Leading Light to shine at Royal Ascot
The Ascot Gold Cup is the premier staying-event in the United Kingdom and Ireland, held over 2m4f and has brought out some extremely popular results in the past few years. Estimate, owned by The Queen, was a much celebrated success and that horse tries to defend her crown this year.
Looking further back, Yeats’ four successes in four years must be classed as one of the best training achievements in recent years and has helped to keep this race relevant, especially in a bloodstock world where stamina is often seen as unfashionable. 2014′s renewal is exciting but on a glance through the runners, it does not seem to be a race that has a massive amount of strength in depth.
Leading Light is the ante-post favourite and quite rightly too, as last years St.Leger winner looks the ideal type to take this race. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, who has a sensational record in this race in recent years (admittedly mainly due to Yeats) but his training performance of turning Fame And Glory into an Ascot Gold Cup winner in 2011, a horse who never really looked capable of staying 2m4f, let alone winning a Group 1 over such distance, means that you’ve always got a chance with one of his horses in this race. Leading Light is a former Ascot winner, winning the Queens Vase here last season when shaping like a step-up in trip wouldn’t be of any concern, before handling the drop in distance to take the St.Leger. He’s always looked like a potential Gold Cup horse after his win at Ascot and although an audacious attempt at the Arc de Triomphe backfired, he showed no ill effects of that on seasonal reappearance. His run at Navan was over1m6f and he was only getting stronger at the finish, beating Royal Diamond and Pale Mimosa who potentially re-oppose here. The way he settled beautifully, travelled well and stayed on strongly only provided serious encouragement that he’ll be absolutely spot on for today’s contest. It’s always a step into the unknown with an extra four furlongs in trip, but you would think that the way in which his trained will give him every chance of excelling over it.
Another reason to be keen on the chances of Leading Light is the fact the opposition look a little below top-class this year. Although not 2nd in the market, it’s probably fair to start with the chances of Estimate, the winner of the race last year. She provided a brilliant story that day but things haven’t seemingly gone right since. She was seventh in the Long Distance Cup at Ascot on softer ground and although that surface could have been the obvious excuse, as well as the drop in trip, but she didn’t seem at her best that day and hasn’t been seen since. For her to win here without a run under her belt this season, an attribute that most of her rivals have, would be an fantastic training achievement. The vibes have been good in recent days in preparation for her title defence and she seems to have recovered from a leg injury. On the face of things, her current price of 15/2 looks too big on the bare facts, but there’s too many factors against her this year and simply I think she’ll just come up short.
Brown Panther is seen as the biggest challenger to Leading Light and he seems to be continually improving. A former Royal Ascot winner in a handicap in 2011, he obviously handles the track and his win at Sandown in the Henry II Stakes over two miles suggested that he was more than capable of playing a hand in this race. Far from disgraced in the Melbourne Cup too last November, he’s a high-class animal. Though his last two wins have come on soft ground, he seems perfectly at home on most surfaces and he looks like a solid challenger. Brown Panther though, doesn’t seem quite good enough to win a Gold Cup. For instance, he’s never struck me as a type that will relish the extra distance that this race brings. I always feel you need a horse with the potential to “grind out” the last few furlongs, Brown Panther doesn’t seem like that sort of horse, as he strikes me as a bit “speedier”, an attribute that might count against him in a real stamina test. I can see him looming up powerfully towards the closing stages and then staying on into the one-pace, as he certainly doesn’t seem to be one of the stronger “stayers” in the race.
Tac De Boistron only made his UK debut in 2013 after doing the majority of his racing in France, although he ran poorly in the 2012 Melbourne Cup. There was an impression previous to a couple of months ago that he really needed a soft surface to be seen at his best, a fair assumption to make given that all his wins had come on soft ground or worse, including wins in the Sagaro Stakes earlier in the season, a dominant victory in the Prix Royal-Oak and at Chester since racing for Marco Botti. The assumption that better ground wouldn’t suit was to an extent, dampened when running a mighty race in the Yorkshire Cup. The surface that day was fairly quick but he looked perfectly at home on it and was staying on strongly, only beaten a neck. That was over too sharp a trip also (1m6f) and it looked a perfect Gold-Cup prep run. Tac De Boistron is fully entitled to take his chance and looks to be continuing to progress, but I still wouldn’t really think he’s a Gold Cup winner in waiting unless the ground was more testing. It’s fine to say he handles faster ground, but with not much rain likely in the run-up to the race, there’s not going to be a great deal of cut in the ground. He might also not fully see out the trip (more on that later) when seen behind Altano and he sort of reminds me of Brown Panther, not looking like the sort of horse to “grind out” the success in the last two furlongs.
Altano was the biggest eye-catcher in last years renewal, having been given a hopeless ride when given too much to do. He showed that form to be all wrong when beating Tac De Boistron in the Cadran back in October and that success came over the 2m4f trip he faces in this race, which is an obvious plus. The German challenger warmed up for this race with a comfortable success in a German Group 3 over two miles. He was entitled to come on for the run and although not destroying the opposition, beat the competition in the way in which he was entitled to. Altano should be fully fit for this but my biggest concern is the likely faster ground. Like many German breds, they excel on slower ground and even though we’re unlikely to see rattling fast ground with the watering that will take place, he would definitely be more at home on a slower surface, as seen by his improved form in France. Alongside the fact that his jockey who gave him no chance last year will likely renew the association, he cannot really be backed with much confidence unless the ground becomes slower. If it did, I’d have him in front of Brown Panther in the market, as there’s no doubts regarding the trip and the slower ground seems to improve Altano quite significantly.
All the remaining runners are 16/1 plus, but some worthy consideration or at least a mention. Last years runner-up Simenon continued his good form in both Asia and Australia during the winter, with a cracking run in the Melbourne Cup likely the best of them. He has however, completely lost his form on the evidence of his runs in Meydan, when well-beaten in the Dubai Gold Cup and then well-beaten in the Sagaro Stakes behind Tac De Boistron. His trainer has been frank about the need for Simenon to improve on his recent form, but on his back-form he has every chance of running a good race. He’s been given a break of 50 days and that should freshen him up, alongside the fact his form at Ascot is generally really good (won an Ascot Stakes and a Queen Alexandra). It isn’t out of the realms of possibility for him to bounce back, but it’s risky.
Both Royal Diamond and Pale Mimosa faced Leading Light last time that ran and they were pretty closely matched, both beaten around three lengths. Royal Diamond is much the classier in terms of Group successes, with a Long Distance Cup win on Champions Day been a really good piece of form. Pale Mimosa wasn’t far behind that day either (caught the eye in which the way he travelled) and they are obviously very decent staying horses. Leading Light though did put them both in their place quite significantly at Navan and it’s hard to see them reversing the form at Ascot, especially when the step up in trip is likely to be in Leading Light’s favour.
Aidan O’Brien also has entered Eye Of The Storm, Ernest Hemingway and El Salvador. Eye Of The Storm fits into the same piece of Long Distance Cup form that was previously mentioned with Royal Diamond and Pale Mimosa, with that effort being able to be upgraded given the fact he was only a three year-old taking on older horses. Allegedly he met with a setback this year and given that his reappearance at Leopardstown gave the distinct impression that the run was needed, then you would think he has every chance of running a decent race. It’s hard to get too enthusiastic on current evidence though, as he hasn’t always finished his race off and the application of a hood isn’t always the best of signs. Given his tendency to look a little out-stayed, this might not be the best race for him, but it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see a bold show. Ernest Hemingway looked so exciting when starting his three year old career but simply hasn’t fulfilled it, with just two Group 3 wins to his name outside of Maidens. He wasn’t seen to his best in Meydan this winter and his run at the Curragh in the Irish St.Leger was extremely disappointing, especially as the way he travelled suggested he should have played a big part in the finish. It wouldn’t surprise if he ran well considering connections, and he does have the sort of profile to take a hand in this race, but he simply doesn’t seem to battle when asked for an effort and that’s not a horse you’d want to support in a race like this. El Salvador ran OK in the 2013 renewal when 6th, but all his form subsequently suggested that he doesn’t really see out this trip fully and is far from a Group 1 animal anyway.
Ahzeemah, whose trainer knows how to win a Gold Cup with two successes in the last 10 years. He beat Simenon in a Lonsdale Cup last year and ran a nice race in the Irish St.Leger, albeit beaten by six lengths. He’s a sort of standing dish in staying events up to two miles and up until his poor effort in the Long Distance Cup, where the ground was the likely excuse, his Ascot form was exemplary. He looked to have needed the run in the Yorkshire Cup when behind a couple of these and he’ll be likely be spot-on for this race. His Lonsdale Cup victory indicated that he might stay further, especially as he really did stick on nicely when challenged that day, and has essentially been forgotten about in the market. He could well be one to keep on-side, especially as he’s only five and open to further progress.
The last horse I’ll mention in depth is Saddler’s Rock, who was sent off 9/2 in the 2013 Gold Cup and was beaten less than a length in the 2012 renewal. He’s obviously respected on that but his form in recent runs have been fairly woeful and he’s finished behind a fair number of these in those efforts. He’s in a massive need of a revival and it could just be that he’s not enjoying the game at the moment. There’s few better trainers that John Oxx but given his recent form, he’s difficult to support.
Other potential runners include Missunited, who wasn’t far behind Tac De Boistron in France last season and ran a good race at Leopardstown, when winning over 1m6f (beat Eye Of The Storm). She handles better ground but would need it to come out really soft to be seen at her best. Whiplash Willie and Oriental Fox were well-beaten by Brown Panther last time and look to have plenty to do, even on their best form. Havana Beat doesn’t look like a stayer over this sort of trip, while Ralston Road and Shwaiman both ran at York, the former dead-heating with the smart looking Clever Cookie. That was just a listed race and Ralston Road hasn’t been up to Group company in the past, while Shwaiman is at least sort of unexposed at this grade. His Chester Cup effort didn’t suggest that he was a future Gold Cup winner, at least not this season.
- Leading Light
- Brown Panther
A race that for me, revolves around LEADING LIGHT, who looks every inch a Gold Cup horse and his form coming into this race looks rock solid. He handles the track, comes from a yard who are fantastic with these sorts and looks to have a extremely solid chance. A current price of 7/4 is appealing, although my current view is to wait til the day of the race and see if bookmakers decide to take him on (as seen in the Derby). If they do, we could see 2/1+ and that is a fantastic price. Ahzeemah has been forgotten about in most quarters but is unexposed at this trip and is a high-class stayer on his day, and from a yard who can get the job done in this race, he’s no 20/1 chance. Brown Panther is a solid alternative and could pick up the pieces if the favourite doesn’t perform. Altano is best of the rest if given a more sensible ride this time around.
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