It's hard to believe there will be many better ante-post betting races heading into the autumn than the Long Distance Cup on Champions day at Ascot next month.
The market would have you believe this is a match - Betfair Sportsbook is with the majority in making Trueshan (2/1) favourite fractionally ahead of Stradivarius (5/2) - but it's one that has been slated to take place four times this year and has yet to happen. Further, there are doubts, whether one of the pair is quite the force of old.
Ground possible stumbling block to favourites' participation
Trueshan and Stradivarius really ought to be old rivals for whom this is the title decider. However, the ground has denied one or other the chance to set his seal on the staying crown, with conditions too firm for Trueshan three times and too soft for Stradivarius once in their four prospective clashes.
After the latter won at Doncaster on Friday, his co-trainer John Gosden was raising doubts about the prospect of soft ground at Ascot. However, in the 10 years since the Long Distance Cup has been staged, Timeform has called the ground Good to Firm twice, Good to Soft three times and Soft on the other five occasions. While Soft is clearly more likely, unsuitable ground for Trueshan is also possible.
On the three occasions Trueshan has made the track, he at least has looked every bit as good as when he won this race by seven-and-a-half lengths in 2020. He went down narrowly to Japan in the Ormonde at Chester, ran a cracker off a mark of 118 in the Northumberland Plate and hacked up in a muddy, Stradivarius-less Goodwood Cup.
Stradivarius: possibly not the force of old?
Whether Stradivarius is quite the horse he was is in question, despite winning three of his four starts this year. He has become a 'public' horse of late, and gets very good press, which makes it seem impolite to point this potential weakness out.
Stardavarius won the Sagaro at Ascot with a bit in hand, the Doncaster Cup with a lot in hand and the Lonsdale at York in between by a head from the Gold Cup third Spanish Mission. None of the three races was run at any sort of a proper gallop. At York, Stradivarius was toying with Dettori for much of the straight before consenting to edge ahead late on. None of the form really stands close inspection.
Stradivarius has run in the Long Distance Cup four times already, winning just the once, though he ran as well as he ever has when beaten a nose by Kew Gardens in 2019 and finished a good race as a three-year-old in 2017. He was well beaten last year, the one really poor run of his career, but that came soon after the Arc and can be forgiven.
His fourth in the Gold Cup this summer, the one really competitive race he's contested in 2021, is more concerning. Yes, he met trouble, but essentially he didn't look the force of old, and his two wins since don't really alter that.
Japan of interest if tried at two miles
Given Irish stables have won six of the 10 previous runnings, it's perhaps best to start the search for an alternative there, 23 of the 48 entries trained in Ireland. The most interesting of Aidan O'Brien's draft from a form/trip angle is Japan, with his pedigree suggesting he will have little trouble with the longer trip. He'd looked a St Leger type when third in Anthony Van Dyck's Derby, but until he beat Trueshan in the Ormonde, he'd not run beyond a mile and a half.
Since Chester, Japan has won a Group 3 over nine furlongs and been unlucky in a Grade 1 over a mile and a half at Saratoga. The Arc, Champion Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Turf are presumably other options, but if he does turn up over two miles, he shouldn't be discounted.
A more likely runner is Princess Zoe, though she won the Cadran last autumn and that may be connections' option again, the extra four furlongs at Longchamp all in the favour of one with bottomless stamina. The ground is unlikely to be a reason to keep her away: she won the Cadran on heavy and was a good second in the Gold Cup this summer on firm.
Princess Zoe is available at 8/1 on the Sportsbook market, but there are more tempting options, all clustered at 10/1 who have yet to try two miles, but who leave the impression the trip will suit them. They are Hamish, Berkshire Rocco and Mojo Star.
Form and fitness give Mojo edge
Hamish, the oldest of the trio, was a really progressive sort at three, winning the Melrose and going down by a neck to Trueshan in a conditions race on bad ground at Newbury. An injury picked up in the 2020 Hardwicke, kept him off the track until earlier this month, when he did really well in a tactical race to land the September Stakes on the polytrack at Kempton.
Hamish had missed the Ebor due to the ground, and the prospect of anything edging towards the firm side of good may well see him absent again at Ascot. That and the flakiness of the Kempton form are a little off-putting.
The four-year-old Berkshire Rocco was off for nearly seven months before his defeat at odds on at Salisbury last week. Perhaps not the ideal return, though it was a tactical affair that didn't play to his strengths and is likely to have brought him on. His three-year-old form stands close inspection, particularly his second in the St Leger, a performance that suggested he would be a Cup horse this time round. Evidently things haven't gone ideally, but he wouldn't need to improve much to get involved.
Mojo Star is also a St Leger runner-up, in his case on just this weekend gone. He didn't get so close to the winner as Berkshire Rocco, but he was up against one of the best Leger winners of recent years in Hurricane Lane and his performance would even have been good enough to win the race some years.
Mojo Star saw out the longer trip at Doncaster really well and an extra furlong or so at Ascot will be right up his street. He also holds an entry in the Champion Stakes, but it seems very unlikely he'll be asked to drop back to ten furlongs after his latest run.
Given concerns about whether both Hamish and Berkshire Rocco come on for their latest outing, Mojo Star makes the most appeal as an option against the two market leaders.
His form stands the closest inspection, he will be suited by the step up to two miles and the way he was ridden at Doncaster would be ideal tactically at Ascot, particularly if the inner track is in use. Mojo Star at 10/1 is the suggestion, in a race well worth close study.