The fairytale story didn't quite continue at Royal Ascot last time, but Kevin Blake believes Sceptical is set to make more headlines in Saturday's July Cup...
"It was an agonising defeat, but an almighty effort too. Sceptical very much enhanced his stock at Royal Ascot and all involved will have learned more about him."
The Sceptical story has been well covered in recent months, but it is so remarkable that it will always be deserving of a recap.
Bred to be a champion sprinter, he was dispersed as an unraced three-year-old by Godolphin for just £2,800 last August. Bought by James McAuley and sent to Denis Hogan, in the space of just five starts over the course of less than eight months he had established himself as the highest-rated sprinter in Ireland.
Such rapid rises from the bottom to the top are very unusual, but for it to be achieved by a horse that had been essentially given away by one of the most powerful racing operations in the world just months earlier makes it a genuine one-in-a-million rise to prominence.
Reputation enhanced in agonising Royal Ascot defeat
Going into the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, Sceptical still had his fair share to prove. He was the highest-rated sprinter in Ireland, but he had done all his winning at a much lower level, with his highest-profile victory coming on what was his first start on turf in a run-of-the-mill Listed race at Naas just 12 days previously. The style of his three-length victory made up for a lack of substance amongst his opposition, but the Diamond Jubilee was an altogether different beast in terms of strength and depth.
It also promised to be a step into the unknown in terms of his stamina reserves. While he had won over six furlongs at Dundalk, speed had always looked to be his forte and six furlongs at Ascot run at a Group 1 gallop was going to be a stronger test of stamina that he had ever encountered. Given that one of the reasons Godolphin had given up on him was a breathing issue (subsequently operated on since he joined Hogan), the concern over that extra emphasis on stamina took on greater significance.
When the talking finished and the race started, Sceptical soon brushed aside most of those concerns. The first question he answered was that of his pace at the highest level. He had more than enough speed to quickly recover from an ever-so-slightly tardy beginning, soon tracking the front runner and eventual winner Hello Youmzain.
If anything, he looked as though he'd have preferred to be going even quicker, as he was very much in Frankie Dettori's hands for the first half of the race.
Having made headway to lead a furlong from home, he looked set to go on and secure one of the most remarkable rags-to-riches victories of recent times, but as the final strides approached, the stamina test that six furlongs at Ascot presents just started to catch him and he faded close home to finish a ½-length third.
It was an agonising defeat, but an almighty effort too. Sceptical very much enhanced his stock at Royal Ascot and all involved will have learned more about him.
The possibility of returning to five furlongs is likely to still be an option for him, but six furlongs over a less testing track should be just fine for him too. Thus, as soon as he passed the line in the Diamond Jubilee, thoughts must have turned to the July Cup at Newmarket.
Speedier Newmarket track can produce reversal in form
It has been a bit more discussed in recent years, but the difference between the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot and the July Cup at Newmarket in terms of the comparative stamina tests that they present cannot be overstated. The standard time for six furlongs at the Newmarket July course is two seconds faster than for the six-furlong track at Ascot.
This translates to approximately 12 lengths. In the sprint division, that is a substantial difference.
There was a very good example of how the different demands of the tracks contributed to Royal Ascot form being turned around at the July meeting at Newmarket in 2017, with the all-speed Harry Angel reversing Commonwealth Cup form with the stronger staying Caravaggio in the July Cup. I believe a similar scenario could well play out on Saturday with Sceptical reversing Royal Ascot form with Hello Youmzain.
Sceptical will have one unknown to overcome in the July Cup which is that he has never run on a track as undulating on the July course at Newmarket. It is unproven until it is proven, but being a notably fluent mover, it would be a surprise if it posed a significant problem for him.
Of course, Golden Horde brings in a strong level of form from the Commonwealth Cup. I have nothing against him bar being surprised that he is quite as short as he is in the market. At the current prices, Sceptical looks the value at 4/1+ on the Exchange.