Alex Hammond's racing blog and weekend tips including best bets at Newmarket

Check out Alex Hammond's latest blog
Check out Alex Hammond's latest blog

Alex Hammond is backing Frankie Dettori for success on Pennywhistle at Newmarket this weekend as she looks ahead to the action and reflects on Goodwood.

1: What were your highlights of the Qatar Goodwood Festival?

Well, for me an obvious horse to take out of the meeting was Cross Counter who was impressive in winning the Gordon Stakes for Godolphin and Charlie Appleby.

He beat a great yardstick in Mark Johnston’s Derby runner-up Dee Ex Bee and he looks like he’s improving rapidly. He was unbeaten in his first two starts on the all-weather this winter at Wolverhampton and has progressed up the ranks, making his handicap debut in the King George V Stakes at Royal Ascot, where he ran well in 4th.

This was his first start at Group level and the fact he is gelded means that we should hopefully see plenty of him over the coming seasons.

You would imagine a further step up in grade will be on the cards now and he holds an entry in the Group 2 Great Voltigeur at York, but it’s the Melbourne Cup that is his long -term aim and he’s now a 20/1 shot with Sky Bet for the world’s most famous handicap on the first Tuesday in November.

I know it probably wasn’t a vintage Sussex Stakes, but it was lovely to see Lightning Spear win the race for a well-deserved group 1 victory at the age of 7 for his trainer David Simcock.

Of course, you can’t speak about the week without giving Battaash a mention. He was breathtakingly good in the King George Stakes on Friday and it was good to see him keeping a lid on his excitable temperament and showing us what he is capable of when he does.

It must be some buzz riding a horse like him and it’s clear plenty of work has been done with him at home to help him cope best he can.

I used to really enjoy riding sprinters in their work, they tend to have two paces, walk and gallop, but boy when they hit top gear it’s a feeling like nothing else. He’s now 4/6 with Sky Bet to win the Nunthorpe at York later this month and is probably as good an odds-on shot as you are going to get if you choose to take such a short price.

Last year he boiled over before the York race, but Gary Witherford (who has done plenty of remedial work with the Charlie Hills-trained star) has suggested he may be taken over from the stables in a horsebox, rather than the long lead-up over the course, which should help keep a lid on him.

Battaash and Jim Crowley light up Goodwood
Battaash: A good thing at York?

2: Mark Johnston is closing in on Richard Hannon’s record for number of winners for a British trainer. What do you make of the achievement?

What can you say? It’s an incredible achievement, first by Richard Hannon senior and now by Mark Johnston, who keeps churning out winners at an incredible rate of knots.

I was chatting to a friend at the weekend who said that you can reliably follow Johnston’s horses from July through August with confidence and the stats back that up with the master of Kingsley House having sent out 42 winners in July and is firing them in this month too.

Having said that his stats before this summer were pretty good too! He has a few entries at Saturday’s Shergar Cup meeting and I’ll certainly be taking a close look at them.

3: Mark was very excited by Dark Vision’s performance in winning the Vintage Stakes – how do you rate him?

Well I didn’t mention him in my first answer, because I knew he was going to get some coverage here.

What’s so exciting isn’t necessarily what he did at Goodwood, but that he is undoubtedly capable of much better. He probably hasn’t won a... vintage... Vintage Stakes, but he can only beat what’s in opposition and he did it well.

You get the impression that Johnston was taken a little by surprise by the juvenile, whom he had considered for a nursery handicap as an alternative to this Group 2, but pleasantly surprised nonetheless.

Having said that, the trainer has won this race with some very smart performers in the past, so expect this fella to end up contesting some top races if all goes well. One thing’s for sure, he was a cracking buy having cost just 15,000 guineas as a yearling.

4: It’s the Shergar Cup this weekend – how much do you enjoy the event?

This is an event which has grown in popularity over the years and is now established as racing’s most popular team competition at one of the world’s most prestigious racecourses.

Who doesn’t love this type of format in sport? We see it with golf, even people who aren’t regular followers of sport seem to love the Ryder Cup for example and this team contest also has an enthusiastic following.

I love to see jockeys come over from other racing jurisdictions competing with the best riders that we see day in, day out. When do racegoers get to see the likes of Hong Kong superstar João Moreira, nicknamed the Magic Man, up against Japanese sensation Yutaka Take with leading local talent like Hayley Turner and Adam Kirby also in action?

It’s unfortunate that Ascot’s favourite son, Frankie Dettori, is required elsewhere but it will still be a fun day that is sure to get viewers drawn into it.

This is the type of event that has the capability to attract new fans to our sport and I think it is now almost fully embraced by those already in the industry.

Fran Berry (centre) celebrates with Jamie Spencer and Neil Callan
Fran Berry (centre) celebrates with Jamie Spencer and Neil Callan

5: And for the crunch question – what are your weekend fancies?

I’m keen to see how Zaaki gets on should he line up in Haydock’s Rose Of Lancaster Stakes. I was a big fan of his when I saw he was entered for the John Smith’s Cup at York last month, but his trainer Sir Michael Stoute chose to run at Newmarket 24 hours earlier instead, it just failed to come off as he was chinned on the line and was unlucky not to win.

He deserves the step back into group company. He’s Sky Bet’s 11/4 second favourite to win on Saturday.

Frankie has been claimed to ride for John Gosden at Newmarket on Saturday rather than captaining Team Europe at Ascot in the Shergar Cup. Frankie loves riding winners at Ascot, but he loves riding smart winners too and Pennywhistle looks worth following in the Sweet Solera at Newmarket.

At 9/2 she looks an attractive price to win the juvenile fillies’ Group 3. She has to step up on what she has achieved so far, but she improved for her debut when winning over this course and distance last month and as she’s a big scopey filly there should be plenty more progression to come.

It looks quite an open race and there are some smart fillies up against her, but I hope she can take this for her powerful connections.

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