GC: 20 Royal Ascot questions
Graham Cunningham answers the 20 big questions ahead of the opening three days of Royal Ascot 2014.
Royal Ascot in numbers is simple enough. Five days; 30 races; seven Group 1 contests; and more betting opportunities than the suited and booted man (or woman) about town could shake a stick at.
But the key to ending the week in profit lies in forming a plan and selecting the right openings. The weather looks set fair - which tends to help - so let's hope this first of two Royal Ascot 20 Questions feature helps solve some of the riddles facing punters on the first three days.
1: Is Toronado as much of a good thing as Richard Hughes suggests in Tuesday's Queen Anne?
On one hand, Hughes says that Richard Hannon's colt "will take your breath away" in the paddock and "really should win" if he brings his A game.
And on the other, Toronado has been absent for 300 days and sandwiched two inexplicably dull efforts between his impressive wins in the Craven and Sussex Stakes last year.
That Sussex defeat of Dawn Approach is the standout piece of turf form on offer here. But even Richard Hannon admits that Toronado "sometimes throws in a bad run." And, for all that he can win this well if on song, I'm not desperate to start the week's revels by wading in at a shade of odds on.
2: What is the value play for those seeking to oppose Toronado?
Perhaps it will be "The Big V," also known as Verrazano to those who didn't follow this American bruiser during his time with Todd Pletcher.
That time included a couple of brilliant performances - notably an overwhelming win in the Grade One Haskell Stakes at Monmouth - but the Big V also threw in some lower case performances and remains hard to pin down accurately.
Verrazano treads a similar path to a previous O'Brien import Haradasun and Declaration of War, who limbered up with Lockinge defeats before blossoming to land the Queen Anne.
I strongly suspect Verrazano will be ridden a great deal closer to the pace than when third in that 'getting-to-know-you' day out at Newbury. And I suspect that the Big V will run a big race. But I also suspect an each way interest in Soft Falling Rain might be the way to go here.
Mike De Kock's raider is the clear second pick on BHA figures based on his commanding Joel Stakes success at Newmarket last autumn. He looked close to his peak again when second to the brilliant Variety Club in the Godolphin Mile and the drying ground looks a big plus as he seeks to take down the first of the week's bankers.
3: What are the key points to note in the Coventry Stakes?
The first point to note is that the Coventry has a rich recent heritage with winners like War Command, Dawn Approach, Power, Canford Cliffs, Art Connoisseur and Henrythenavigator all going on to Group One success.
The second point to note is that this looks a wide open renewal. Kool Kompany proved a little too strong for War Envoy at Naas but there might just be one or two too good for both of them this time and my three against the field are Adaay, Cappella Sansavero and The Wow Signal.
Cappella Sansavero's impressive Curragh success represents some of the best form on offer and Ger Lyons is confident he will be even more potent on drying ground.
Adaay has looked very smart on both his starts thus far, while The Wow Signal simply hosed up on his Ayr debut in a race that has been made to look gilt edged by the pair who chased him home.
I'm not mad about the one box for The Wow Signal, but this faster surface shouldn't be an issue and, whatever happens here, he looks a colt of abundant potential.
4: Which of last year's principals will come out best in the King's Stand Stakes?
Not an easy question to answer given that Sole Power had just a neck to spare over Shea Shea with Pearl Secret coming home strongly for third.
However, Shea Shea looks a good bet to beat his old rivals this time around. There is clearly precious little between Shea Shea and Sole Power on their best British form, but it's well worth noting that the overall score in their ongoing duel stands at 6-1 to Mike De Kock's gelding.
Sole Power returns on top form after producing his trademark late burst to win the Palace House, but Shea Shea is in equally fine fettle and left the strong impression he would have won the Al Quoz Sprint at Meydan had he been given less to do by an over confident Soumillon.
Super Soumi needs to be well aware that he could get a perfect lead into this from stall 2 if he follows the trailblazing Stepper Point in the next door but one stall.
I'm confident that Shea Shea can edge out Sole Power and Pearl Secret. And if he does that he will go very close. But is there a young improver who might prove even sterner opposition? On balance, I suspect there is.
5: Can Hot Streak live up to his name and strike a blow for the three-year-olds?
I sincerely hope so. Readers of the sportinglife.com Friday live chat will recall that I suggested I hadn't had any ante-post bets for Ascot. Perhaps my brain was frazzled from a long morning spent chasing around Yorkshire, but it slipped my mind that I had backed Hot Streak at 7/1 the day after he won Haydock's Temple Stakes last month.
That price has disappeared since but Hot Streak will surely play a major role here for the simple reason that he's already among the best sprinters around with the scope for further improvement.
The list of plusses for Kevin Ryan's powerful colt is a long one. He bolted up in a very fast time on his sole visit to Ascot; he travelled like a dream when landing the Temple Stakes at Haydock; and his rider Jamie Spencer excels on Ascot's straight track. Shea Shea is definite saver material. But Hot Streak has to be the main bet.
6: It's round three of the Kingman v Night Of Thunder series in the St James' Palace: Who wins it?
Kingman by daylight if I've read the signals right.
It's one apiece so far, with Kingman powering clear in the Greenham at Newbury before Night Of Thunder levelled things on the biggest stage of all in the Guineas.
But the Newmarket stage was an unusual one, with the field splitting into two groups and James Doyle leaving the strong impression he was forced to use Kingman's turn of foot earlier than ideal in order to ensure those on the near side didn't get the drop on him.
Strict value hounds will be tempted to side with Night Of Thunder again, but I can't look at the Greenham and the Guineas as a package and think the Hannon horse has more ability than Kingman.
Add in the fact that Kingman has shown further improvement since Newmarket to run away with the Irish Guineas and his case looks a very persuasive one. Is he value at even money? On balance, I think he is.
7: What is the key to solving the Ascot Stakes?
Finding useful horses from jumping yards has paid dividends in recent years and last year's third Lieutenant Miller is bound to attract support.
However, there are several potential improvers ranged against him and a short list made up of Perfect Heart, Ballinderry Boy and Sizzler looks a fair starting point.
Sizzler thrived last autumn and shaped nicely in a Ripon handicap that looks very strong form on his reappearance, while Perfect Heart is firmly on the up and could still be well in despite being raised 7lb for an emphatic Donny win.
However, Ballinderry Boy could be the one for several reasons, First, he's still fairly lightly raced for a stayer; second, he made great strides last year with a couple of impressive handicap successes including one at Ascot; and third, he's bred to relish this marathon trip as a son of dual Gold Cup hero Kayf Tara.
A pipe ovener over a mile and a half should leave Ballinderry Boy spot on for this. And the presence of crack apprentic Oisin Murphy on board only adds to the belief that he represents very solid each way value at 8/1 or thereabouts.
8: Just the 25 face the starter for the Windsor Castle. Can you pick the bones out of it?
It's a tough one, by any standards. Most of the main fancies are drawn middle to high and don't be surprised if Victor Espinoza seeks out the stand rail aboard Wesley Ward's American raider Hootenanny.
Ward has pulled three royal rabbits out of the hat in recent years, but there are loads of others to consider and some of them could have their claims advertised by what happens in the Coventry.
A good run from Kool Kompany would boost the claims of his Windsor victim Merdon Castle, while a bold effort from Justice Good would frank the claims of Haxby.
However, Mind Of Madness lines up with very solid claims based on a runaway Newmarket win and a fine second at Yarmouth.
Adaay proved a little too strong at Yarmouth, but he looks a live Coventry hope. And if he goes close at 3.05 then Mind Of Madness will make even more appeal for a race David Brown won with Frederick Engels three years ago.
9: Are there any solid reasons for opposing Treve in Wednesday's Prince of Wales's Stakes?
Not if she's in the sort of form she showed to destroy her Arc rivals last autumn, but you have to look for potential chinks in the armour at odds on.
So here goes. Having looked back at last year's French Oaks - in which Treve laughed at the high-class Chiquita to clock under 2m 04s on good ground - I find it hard to buy into the theory that she has to have soft ground.
Granted, that narrow defeat behind the race fit Cirus Des Aigles on her reappearance in the Prix Ganay dented her aura of invincibility, but Treve still ran one of the true warriors of world racing to a short neck without the benefit of a run and all the reports since have been very positive.
Make no mistake, this is a huge day for Treve and for Frankie Dettori, too. I'm in no rush to lump on at 4-6 but equally I'd love to see her light up day two and in doing so set up a possible return to Ascot for the King George next month.
10: How will the Prince of Wales's be run? And if not Treve then who?
Neither question is easy to answer. Mukhadram is a natural front runner but the fact that Sheikh Hamdan has also declared Elkaayed suggests his team might just fancy mixing things up a little on the front end.
Mukhadram ran a belter to get within a neck of Al Kazeem in this race last year, while Magician and The Fugue are very closely matched on Breeders' Cup form and Dank is the sort of typical older horse improver that Sir Michael Stoute specialises in.
All sorts of plot lines could play out in one of the highlights of the week. You certainly won't go skint backing horses like Mukhadram each way if all eight runners stand their ground, but Treve's best is on a different level and the whole field need her to underperform in order to take the starring role here.
11: Can Sky Lantern defy a Group 1 penalty in the Duke of Cambridge Stakes?
The short answer is yes she can. But the longer answer is that she will probably need to be better than ever after a 192-day absence to give weight and a beating to a field as strong as this one.
Sky Lantern proved me wrong twice last year - notably when bolting up from a wide draw in the Coronation Stakes and when easing past Integral in a strong Sun Chariot at Newmarket - but those top level successes mean she has to concede 2lb or 5lb to some very dangerous rivals here.
Reports suggest her physical progress has continued since last season and her record over a straight mile reads two G1 wins and that luckless second to Elusive Kate in the Falmouth Stakes.
But every race is about finding the horse who is over priced. And I suspect Sky Lantern might well go off longer than the current 11-4 and 3-1 by the time we get to 4.25 on Wednesday afternoon.
12: Where is the value if Sky Lantern fails to shine?
It lies in finding the key to which filly will come out on top in a series of tough-to-call rematches.
Esoterique just got the better of Integral in a tight finish to Newmarket's Dahlia Stakes but Sir Michael Stoute's filly lacked have the benefit of a previous run that day and didn't have the run of the race to the same extent as the winner.
Certify eased past L'Amour De Ma Vie at Meydan in January only to be eclipsed when the pair met again the following month, while Purr Along made a great start for Johnny Murtagh by fighting off Fiesolana at the Curragh last month but now meets that rival on 5lb worse terms for just half a length.
Whichever way you slice it, this is a complex puzzle. Perhaps Sky Lantern's class will settle all the arguments, but I'm tempted to take another crack at her first time out with Integral on top and the rejuvenated Purr Along as the likely long price option.
13: A massive field for the Hunt Cup. Is it really wise to follow Abseil off a cliff at 5-1?
I certainly won't be making the leap for the simple reason that he looks very tight in the most brutally competitive mile handicap of the season.
Granted, Abseil is very well related and lightly raced, but he had to be driven out pretty firmly to get home in a bunched finish at Epsom and you would ned rose coloured glasses to make him the best handicapped horse on view here under a 5lb penalty.
James Doyle feels Abseil did well that day given that he got lit up after seeing the funfair. But it's not as if there aren't similar distractions at Ascot and this simply looks a case of "if he wins then I'm happy enough to lose."
14: Enough of Abseil. Can you break down the draw and the shape of the Hunt Cup in a few short paragraphs?
You don't ask for much, do you?
The draw is a potential nightmare. Cast your mind back to this race last year and you will recall that a small group of seven on the far side dominated the finish. But in last month's Victoria Cup here the first four home were drawn 25, 29, 21 and 23.
The relative lack of proven front runners adds another layer of complexity, but Short Squeeze, Gabriel's Kaka and Lawmans Thunder all have much more to recommend them than most.
Ismail Mohammed might well have won last year's Hunt Cup with Educate granted any luck in running and Lawmans Thunder is improving rapidly based on three silky smooth Kempton successes.
Gabriel's Kaka hated deep ground at Chester last time but now has similar conditions to those which saw him blossom in the Newbury Spring Cup, while Short Squeeze was one of the most progressive handicappers around last season and has reportedly been working the barn down for Hugo Palmer of late.
Splitting the trio is tough but it will be disappointing if one or more of the trio doesn't make a major impact given the luck that is essential in this annual brainburner.
15: England, Ireland or America in the Queen Mary Stakes?
The short answer is I'm not sure. Wesley Ward saddles Spanish Pipedream after a commanding Keeneland debut success and Edward Lynam will be optimistic of a big run from his runaway Tipperary winner Anthem Alexander.
But Rizeena used Sandown's National Stakes as a springboard to Queen Mary success and Tiggy Wiggy has to be respected as she bids to do the same.
Richard Hannon's filly lost her unbeaten record when beaten by Albany hope Patience Alexander at York but got back on track with a vengeance when bolting up on soft ground at Sandown.
Perhaps the ground was a big factor in that success, but Tiggy Wiggy is battle hardened with four runs behind her and looks all set to go close provided Richard Hughes avoids traffic problems from the outside gate in stall 22.
16: What is the correct price for Leading Light in the Gold Cup?
You will have to work hard to beat 6-4 at the moment and you can understand bookmakers treading warily over a Queen's Vase winner who has since followed up with a St Leger success and a fluent defeat of Royal Diamond and Pale Mimosa under a penalty on his Navan reappearance.
But it also has to be noted that Leading Light will be taking a major step up in distance on Thursday for a race in which BHA figures give him only a little in hand of several smart stayers.
Make no mistake, Leading Light looked better than ever when forging clear of Royal Diamond and Pale Mimosa at Navan and he has to be favourite given the fact that he's still fairly lightly raced with the prospect of further improvement to come.
His SP will depend to a certain extent on the final declarations. That said, if the main ante post fancies stand their ground I would make Leading Light more like a 2-1 market leader than a 6-4 shot.
17: What chance of Estimate repeating last year's win?
No more than a one in seven or eight chance if the bookies are correct and I tend to agree with them.
The list of good stayers who win more than one Gold Cup is a long one - think Sadeem, Gildoran, Kayf Tara, Drum Taps, Royal Rebel and the mighty Yeats - but Estimate's win last year came with little to spare in a mediocre renewal.
She hasn't been easy to train since and this year's opposition looks sterner, so all in all it might not be a case of "hats off for the Queen" again this time around.
18: So where does the each way value lie in the Gold Cup as things stand?
Apologies for treading warily but a good deal depends on whether the ground is good or good to firm.
The admirable Brown Panther is a proven Ascot performer with fine recent form and a pedigree which gives ample hope that he will stay the trip, while Altano and Pale Mimosa can both be given a shout.
However, if we have any rain (or watering) then don't discount Tac De Boistron. Marco Botti has taken what looked an exposed grey to a whole new level since last year and his form in a series of good races gives him a very sound chance here.
Do watch the weather closely if you like him as fast ground could pose problems. However, Tac De Boistron showed he handles good ground when running a fine race under a G1 penalty in the Yorkshire Cup. And if there is any ease underfoot then Tac De Boistron's smooth travelling style could make him a live danger to Leading Light.
19: Cut to the chase. Which horses excite you most on Tuesday's superb card?
Kingman has to get the vote as the headliner on day one. He might just produce something special if all goes to plan in the St James's Palace, while Hot Streak would get the week off to a great punting start if he can land the King's Stand.
She Shea represents solid backup to Hot Streak in the big sprint, while those who can't resist a crack at the big handicaps might find the unexposed Ballinderry Boy a rewarding each way angle into the Ascot Stakes.
20: And a few names worth noting for Wednesday and Thursday?
Assessing the shape of most of Thursday's big races is tricky at this stage but Wednesday's declarations are out with some fiercely competitive betting markets.
Mukhadram might just give Treve more to think about than the market suggests in the Prince of Wales's Stakes and offers clear potential for those who like to back at a biggish price with a view to laying off at much shorter in the run.
Integral and Purr Along look an interesting pair for those who fancy taking on Sky Lantern in the Duke of Cambridge, while Gabriel's Kaka and Short Squeeze offer double figure potential for those who feel Abseil is too short in an incredibly difficult Hunt Cup.