Mullins the man to follow as he bids for fifth Ascot Stakes win
Tom Park Ante-post guru casts his eye over the hardest races to crack at the meeting
ROYAL ASCOT is a feast of Group 1 action and, while there is money to be made in those races, it’s the handicaps that can have you moving on to the champagne rather than cava if you back the winner. The first handicap of the meeting is the Ascot Stakes on day one and there is a case to be made about it being renamed the Willie Mullins Stakes given the trainer’s domination in recent years. The trainer has landed three of the last four runnings and saddled four of the first five home in the race last season, including the winner Lagostovegas. At the time of writing we have no entries and no betting for the race so there is a little bit of guesswork involved in knowing what Ireland’s champion jumps trainer is going to run, but the jockey bookings could be the biggest giveaway. Ryan Moore has ridden three of Mullins’ four winners of the race, with Andrea Atzeni riding Lagostovegas last year, so keep an eye on who is on board at declarations. Moore rode Low Sun in the Chester Cup last month and I’d be surprised if he abandoned him for this given how well he travelled for a long way on ground much softer than ideal. He was handed a terrible draw that day and, although Moore worked wonders to get him over, he struggled to go with Making Miracles in the closing stages and tired close home. A return to better ground will be in his favour and although he is likely to be towards the head of the weights, he is a high-class individual who could turn into a Melbourne Cup contender this season. Another to consider for the race should he line up is Stratum. This Tony Bloom-owned six-year-old was an unlucky third in this contest last season before bolting up in a valuable handicap at Newbury on his next start. He found all sorts of trouble when sent off a short-price favourite for the Ebor before finding the Cesarewitch a step too far in an intense season. After being freshened up over the winter he ran a nice race when fourth behind Mr Adjudicator at the Punchestown festival before winning over hurdles at short odds on his latest start. That should put him spot on for another assault on the Flat season and this looks his ideal starting point. The next big handicap of the meeting, and arguably the most competitive of all, is the Royal Hunt Cup on the Wednesday and there are two who look to have been laid out for this. The first of those is last year’s brilliant winner Settle For Bay. The David Marnane-trained five-year-old bolted up by two and a quarter lengths in this race last season and looked to be on the fast track to Group races, but he wasn’t seen until January when he finished 14th in a Group 3 at Meydan. Two disappointing runs at Meydan and in Listed company at Naas are far from ideal but it does mean this son of Rio De La Plata gets to race off just 6lb higher than when winning this race in such authoritative fashion last season. You are taking somewhat of a leap of faith when backing Settle For Bay as he does need to bounce back to form and one who is going into the Royal Hunt Cup in great nick is the Jamie Osborne-trained Lush Life. This four-year-old could not have won any cosier when winning by a neck at Sandown in May and her connections were stunned to only receive a 3lb hike in the ratings to 94, leaving her chances of getting into the Royal Hunt Cup in the balance. TO ENSURE her participation, Lush Life would need to win a handicap at Newcastle, due to take place before this guide was published, but she appears to be well ahead of the handicapper and looks to have a fantastic chance of landing the spoils should she get into the race. Another mile handicap at the meeting is the Britannia Stakes for three-year-olds and the key to this race is finding an unexposed Group performer running in a handicap. Easier said than done, but there is one who I have my eye on who could just tick those boxes. The John Gosden-trained Lord North was two from two before finishing last in the Listed Heron Stakes at Sandown in May. That may appear to be a poor run but he found no room when beginning to mount a challenge and was given an easy time of things once his chance had gone, finishing in last but hard on the bridle. He didn’t have a friend in the betting that day and everything that could go wrong in the race did, and he now looks to have a great chance in firsttime handicap company off a mark of 97. Connections certainly haven’t given up on him being top-class as he has been given a Coral-eclipse entry. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he turned out to be good enough to compete in Group 1 company as he has a serious engine and I’m more than happy to forgive him that Sandown run. Beat Le Bon is another who looks potentially Group class now Richard Hannon has got to the bottom of this quirky son of Wootton Bassett. Connections thought the world of Beat Le Bon as a juvenile last season but he failed to get off the mark, despite finishing a close second when backed off the boards in the Two Year Old Trophy at Redcar and again in a competitive Doncaster handicap. However, it looked like Beat Le Bon has finally learned how to race as he looked a thorough professional when showing a telling turn of foot in a handicap at Goodwood last time and a 7lb rise might not be enough to stop him going in again. He looks a horse with a really bright future. The Duke of Edinburgh Stakes is another race in which entries are not out until a later date, but one horse I’m sure will be taking his chance is Sextant for Sir Michael Stoute. This unexposed four-year-old made light work of his rivals on his handicap debut over the Duke of Edinburgh distance at Ascot in May before disappointing punters when failing to follow up when fourth on Derby day at Epsom. However, he was the first one home from those who were held up that day as the leaders controlled the pace from the outset. Sextant showed a nice turn of foot to bring himself into contention after a torrid run around Tattenham Corner where he was pushed out wide. That essentially ruined his chances but he plugged on well enough nonetheless and a return to Ascot should see him run a much better race. He remains one to keep firmly on side this season and that race at Epsom has a good record of producing winners in this race, with Dash Of Spice taking it last year before landing the spoils at the royal meeting. Stoute has a terrific record in the race having won it six times and last scored with subsequent Group 3 winner Arab Spring in 2014. ANOTHER to consider, especially if there is cut in the ground, is the Charlie Appleby-trained Setting Sail, who was fourth behind Sextant at Ascot earlier in the season. He then found his rivals too quick for him when fourth behind Mountain Angel in a 1m2f handicap at Epsom on Derby day. He didn’t appear to handle the track either and, while I would still not give up on him should it turn up quick, his chances would be greatly enhanced should it turn up good to soft or softer. His two victories have come on soft and on the all-weather, and he shaped as though he wasn’t too comfortable on the surface. However, that could have been down to the track and he can produce a much better showing in this for a trainer who landed this race in 2017 with Rare Rhythm. The final handicap of the meeting is the Wokingham Stakes and, like many of the races at the royal meeting, it often goes to a horse who has a touch of quality, so don’t be scared to back a horse towards the head of the weights who is maybe dropping back in class. The one I am keenest on is Laugh A Minute for Roger Varian. This talented four-year-old has always promised to develop into a high-class performer but has always found one or two too good in Group and Listed company. Laugh A Minute has arguably been unlucky not to win his two starts this season, racing too keenly and not getting a clean passage when third behind subsequent Group 3 winner Hey Gaman at Leicester first time out in May, before not being beaten far by Shabaaby at Haydock last time. Those were not bad runs in the circumstances and he looks to have a terrific chance in this company off a mark of 105. I also can’t resist a bet on Watchable who, at the time of writing, is available at 33-1, which is a bonkers price considering the rich vein of form he is in. Watchable, once rated 111, has won three of his last four starts and recorded the most comfortable victory of his career when bolting up in a 6f handicap at Epsom on Derby day, beating Lake Volta, who went into the race following a comfortable handicap success, by a whopping three and a half lengths. He will have needed to win that race to get into this and he won in the manner of a horse miles clear of the handicapper. At nine-years-old, age is not on Watchable’s side, but he is going into the race in the form of his life and these sprinters are often more than capable of rolling back the years. He has some decent form at Ascot and looks a cracking each-way bet at a massive price.