Royal Ascot kicks off on Tuesday and racing columnist Tony Keenan has picked out his three best bets across the meeting...
"As punters we can be inclined to over-complicate races at times when the answer is staring us in the face: Highland Reel is the best horse in this field and should be clear favourite."
Last Saturday's racing was as ordinary as it gets for a mid-summer weekend so instead of an afternoon in front of the TV, I made a rare detour into the world of culture and went to the Dalkey Book Festival in south Dublin. One of the most interesting events on the card was a talk on the role of the media in the age of fake news and I was reminded of how this phenomenon has managed to infiltrate racing with the main story in the lead-up to the Derby focussing on a no-hoper that shouldn't have been in the race.
The narrative going into Royal Ascot hasn't been quite so bad but the fears of bookmakers about a host of short-priced favourites winning and building up liabilities on accumulators feels fake: if a bookmaker doesn't want to lay a short one at a major festival then what is the point of their existence?
As for the facts, it's worth pointing out that short-priced horses have no better than a reasonable record at Royal Ascot; since 2008, the 21 runners sent off a Betfair Starting Price of [2.0] or shorter have returned 13 winners with a minor loss of 0.31 points to level-stakes and an actual over expected of 0.98.
As to the specifics of the shorties this week, I would rate Winter about the most solid with Ribchester not far behind. One can make a case for both Barney Roy and Harry Angel being good alternatives to Churchill and Caravaggio but there's also a sense that they could prove value losers. Order Of St George might be the most vulnerable not so much because of the opposition as his overall make-up; he has temperament and is inclined to throw in a poor run while good-firm ground is hardly ideal.
King's Stand Stakes - Improved Signs can prove a Blessing Tuesday, 15:40
This King's Stand looks the better of the two Group 1 sprints at Royal Ascot with three horses standing out on form: Lady Aurelia, Marsha and Signs Of Blessing. I would have then broadly in line so with Signs Of Blessing the outsider of the three he is the bet. Lady Aurelia may have the single best piece of form by dint of her Queen Mary win last year but there is always a concern that these Ward horses have a huge maturity advantage as early juveniles that won't carry through later on. Her return at Keeneland was fine, no better.
Both Marsha and Signs Of Blessing have been better than ever this season however with the latter in particular posting a big effort on the clock at Deauville last month when beating Profitable by two lengths while conceding 11 pounds. Though campaigned at six furlongs last year, his early speed often suggested five would prove best and this late-maturing sprinter looks the value.
Prince Of Wales' Stakes - Concentrate on the class of Highland Reel
As punters we can be inclined to over-complicate races at times when the answer is staring us in the face: Highland Reel is the best horse in this field and should be clear favourite. Yes, he's probably better over 12 furlongs but the best effort of his career, on time figures at least, came when second to Postponed in the last season's International at York and if anything he will improve for his win in the Coronation Cup which came off a less than perfect preparation.
Jack Hobbs will likely struggle for toe over this trip on fast ground while the Michael Stoute older horse improvement angle seems more than factored into the price of Ulysses. That one was good on his return at Sandown, winning despite the race not being run to suit, but more is required here and it wouldn't be the greatest surprise if the biggest danger to Highland Reel turned out to be Queen's Trust who is better than she showed on her first run of the year at York.
Britannia Stakes - Lyons has Lightening ready to strike
As alluded to in my Sunday column this week, Ger Lyons has been having an excellent campaign and his Lightening Fast looks overpriced in the Britannia.
The first son of Frankel to race in Ireland, he was fiercely disappointing at two but looked a different horse when winning his last start at Navan. The decision to keep him off the track since has been done to preserve his handicap mark and it is hoped he will creep in at the bottom of the weights here; in any case, you will get your stake back if he fails to make the cut.
Part of the case in his favour is that Lyons seems to regard him as a better handicapped horse than the progressive Gold Spinner (same owner and also entered in this race but thought more likely to run in the Hampton Court Stakes earlier on Thursday's card). Lyons tends to place his horses extremely well and having had the third in this race in 2015 knows what is required so I am prepared to take the hint.