Things We Learned » Top cat

Top cat

It is remarkable that Johnny Murtagh was top rider at Royal Ascot again. With just four rides booked at the start of the week, bookmakers were giving nothing away by offering odds of just 33/1.

As it turned out, Murtagh ended up with 11 rides, more than he had at the start of the week, but far less than most of the other top riders. But he ended up with four winners, more than most of the other top riders, more than all of the other top riders actually, and if the ball had hopped a little better for Simenon, he would have ended up with five.

All week we were told how difficult it was to have one winner at Royal Ascot, and you didn’t doubt it for a minute. Frankie Dettori had 20 rides, no winners. Silvestre de Sousa also had 20 rides, no winners. Kieren Fallon had 18 rides, no winners. Mark Johnston had 19 runners, no winners. And these are top class operators.

And it wasn’t as though Murtagh was riding hot-pots. His four winners were sent off at 8/1, 16/1, 12/1 and 8/1 respectively. If you had had €1 on each of his rides, even at SP, you would have come out with a level-stakes profit of €37 at the end of the week. Perhaps anybody could have won on Sole Power, Extortionist, Forgotten Voice or the regrettably ill-fated Thomas Chippendale, but when you win by margins of a neck, a neck, a half-length and a length, it is quite probable that the rider made a difference. His ride on Sole Power in particular was outstanding.

If Murtagh’s objective at the start of the week was to let everyone know that, despite the fact that he has now taken out a trainer’s licence, he is still a world-class rider, he achieved that objective, and then some.

Good losers

It is easy to applaud a winning ride. Indeed, it is rare that you hear negative comment about a winning ride. The horse won, objective achieved, ergo whatever the rider did, it wasn’t the wrong thing.

It is not so easy to applaud a losing ride, but two stood out last week: Paul Hanagan’s on Mukhadram in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on Wednesday, and Kieren Fallon’s on Society Rock in the Diamond Jubilee on Saturday.

Both rides were different in their execution, but both served to maximise each horse’s chance of winning his race. Hanagan bounced Mukhadram out of the gate but, aided by the fact that potential pace-setter Windsor Palace missed the kick and found himself behind a wall of horses early on, he was allowed to set steady fractions.

It is never easy to make ground off a slow pace into a quickening pace and, unharried on the sharp end, Hanagan had the skill and the judgement to dictate a pace which suited his front-running tactics. Still on the bridle turning for home, Hanagan was allowed the luxury of waiting until he had straightened up, no more than two and a half furlongs out, before asking his horse to pick up. When he did, the leader had been able conserve so much energy despite setting the pace, that he kicked fully three lengths clear.

He looked the most likely winner at that point, he traded at as short as 1.53 in-running. He was just unlucky that a horse of the calibre of Al Kazeem was as good as he was on the day, and that he hadn’t been ridden too far back in the field by James Doyle. It was one of those rare races on the round track at Royal Ascot this year in which it paid to race handily.

Kieren Fallon’s ride on Society Rock in the Diamond Jubilee divided opinion, but when a favourite gets beaten, especially under an atypical ride, you are always going to get detractors. Fallon had a wall of horses in front of him on the far side early on, and he was probably well aware of the fact that the near side was generally the place to be on the straight track for most of the week.

Switching his horse behind horses and over to the near side early on, he had manoeuvred himself into the perfect position from which he could deliver his challenge – correct part of the track, clear run in front of him – by the time they reached the two-furlong pole.

That was plenty early enough if his horse had been good enough. He was just unlucky that the under-rated Lethal Force had had a fairly easy time of it up front and that he put up a career-best, because without him in the race, Society Rock would have won by a length and a half, and the (winning) ride would have been universally acclaimed as top notch.

Draw talk

Here are the draws for the first four home in every race with 15 or more runners run on the straight track at Royal Ascot this year (number of runners in each race in brackets):

14, 5, 10, 6 (19)

15, 13, 10, 7 (15)

28, 27, 20, 12 (24) (a)

4, 11, 21, 3 (21)

6, 2, 10, 7 (28) (b)

16, 1, 6, 4 (23) (c)

3, 5, 2, 22 (28) (d)

15, 12, 24, 30 (27) (e)

20, 15, 7, 17 (19) (f)

32, 30, 22, 15 (27) (g)

21, 7, 12, 3 (19) (h)

15, 8, 16, 4 (18) (i)

22, 18, 15, 29 (26) (j)


(a) There were four non-runners in the Windsor Castle Stakes, so the first two home were the two highest-drawn horses in the race.

(b) As mentioned last week, the Royal Hunt Cup was a strange race this year in which 21 of the 28 horses clustered towards the near side, with many having difficulty negotiating traffic. As a consequence, the first four places were filled by four of the seven horses who raced towards the far side and who all enjoyed clear runs. Also, the Royal Hunt Cup was run on Wednesday. (See below.)

(c) Sweet Emma Rose set a scorching pace on the far side in the Queen Mary, with the result that when the two groups merged two furlongs out, the far side fillies were, on average, about two lengths in front of the near side fillies. That probably mitigated any disadvantage to which the fillies who raced on the far side were subjected.

(d) It is difficult to know what was going on in the Sandringham Handicap, but they raced in a well-grouped cluster on the far side, while those who raced towards the near side were well spaced out, with the result that very few had any cover at any stage of the race. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the advantage that the high-drawn horses enjoyed was severely reduced or perhaps even completely eliminated on Wednesday.

(e) There were three non-runners in the Britannia Handicap.

(f) There was one non-runner in the Albany Stakes.

(g) There were five non-runners (including reserves) in the Britannia Handicap.

(h) There were two non-runners in the Chesham Stakes.

(i) Runner-up Society Rock raced from stall eight in the Diamond Jubilee, but he finished his race on the stands side.

(j) There were three non-runners in the Wokingham Handicap.

Armed with this evidence, it is not difficult to argue that, with the definite exception of the Royal Hunt Cup, and the possible exception of the Sandringham Handicap and the Queen Mary Stakes, high-drawn horses were favoured on the straight track all week. With the exception of those three races – interestingly all run on Wednesday – 30 of the 40 places in these races were filled by horses from double-figure draws. That’s a return of 75% from just 58% of the runners. Take out the four races from Wednesday, and you get a 78% return from just 58% of the runners.

Also, all nine races run on the straight track on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday were won by horses drawn 14 or higher, and 15 of the 18 horses who finished first or second were drawn 12 or higher. Conclusion? You can probably mark up any horse who got close from a low draw and raced towards the far side of the track on the straight track, especially on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Top of the list: Bunker in the Chesham Stakes, Shea Shea and Jack Dexter in the King’s Stand, Joyeuse in the Albany.

Sprinters fascinating

As highlighted by Royal Ascot, this year’s sprinting division is fascinating.

Perhaps King’s Stand Stakes winner Sole Power will now get the recognition that he deserves as a world-class sprinter, and Lethal Force announced himself as a real player in the big sprinting league with his victory in the Diamond Jubilee. He did get a relatively easy time of it up front, insofar as you can get an easy time of it up front in a Group 1 six-furlong dash, but they said that he got an easy time of it in the Hungerford Stakes at Newbury last August as well in his first-time blinkers when he sprang a 25/1 shock. He still produced a high-class turn of foot last Saturday to come clear from the front. Wait until Clive Cox puts the blinkers back on!

There are others vying for sprint championship honours. Shea Shea was probably on the wrong side and probably hit the front earlier than ideal on that side in the King’s Stand. He remains a force. Pearl Secret and Reckless Abandon were not far off and both are lightly-raced and open to further progression, and Society Rock is obviously still a top-class sprinter, while gallant Jersey Stakes winner Gale Force Ten would be interesting if he dropped back down to six furlongs. Aidan O’Brien’s horse was only beaten a neck and the same by Reckless Abandon in the Middle Park last season over the sprint distance, and he has obviously progressed since then.

On top of that, it would be fascinating if the juvenile No Nay Never took on his elders at some stage this season, perhaps in the Nunthorpe Stakes. Different day, but the time that the Wesley Ward-trained colt clocked in winning the Norfolk was marginally faster than the time that Sole Power clocked in winning the King’s Stand Stakes two days earlier, and it was the second fastest comparative time on Thursday. It was a huge performance by a juvenile. And that after missing the break.

Derby delight

This evening’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby has a depth and a variety to it that we have not seen in years. All the protagonists have stood their ground: the Epsom Derby winner, the Dante winner and Epsom Derby second, the Epsom Derby third, and the horse who beat the Epsom Derby second and third in the Sandown Classic Trial.

Throw in the Irish Guineas third and Dante runner-up who would surely have been a player at Epsom had he taken his chance, and a couple of new high-profile owners for good measure – Godolphin and Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum – and we have the most intriguing Irish Derby that we have witnessed in years.

© The Irish Field, 29th June 2013