Sport Horse Racing

Wednesday 21 February 2018

'Ranger' to strike in Ascot showpiece

Derby runner-up can spring big surprise on Champions Day

Frankie Dettori drives the grey Eldritch to victory in the second division of the one-mile maiden for juveniles at Haydock. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Frankie Dettori drives the grey Eldritch to victory in the second division of the one-mile maiden for juveniles at Haydock. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Johnny Ward

Champions Day had a record low viewing attendance last year. TV may as well abandon racing if punters don't tune in today.

The rating for that broadcast was 67 per cent less than the 1.1m average achieved in 2012 - though the BBC had Frankel in action then. Last year's flop may have played its own little role in Channel 4 giving up on racing.

Today's card is laden with virtuosity. Willie Mullins does not like running his top horses any sooner than three weeks after their previous outing in an ideal world. Today, Aidan O'Brien runs both Found and Order Of St George less than a fortnight after their heroics in the Arc at Chantilly.

And, for fear she might miss out, Minding is on the ticket too, avoiding Found on this occasion but taking on the boys in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. There is almost too much to discuss about this superb day's racing.

Found was terrific in the Arc, a race for which Almanzor was a one-time antepost favourite; however, he skipped that and comes here that bit fresher. The turn of foot he displayed in beating Found in the Champion Stakes was devastating.

He deserves to be favourite today and can probably beat Found again over this distance but the forgotten horse in the race, US Army Ranger, is put forward at a big price.

He comes here pretty sparingly campaigned. After his narrow Epsom second to Harzand, he had a break, returning to finish fourth at the Curragh and second at Leopardstown. On form, he has a bit to find, but at around 20/1 it might pay to gamble that he can deliver, with the big field and likely generous pace in his favour.

The opening Long Distance Cup is a Group One in all but name. Order Of St George, third in the Arc, has been put in at odds-on and is difficult to oppose, but Forgotten Rules might put it up to him. A winner of this two years ago, his prep at the Curragh was satisfactory.

Shalaa, which ought to have a fine career at stud, is bidding to make it seven from eight starts in the sprint. He seems to have put his pelvic problems behind him and the notable thing about his Group Three win at the course earlier this month was how keen he was. If he is more amenable to restraint, such as it is in a race of this nature, the ability is there.

Aidan O'Brien can coax phenomenal improvement out of fillies and Seventh Heaven is a ready example. Practically tailed off in the Oaks at 20/1 behind Minding, there was no fluke about her victory in the Curragh equivalent and she was utterly majestic in the Yorkshire Oaks, for all that Found was probably not fully wound up in second.

Zhukova, too, has improved exponentially. Pat Smullen is keen on her chance, though his tactical acumen was likely a major reason behind her win at Leopardstown over US Army Ranger.

Minding takes on the best three-year-old milers around in the QEII. There is a nice spread of Irish trainers represented, with Adrian Keatley sending over Minding's Irish Guineas conqueror, Jet Setting; Kevin Prendergast relies upon Awtaad, which beat Hit It A Bomb handily at Leopardstown.

Quite a few of her backers did not consider Ryan Moore's ride on Minding at Leopardstown to be up to scratch, though it was hardly a bad run to finish third to Almanzor.

Dropping back to this distance is no concern and she is a tentative pick, despite reservations about what she has been beating in the fillies' division.

Ribchester, last seen scoring at Deauville in Group One company, might yet go off favourite in this field. He is rated a pound higher than Minding and almost impossible to pick a hole in.

Racegoers may well repair to the bar for the closing Balmoral Handicap: there will be so much to talk about. Yuften, which had a spell with John Murtagh, ran a blinder at Newmarket last time and is an each-way pick in a race of immense depth.

Aidan O'Brien seemingly has no interest whatever in beating Bobby Frankel's record of 25 Group/Grade Ones in a year. Never one to talk about himself and happier to discuss others and horses, it may be this potential milestone is a nothing issue for the great man, who is on 20 top-flight winners this term.

Irish racegoers will be willing that he gets there. He has strong fancies in three Group Ones today and the year is far from done with. 'Frankel', it seems, will stay in the racing pages indefinitely.

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