel is five from five on soft ground, and one from one on good to soft, and is an absolute tool in testing conditions, as Journey found out in the Vermeille last time.
But I expect Journey, who won this race in commanding style by four lengths last season and traded at 1.251/4 when second the year before, to get a lot closer than she did at Chantilly last time, and you strongly suspect she has been trained with this race in mind all season.
If I had to choose between the pair, it would definitely be Bateel in this ground, though she hasn't been missed in the market now and I must admit I was tempted by Left Hand win and place at the prices.
There is little doubt that Ribchester is the form horse and the one to beat in the QEII at 15:15, but I can't get excited about him at all at 3.1511/5. If he thought conditions were bad at Goodwood, when he was beaten by Here Comes When, then the forecast suggests that he ain't seen nothing yet.
You look back to Churchill's Irish 2,000 Guineas defeat of Thunder Snow and he must be a big player on that form, while the new kid on the block, Beat The Bank, has to be a serious threat to all on his first start in Group 1 company.
He has made a huge impression when winning lesser races by wide margins at Goodwood and Newmarket on his last two starts - and the clock backs up the visual impression too - but the more I look at the depth of this field the more I think the 5/1 is fair, but nothing more, even if soft ground holds no fears for him.
I struggled with this race for a while, and nearly put my faith in Persuasive at 30.029/1, given that price under-estimates the merit of her second to Roly Poly in the Sun Chariot last time. And she does have a soft-ground course-and-distance win on soft ground to her name, too.
But the pin just didn't stick anywhere. A reluctant no bet, but it is worth noting that Betfair Sportsbook are offering four places in the race and go 5/1 Beat The Bank at the time of writing, so that is admittedly tempting.
Two bets for the Champion Stakes
The no-show of Ulysses in the Champion Stakes at 15:50 reminded me once again why my ante-post bets are getting fewer - I dodged a bullet as I was very tempted to secure the 5/1 first thing on Monday morning - but at least that sees Cracksman making the market for us at around the 3.1511/5 level.
He could well have the class in the ground to cope with this step back to 1m2f but I think it's a big ask myself and I am happy to side with Poet's Word at 8.07/1 or bigger.
I am not sure Barney Roy wants it as soft as he will get it here (never raced on worse than good to soft), and that certainly applies to the Ballydoyle pair of Highland Reel and Cliffs Of Moher, so I like the shape of the race.
I think you can make a good case for the French pair, Brametot and Recoletos at the prices - they were first and third in the French Derby, separated by a length - but my main fancy is Poet's Word.
He won his Group 3 over 1m4f in the soft at Goodwood and it was telling that his trainer was happy to pitch him in Group 1 company next time, especially back over 1m2f, and was rewarded with an excellent second in the Irish Champion Stakes.
That wasn't a vintage renewal and he needs to improve again here, but he is on a big upward curve and I think he is a very fair price at around 7/1.
Looking at the profile of Recoletos I think he is probably overpriced at around 26.025/1 - he is unbeaten on testing ground and he shouldn't be three times the price of Brametot on that French Derby form - and I am happy to put him up as a saver.
Brigliadoro looks over-priced
You will get no argument for me that Zabeel Prince and Lord Glitters are the two to beat in the 250k Balmoral Handicap at 16:30 and they fully deserve to dominate the market.
Zabeel Prince is 5lb well-in, even with his penalty, after his uber-impressive York win last week, while Lord Glitters has 4lb in hand after his hugely eye-catching second to Accidental Agent over 7f here on his stable debut and the extra furlong and soft ground will suit him.
But one word of warning if you are backing Zabeel Prince, courtesy of the Racing Post's Paul Kealy in the Weekender on Wednesday. He reported that "Varian has run just 18 horses under a penalty since 2012 with only one of them winning and has had several short-priced losers, including ones at 1-4 and 4-7." That's certainly something to ponder over if you are backing the horse at around 7/2.
The striking thing about this race is that I can't see any guaranteed pace or front-runners. Not that it makes find the winner any easier.
I have to look outside of the favourites, though, and while GM Hopkins is interesting at 21.020/1, I am going to put up Brigliadoro at 50.049/1 or bigger. The 40-1, with five places, is well worth considering each-way with the Betfair Sportsbook, too.
Now, the 6yo is officially 3lb badly-in with his 6lb penalty, which isn't a great starting point, I suppose. And listening to his trainer then I get the distinct impression that they think he ideally wants fast ground.
However, I have good news for them, though, and that is one of his better efforts came on soft ground at Newbury in May when he chased home Withernsea over a mile, and he is in red-hot form at the moment, having come from well off the pace to beat Belgian Bill (very well-handicapped on his old form) in a good time at Kempton recently.
He is far more exposed than the market leaders but his price reflects that, and he has run excellent races on the only two times he has raced here.
David Probert, two from two on the horse, keeps the ride, and hopefully he doesn't find himself marooned away from the pace, wherever it materialises - maybe The Grape Escape from 12 or Qassem from 19 - from his high draw.
He clearly will struggle if the market leaders fulfil their potential but it is probably no bad thing to have a battle-hardened 6yo on your side in these conditions.
Back Torcedor at 30.029/1 or bigger in win, and 5.04/1 in the place, in 13:25 at Ascot
Back Poet's Word at 8.07/1 or bigger and Recoletos at 26.025/1 or bigger in 15:50 at Ascot
Back Brigliadoro at 50.049/1 or bigger in 16:30 at Ascot