Remarkable how the Ascot Gold Cup has undergone a rejuvenation of sorts of late.
It isn’t too long ago that there were (unsuccessful) calls to reduce the distance of the Ascot Gold Cup from its energy-sapping two-and-a-half-mile trip, in the same way and around about the same time as there were (successful) calls to reduce the Prix du Jockey Club from a mile and a half, as the need for speed gripped the bloodstock world.
Thankfully, that need has been diluted somewhat of late. Stamina is back in vogue. The Epsom Derby’s place at the very forefront of the sport, under threat of sorts from precocity and fleet-footedness, was surrounded by the Ballydoyle battalions and secured, and the same battalions have been instrumental in restoring the Gold Cup to its position as the very centrepiece of one of the most important weeks on the European flat racing calendar.
There is something wholly admirable about the flat stayer, the stamina-endowed individual who stretches his neck out and digs deep in the run for home after he has galloped for two miles or more. Yeats was one of those. Fast enough to win a Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, classy enough to be favourite for the Derby and to win a Coronation Cup, it is as a stayer that Yeats is inevitably known. You can’t win four Ascot Gold Cups and not be thought of as a stayer. In so doing, the son of Sadler’s Wells probably did more for the image of the old race at a more crucial time in its history than Saatchi & Saatchi could have done with a squillion-pound budget.
Yeats’s departure could have left a gaping hole in the Gold Cup, but it didn’t. Rite Of Passage and Age Of Aquarius – trained, respectively, by Irish trainers Dermot Weld and Aidan O’Brien – duelled their way into the Gold Cup record books in a 2010 epic, then Fame And Glory was afforded both when he beat the Godolphin horse Opinion Poll by three lengths last year.
Black Caviar and Frankel may have diverted this year’s main Ascot preamble towards the Diamond Jubilee Stakes and the Queen Anne Stakes respectively but, shimmering in the footlights, the Gold Cup is shaping up to be a cracker.
Fame And Glory will be back for more. Winner of an Irish Derby and a Coronation Cup, beaten only by Sea The Stars in an Epsom Derby, and Gold Cup hero last year, you can be certain that Aidan O’Brien has been training him to peak on 21st June this year since last winter.
He looks as good as ever too. He is never at his best on his seasonal debut and, sure enough, he was weak in the market before he returned this term in the Vintage Crop Stakes at Navan last month. Even so, he was still able to stay on well to repel the challenge of the talented and race-fit mare Unaccompanied. You can be sure that he will improve for that run, he is obviously proven over the trip and at the track, and the prospect of easy ground – there is plenty of rain around Berkshire these days apparently – holds no fears. He is a worthy favourite.
Opinion Poll is set to renew rivalry. He has those three lengths to find on Fame And Glory on their running in the race last year, but he only has just over a length to find on him on their running back at Ascot in October, and he looked at least as good as ever, possibly better than ever, when he danced in in the Henry II Stakes at Sandown’s Brigadier Gerard meeting last month on ground that would probably have been faster than ideal. He is another who is sure to have been primed for next Thursday, easy ground would be in his favour, and he could get even closer to Fame And Glory this year than last.
It looks like the son of Halling will have Frankie Dettori for company but, in a year of Godolphin jockeygorounds, he may not represent the boys-in-royal-blue’s best chance of landing their first Gold Cup since Papineau eight years ago. Godolphin Horse II, Colour Vision, is a player. A close-up third behind Fame And Glory and Opinion Poll in the British Champions’ Long Distance Cup over two miles of the Ascot Gold Cup course last October as a three-year-old, the Saeed Bin Suroor inmate put up a really impressive performance in landing the Sagaro Stakes at Kempton on his debut for Godolphin early last month.
He should improve for that run, he should be an even stronger stayer this year as a four-year-old than he was last year as a three-year-old, he handles the track, and he is highly progressive. His rider may be wearing the white cap – pity they are betting only on the colour of the Queen’s headgear on the day – but it would be a mistake to under-estimate his chance for all of that.
Saddler’s Rock has a similar profile to Colour Vision, in that he is a young stayer, a four-year-old who progressed through last season and impressed on his debut this term. Well, he impressed some. He didn’t impress all with his run to finish second to Midnight Soprano in the Saval Beg Stakes at Leopardstown last week.
He should have impressed all. The ground was softer than ideal for him, the 14-furlong distance was shorter than ideal, and he was making his seasonal debut after suffering a slight injury that set him back at least a little. On top of that, the winner is a highly-progressive mare, probably still under-rated with a revised mark of 104, and Saddler’s Rock himself looks under-rated in the Gold Cup market.
Even on the face of it, on a line through Unaccompanied, who was a length behind him in third place in the Leopardstown race, Saddler’s Rock doesn’t have much to find with Fame And Glory, who had Unaccompanied just a neck behind him when he won the Vintage Crop. So Fame And Glory will come on for that run, for sure, but so will Saddler’s Rock for his.
The John Oxx-trained colt didn’t have the run of the race when he finished third behind Fictional Account and Fame And Glory in the Irish St Leger Trial at The Curragh last September, and he proved that he was much better than the bare form of that effort when he went and won the Doncaster Cup on his next run.
That was a huge effort. It was his first attempt at a distance in excess of two miles, and it seems that he improved for the extreme test, as Oxx suggested he would. He did come under pressure early in the home straight, but he responded well for it, and he simply out-stayed Opinion Poll to win by an ever-extending four and a half lengths.
True, he was getting 17lb from Opinion Poll that day, but 14lb of that was his weight-for-age allowance, and the weight-for-age scale suggests that he will have improved by 12lb of that – he gets 2lb from the five-and-above-year-olds on Thursday – between then and now just because he is older now and, in theory, a stronger stayer.
More than that, however, he is highly progressive anyway. The Doncaster Cup was just the sixth race of his life, he should have improved for the experience, and his run in the Saval Beg should have brought him on again.
He probably wouldn’t want the ground to be bottomless, but he proved in the Saval Beg that he can at least handle soft ground, and he should relish the premium that the two-and-a-half-mile trip will place on stamina. This race has been on his radar since late last year, and his trainer’s record when he sends a horse to Britain is exemplary. He could run a huge race, and odds of around 7.0 are more than fair.
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