The Punter’s Blog – Roy’s Royal Ascot Week

22nd June 2020:
Roy’s Royal Ascot Week

THE general opinion for the last six or seven weeks or so, at the time of writing, is that Britain is over the worst of the coronavirus-pandemic. The number of deaths is falling, children are going back to school, and sport has started again.

It is undoubtedly a surreal experience, though, whatever sport you’re watching. All events taking place are behind closed doors, and rigorous COVID-19 testing is, or will be, in place.

Take the Coral Tour Championship Snooker tournament, ongoing at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes at the time of writing, televised on ITV4. There is a hotel on site, so anyone could self-isolate without having to leave the complex, and in the arena itself there was only the one table, making social distancing between the players, referee and folk operating the TV cameras as simple as possible.

Snooker is traditionally played in a quiet atmosphere, but it doesn’t make it any less odd, watching the best shots played, and the frames and matches won, without any applause.

Viewers of ITV’s Royal Ascot-coverage had to get used to plenty of differences, too.

As Good As It Could Have Been
Horse racing in Britain, having been suspended after March 17th, resumed at Newcastle on 1st June 2020, with Zodiakos winning the first race back, and it worked as well as it could have done. Jockeys wore masks, social distancing was in place, racetracks marked paddock areas with dots and lines to denote safe spots to stand, media presence was reduced, and, of course, there was no admittance to the public.

After some shows with all the presenters at home, ITV were permitted to have more personnel at the track for Royal Ascot, staged on its original dates from June 16th to 20th, with Ed Chamberlin, Francesca Cumani and Jason Weaver getting a socially-distanced coffee table each. Mick Fitzgerald was at the paddock, Luke Harvey at the starts, and Matt Chapman was the usual.

I felt they did a good job. There were some odd moments – not least a segment on how to make scotch eggs – but on the whole the coverage was enjoyable. Apart from the lack of crowds, lack of royal pageantry and relaxed dress code (I spotted men wearing shorts twice), what else was unique about Royal Ascot 2020 was that the races which are traditionally next stops after the Derby and Oaks, ended up being Derby and Oaks trials.

The racing itself was hard to fault, and like many I thought the best moments were Battaash smashing the five furlongs in 58 seconds in the King’s Stand Stakes, and Stradivarius looming up on the bit in the straight to win his third Gold Cup, settling it in a stride when Frankie Dettori shook him up.

My betting was successful too.

Lockdown Lump-on (Not)
Wagering on Flat racing isn’t something I’m doing because Aintree, Punchestown and the rest of the good jumps action got wiped out due to coronavirus  – it’s something I’ve done on and off since 2016.

Plenty of work went in to Class 2 mile-and-a-half and mile-and-three-quarters handicaps at Newmarket and Chelmsford in the first two weeks. They didn’t come off, but it seemed inevitable that I’d be dealing with the horses in those races in the similar contests at Royal Ascot, so analysis continued, and I would see what the 72-hour declarations would bring.

In contrast to a Cheltenham Festival, where everything is potentially fair game for a possible bet, the only races I would get involved with were the Ascot Stakes, the Copper Horse and Duke Of Edinburgh Handicaps, and the Queen Alexandra Stakes – the original jumpers’ bumper.

In analysing Tuesday’s Ascot Stakes over 2m4f, I stumbled across a pretty powerful caveat. The last winner of the race who hadn’t previously run over jumps, was in 2009. Also, in the last dozen runnings, the winners had carried nine stone or more.

But it wasn’t to be a typical renewal. There were no Irish-trained runners, and in recent years there’d been as much chance of a Willie Mullins-hotpot winning the Ascot Stakes as there was of Closutton’s finest bossing any Cheltenham Festival-race. If there was to be a stat-busting running, this year’s was likely to be it.

I felt good as I worked through the race. Jumpers who I knew very well, like Verdana Blue and Coeur De Lion, were taking on stayers I’d gradually found out more about such as Summer Moon, Land Of Oz and Smart Champion, and the usual team of three each-wayers was assembled; two of them had run over jumps before, and one hadn’t.

Here Comes The Hammer
When Mrs rwsteeplechasing and I visited Newmarket’s July Course in August 2018, we came across a jockey with three words and no hyphens in his name, who I’d never heard of before. I said to her; “he’s riding for Richard Hannon, and he wouldn’t put up A N Other claiming seven lbs.”

That jockey was Thore Hammer Hansen, originally from Cologne in Germany, and the son of Group 1-winning jockey Lennart, who rode over 1,000 winners. Since we saw him ride that day, he’d struck up a successful partnership with useful hurdler Coeur De Lion, the combo winning the Chester Plate (Chester Cup consolation) in May 2019.

And it was Hansen and Coeur De Lion who landed me the bet, enjoying a charmed run down the outside to nail another well-known hurdler, the high-class Verdana Blue, close home. My other two were Blue Laureate, who took no interest, and Dubawi Fifty, who dropped away having raced up with the pace. One I considered but left out, Smart Champion, did great late work to get fourth, carrying only 8-11.

You can watch back the races of fifty, sixty, seventy horses, and probably a maximum of one of them might have a winner in it. The analysis which gave me the steer to this win was Coeur De Lion’s run in the Silver Plate Handicap Hurdle, the Cheltenham Festival-consolation, at Kempton in March – he might have gone close to winning it but for a bad mistake at the second last, so I hope the jump handicapper takes no notice of the Royal Ascot-win for when he’s back over hurdles.

Stick Or Twist?
The next potential betting race for me was the following day’s Copper Horse Handicap over 1m6f, one of a number of new races put on to provide additional opportunities in these unique times. I’d put a lot of work into the Ascot Stakes and this race – some of which was analysing the draw over the mile-six at Ascot.

Among the races that the stat-crunching took in were the last few runnings of the Queen’s Vase, which had the larger fields – around 13. None had a field as large as the 16 which were declared for the Copper Horse, but I noticed that the bigger the field, the greater the likelihood of a middle-to-high draw winning – so I wondered if stalls 10 to 16 were where the winner would come from.

Two things influenced my decision-making. Firstly, in contrast to the Ascot Stakes which was over an extreme trip, in Flat terms, and had some of my ‘old friends’in it, the Copper Horse was a more level playing field – which, put another way, meant that horses were harder to rule out. The back price came in at 16/1.

Second was that I’d won the Ascot Stakes in the first place. The brief period in which racing had taken place since the resumption had proven a tricky time when it came to landing on winners. There were two nowheres behind Coeur De Lion after all. It might be better to put a lid on it, and wait for July before betting again – jumping would be back in Britain and Ireland, and there were Class 2-handicaps in the British jumps programme for the month; plus, there’d be more Flat form to work with, which is more likely to work out in another couple of weeks.

I decided the Copper Horse was a leave. The result showed that it was the right thing to do – Fujaira Prince, the 3/1 favourite, had it won before reaching the furlong-pole. What else I got right was my gut feeling about the draw – the winner was out of stall 16. Had I bet in the race I’d have landed on Themaxwecan at 16/1, but I’d have backed others too, and though I’d have nicked back a place-return as he finished fourth, I’d have lost on the race.

My third and fourth possible races weren’t even studied in the end. I never gave the Duke Of Edinburgh Handicap a second look – I’m 65%-certain that I wouldn’t have landed on Scarlet Dragon, even though bits of his most recent Flat form – plus his stronger recent hurdling-exploits, this one having won the Prelude at Market Rasen in September 2019 – entitled him to claims. Another Royal Ascot-victory for an Alan King-trained hurdler – not to be the last either.

In one of the many interviews that the ITV Racing-team held over Zoom with owners, who are barred from attending race meetings in Britain at the time of writing owing to the pandemic, Scarlet Dragon’s owner Henry Ponsonby pointed out that ‘we’ve got Who Dares Wins tomorrow’. This popular hurdler – also the 2019 Northumberland Plate-winner, and now a winning novice chaser, having taken the Grade 2 Pendil at Kempton in February – was in the traditional Royal Ascot finale, Saturday’s Queen Alexandra Stakes.

The Queen Alexandra, the longest Flat race in the calendar (not counting the Newmarket Town Plate), was an automatic leave. Because it’s a conditions race, it’s easier to identify who’s going to run close; and as with the handicaps all week, there were no Irish runners. Two withdrawals from the 11-runner field simplified it even more, and it seemed certain that either Who Dares Wins (odds-on) or The Grand Visir (11/4 or thereabouts), the 2019 Ascot Stakes-winner, would win – they were 10 lbs and more clear of the rest on official ratings. Sure enough, they went one-two in that order.

What a great Royal Ascot for jumpers – not bad for my wallet either.

Bob Betts Passes Away
On the Friday of Royal Ascot-week I got the news that the well-regarded ex-Sporting Lifer Bob Betts, former editor of the Greyhound Life pull-out, had died, aged 75.

A common theme among the many tributes to him that I saw was that he never raised his voice to anyone. Not quite true actually – he shouted at me once. It was in my early days as one of ‘the boys’ on the reception desk, running errands, opening the doors for the many people who didn’t have a pass to work them, and taking the endless phone calls from punters who’d done their brains asking ‘is that the Green Seal Service?’. From memory, Bob was asking for something to be done that had actually already been done.

I’m happy to go with the majority on that, though, as most Lifers go back much further than me, having joined only after it had moved to Canary Wharf. The last time I saw Bob, he welcomed me warmly at the Freemasons Arms, Covent Garden, for the ‘wake’ on the day of the publication of the last ever Sporting Life, in May 1998. Whatever it was that caused Bob to vent at me that time, he’d long forgotten it.

Bob may now be resting in piece, but it looks as though I’ll be around a while longer. There’s another blood test upcoming, but the state of my health is the same as last I talked about it – the worst I’ve got is a spot of anaemia.

In the coming months, I have it in mind to blog more about my experiences at The Sporting Life. I’ve had over 20 years to come to terms with it, and now my take on the Life – having joined after it had started its end game – might come out. We’ll see. There’s a bit of fact-checking to do first.

The names will be changed to protect the lowest-of-the-low slimeballs and the bellends that I had the misfortune to encounter. For now, suffice it to say that Bob Betts was neither of those.

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