York's Ebor meeting gets underway on Wednesday and I for one can't wait.
There's always a great atmosphere on the Knavesmire with great racing to boot and there are some real stars on show this week. The ground is currently good, good to firm in places, just tightening up a bit after a drying day on Sunday. The rest of the week is looking dry at this stage although it won't be the scorcher we initially expected.
We may not have Frankel this year, but Al Kazeem is hot favourite to follow in his footsteps in the Juddmonte International and whilst the former blew us away from day one, this horse has worked his way into our affection with his progression this season.
Roger Charlton's five-year-old wouldn't want that ground to get too quick so keep an eye on that. He's had a break since his win in the Eclipse so comes here a fresh horse and is a very worthy favourite to win his fourth Group 1 of the campaign.
Richard Hannon's Toronado steps up to this mile-and-a-quarter for the first time and he comes here off the back of some tough battles. He finally got the better of his foe Dawn Approach in the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood and as a three-year-old gets an 8lb weight for age allowance from the older horses in this. Hannon said that the plan is to run unless there is heavy rain, but that looks unlikely now.
The Irish Derby form will be tested by Trading Leather who also drops back to this trip having run since in the King George. He was a bit keen last time out and has fair course and distance form when he was second in the Dante back in May.
Queen Anne winner Declaration of War was second to Al Kazeem in the Eclipse and has run well twice since in defeat - he was third in the Sussex Stakes and fourth in the Prix Jacques le Marois. Although those last two starts were over a mile, he's seems just as effective over this distance and his Royal Ascot form stands up to close scrutiny. One thing's for sure he will love it if the ground gets faster and he can't be ruled out. I wouldn't be surprised to see him run a big race.
Hillstar, third in the King George, runs in this Group 1 for Sir Michael Stoute rather than carry a penalty in Group 2 company at the meeting. He looked like a fast improver before the Ascot race and I expect there could be more to come. Whether it's enough to beat the principles here over 10f remains to be seen though.
Rewarded is the outsider of the six making up the numbers for trainer James Toller. So, a red hot renewal of this race even without a 'Frankel' and Al Kazeem looks tough to beat given his optimum conditions. Given the prices it may pay to give Toronado a chance as he shouldn't be inconvenienced by the step up in trip and should give the favourite a real race - one to savour.
Also on Wednesday the Great Voltigeur looks classy and could give us some pointers to the Leger. Sir Michael Stoute runs Telescope, who is on a retrieval mission after being turned over in the Rose of Lancaster last time out. This horse has been burdened all winter as the big talking horse and he certainly has filled some column inches, he now has to prove he can do it on the track in a race of this quality. He was impressive on his belated comeback at Leicester, not just visually but in a good time, but didn't go on from that at Haydock. This is still only his fourth outing and he should be suited by the step up to 1m 4f so this could be his time to shine.
Cap O'Rushes is one of his main rivals and one of two for Godolphin; this horse was trainer Charlie Appleby's first group winner when hanging on in the Gordon Stakes at Goodwood last time out and they are also represented by the Saeed bin Suroor-trained Secret Number who was hampered in that Goodwood race and can do better. Cap O'Rushes appears to prefer some cut in the ground and he is unlikely to get it; he's 25/1 for the St Leger whilst Secret Number is also that price at this stage.
Aidan O'Brien has plumped for Foundry from his bulk entry; he is a once-raced Galileo colt. He broke his maiden at Leopardstown in November and hasn't run since but holds a Leger entry and is currently 33/1 for the final Classic with Sky Bet. There will be a real cheer if Willie the Whipper wins for Yorkshire trainer Anne Duffield. He was bought by Qatar Racing after a win at Pontefract last October and has always had the Leger as his long term aim (50/1). He was a staying on sixth in the French Derby on his last start and should also appreciate the extra furlong and a half. Sir Michael Stoute has been defending Telescope of late and hopefully the colt can get back on track here. He's not in the Leger, but could be supplemented.
The Group 2 Lowther Stakes has attracted a field of nine decent juvenile fillies. George Margarson's Lucky Kristale is bidding to give weight away to her rivals thanks to a 3lb penalty she picked up for winning the Duchess of Cambridge at Newmarket last time out. Brian Meehan runs unbeaten filly J Wonder who won her maiden and then a Nursery last time out off a mark of 79 so this is a step up. However, she won cosily last time out and has a superb pedigree being a $300,000 sister to Group 1 winner Chachamaidee. After her win last time out the Group 1 Cheveley Park was mentioned so she should continue to progress.
Johnny Murtagh rides Queen Catrine for Charlie Hills who was third to Kucky Kristale at Newmarket and is now 3lbs better off with that rival. She was second in the Princess Margaret at Ascot last time. She apparently would appreciate a bit of ease in the ground which she is unlikely to get.
Luca Cumani is bidding for an Oaks double with his Emirates Queen who tries to add Thursday's Yorkshire Oaks to the Lancashire Oaks she won last month. Since then she has finished third at Deauville in Group 2 company, but she could face stiff opposition on Thursday with Secret Gesture (second in the Oaks) for Ralph Beckett and John Gosden's The Fugue, who was second in the race last year but has disappointed of late. She finished last in the Eclipse but is better than that and it transpired that she scoped badly after the race. She will relish faster ground here and has a good chance of bouncing back.
Lady Cecil has two decent fillies entered, Ribblesdale winner Riposte and Goodwood winner Wild Coco. The ground may be too fast for Wild Coco and it could be that this race comes too quick after her seasonal reappearance just three weeks ago too. Aidan O'Brien has Venus de Milo who has done little wrong in her four race career so far and her only defeat came in the Irish Oaks where she was beaten by half-a-length by the wayward Chicquita. The three-year-old fillies get a 10lb weight for age allowance and that could be the deciding factor. I like The Fugue and Venus de Milo but I'll go with the latter who takes advantage of that weight allowance.
David Brown runs Wind Fire for Qatar Racing; she was only beaten by 1¼ lengths by subsequent Prix Morny winner No Nay Never in the Norfolk which is very good form (she was the only filly in the field at Royal Ascot) and has since won a Listed race at Newbury also over the minimum trip. She apparently went to Newbury as an alternative to a piece of work and she wasn't stopping at the end, so I think the step back up to six furlongs shouldn't be an inconvenience. J Wonder will be popular and I hope Lucky Kristale runs well with her penalty, but I'm going to side with Wind Fire and hope she can reproduce the Royal Ascot form.
The feature race on Friday is the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes over five furlongs. Shea Shea has come in for support in the ante-post market for Mike de Kock and Frankie Dettori but he's plenty short enough in an open sprint. He was beaten by Sole Power in the King's Stand and then finished fourth in the July Cup over an extra furlong in front of that same rival. He deserves to win a top European prize to go with his victory in the Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai in March; he's won 10 of his 21 starts to date.
Sole Power looks like getting his favoured fast ground and is hard to stop over five furlongs given his optimum conditions. His jockey Johnny Murtagh is making a good job of training horses but is still being called on by other trainers on the big occasion and things are going very well for him in the saddle. He comes to York for some choice rides and is happy and full of confidence at the moment.
Moviesta is an improving three-year-old trained by Bryan Smart for a group of owners that include Harry Redknapp. He's gets a handy 2lb weight for age allowance which will help him, but I always think it's tough for three-year-old sprinters against their more mature race-hardened rivals. Having said that he beat older horses in a Group 2 at Goodwood last time out and he goes well here so can make his presence felt. The horse he beat last time out was Swiss Spirit who has been knocking on the door and John Gosden's charge will pop up in a big race before too long.
Slade Power also represents Eddie Lynam, but I feel that a fast five furlongs on quick ground may suit his stablemate Sole Power better. He's a top drawer sprinter mind you, but I feel six furlongs brings out the best in him. Kingsgate Native won this as a two-year-old and has recaptured some of his form for Robert Cowell this season. He was well beaten by Moviesta at Goodwood though but on his day is still very good. I'm hoping Johnny Murtagh still has his 'Midas touch' and can win again on Sole Power.
The Lonsdale Cup
The Lonsdale Cup also takes place on Friday and we could see Ascot Gold Cup winner Estimate bidding to follow up her Royal Ascot triumph. She has a 4lb penalty for that win which makes life harder but the drop back to two miles won't be a problem. She is still lightly raced and there ought to be more to come from the Queen's filly.
Aidan O'Brien looks like running Ernest Hemingway who has won his last two, beating Royal Diamond on both occasions. He was going away at the end of the Curragh Cup over 1m 6f so the extra couple of furlongs should suit. Pale Mimosa is interesting if she runs for Dermot Weld. She won on her first start of the season at Leopardstown in June in the Saval Beg over 1m 6f. She handles fast ground and was under consideration for the Ascot Gold Cup so is well capable of putting up a bold show here. She has only had the five starts and I fancy her to run well. Willie Mullins looks like running Ascot Gold Cup winner Simenon and he is also a leading contender. This is the type of race I love and I'll be able to make more of an informed view when declarations are made, but at this stage I like Ernest Hemingway.
The Ebor Handicap
The Ebor Handicap is the big betting race of the week and is the highlight on Saturday's card. It's such a tough race to call, especially at this early stage, but there are a few horses that warrant particular mention. Opinion is clearly one of those for Sir Michael Stoute. The horse won the Duke of Edinburgh at Royal Ascot and then was well fancied for the Old Newton Cup at Haydock but didn't get the clearest of runs.
The rain may not come in time for Sir Mark Prescott's charge Pallasator. This is the sort of horse it's easy to latch on to. Not only is he trained by the handicap king, but he has a lightly raced progressive profile that screams 'group horse in a handicap'! However, he is ground dependent and that is the concern.
Trainer David Simcock has a couple of live chances with Sheikhzayedroad and Montaser. The former has seen the back of Forgotten Voice on his last two starts and looks sure to appreciate the step up to 1m 6f after his efforts over shorter to date. He's an improving horse. Montaser was also in the race behind Forgotten Voice at Goodwood last time out, he was fourth there, one place behind his stablemate. He is proven over this course and distance and will appreciate stepping back up in trip.
Roger Charlton's Bishop Roko is a horse with an improving profile but he is very inexperienced having run just the four times. He won a mile-and-a-half handicap at Ascot at the end of last month where he looked brave despite his inexperience and he seems to have a good attitude. He carries a 4lb penalty for that win.
Tiger Cliff was beaten by Well Sharp in the Ascot Stakes last time out and if you backed him you may feel a touch hard done by. He was tackling two-and-a-half miles for the first time there and was given every chance to get the trip. Unfortunately, the race didn't go his way and didn't give the winner anything to worry about. The drop in trip should suit him.
Jonjo O'Neill's Well Sharp hasn't run since then and the drop back in trip shouldn't be a problem. He has winning form over two miles at this track but may just prefer a bit of give in the ground. The Peter Chapple-Hyam trained Caravan Rolls On is another deserved of a mention. He hasn't had a busy season with just the three starts. He will be suited by the way this race is run and it was probably the lack of pace that was his undoing last time out.
Harris Tweed is trained by William Haggas who is making a habit of winning decent races at this track. He saddled the 1-2 in the John Smith's Cup and this horse looks capable of landing another valuable handicap for the Newmarket handler. The horse may have top weight here, but he is effectively well in as he was raised 10lbs for his recent Goodwood win, but only carries a 4lb penalty. He has some fair York form despite his trainer having reservations about the suitability of the track for his six-year-old.
Haggas also has Sun Central in the race. He's a different proposition to Harris Tweed. He's a four-year-old with just the nine starts to his name, and he's won 4 of them. He's a proven performer at York having won over this course and distance last time out. He will enjoy fast ground and has been perked up by the application of cheekpieces. Anything Irish trainer Tony Martin runs in these types of races merits plenty of respect and Ted Veale comes here having only run three times on the flat. He was a very smart novice hurdler last season and won the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham festival back in March. His last start came in the Galway Hurdle where he was eighth behind Missunited. The ground was heavy that day and Martin feels he will be better suited to a sounder surface. So, not an easy race to call, but I give an each way chance to Harris Tweed despite carrying top weight.
Some classy colts are entered in the Group 2 Gimcrack Stakes with trainers heading to York for this valuable prize. Aidan O'Brien sends Wilshire Boulevard over for the race after the colt won the Group 3 Anglesey Stakes at the Curragh last time out over 6½ furlongs. Prior to that he disappointed in the Windsor Castle and he's by no means one of the leading juveniles at Ballydoyle.
Kevin Ryan won this race last year and he has Astaire and Sleeper King entered in this six furlong event. Astaire is a lovely horse and although he was a bit keen in the July Stakes he bounced back to win a conditions race at Newmarket comfortably making all the running.
Richard Fahey runs Parbold who won here on his debut; he's smart but he is yet to encounter faster ground. He was second to War Command in the Coventry, but that race doesn't look the strongest at this stage. William Haggas has Saayerr who carries a penalty for his win in the Group 2 Richmond at Goodwood last time out. I think Astaire has every chance of giving Kevin Ryan successive winners in this race.
Toronado in the Juddmonte International @ 2/1 with Sky Bet
Telescope in the Great Voltigeur
Wind Fire in the Lowther Stakes
Venus de Milo in the Yorkshire Oaks
Sole Power in the Nunthorpe Stakes @ 4/1 with Sky Bet
Ernest Hemingway in the Lonsdale Cup
Harris Tweed in the Ebor Handicap @ 16/1 with Sky Bet (each way)
Astaire in the Gimcrack Stakes