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Rowleyfile Preview: Balmoral Handicap

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Simon Rowlands recommends an each-way bet in the Balmoral Handicap at Ascot on Champions Day.

We all had our own ways of getting through Lockdown in one piece, and may have to revive some of them this winter it seems. One of the Timeform ways was to conduct a series of Q&As with staff, past and present. It was entertaining, for those of us involved, at least.

Timeform staff do not always sing from the same hymn sheet – “contrarians and curmudgeons only need apply” could easily appear on the job application form – but were almost as one in response to the question “what factor do you think punters place too much emphasis on?”

“The going” (Pat Jupp), “almost certainly ground” (Dan Barber) and the even blunter “ground” (Martin Greenwood), were typical of the replies. 

This is all a long way from Timeform founder Phil Bull’s “Golden Rules of Betting”, in 1965, which identified “going considerations” as the “most important of all”.  

Or maybe it is not. Most of those callow Q&As went on to acknowledge that the going matters, just not as much as popularly supposed. It is not unlike thinking that the favourite in a race has the best chance of winning but represents a poor bet. You can rate a horse, or an analytical factor, highly, just not as highly as the crowd.

Bull may have been ahead of the crowd, at the time – he usually was – but things can change.

A lot of theories about the ground, as they apply in general as well as to specific horses, will be put to the test at British Champions Day on Saturday at Ascot, where the surface is forecast to be “soft, heavy in places”. It is no coincidence that the horse I am putting up for the big handicap – the Balmoral, due off at 16:15 – is something of a mudlark, but that is not the sole thing in his favour by any means.

But, first, it is worth considering some wider context, including the “trends” from the six runnings of the race to date.


With smaller-than-usual sample sizes there is increased volatility, but that is something %of rivals beaten as a measure deals well with. That, along with place impact value (factor by which horses in a category placed compared to chance), are the best guides here.

As an example, horses drawn in stalls 1 to 4 look good in terms of wins – they have provided half the winners – but nothing like so good by more sophisticated measures. Remember that in the absence of the three reserves, or any other non-runners, the remaining stalls will get shuffled across.

The best finding of all is for horses rated highly (within 2 lb of top) on Timeform: they have won all six editions of the Balmoral Handicap, beaten 64.7% of their rivals, where 50% is par, and have even shown a big % profit to level stakes each way. The three-year-olds Raaeq and River Nymph, and the four-year-old King Ottakar, are this year’s qualifiers.

Overall, three-year-olds have not fared especially well, though they approach parity in terms of %RB.

Last-time winners (which Raaeq and River Nymph are), and seconds and thirds, have underperformed compared to what might be expected, but have almost broken even in terms of profitability.

The Balmoral is likely to be run at a strong pace, for all that two of the habitual forcers are among the reserves, and Ascot’s straight mile is usually a good one for horses that are held up. That, along with the testing conditions and clear recent signs of a return to form, persuades me to side with King Ottokar.

The gelding who beat Dashing Willoughby on his three-year-old reappearance and finished third to Sangarius at Royal Ascot later in 2019 deserves in the region of 7 lb more than he is set to carry here at his best.

The gelding who has been unplaced in five starts since is handicapped about right on a BHA mark of 100, but he was beaten less than two lengths in a Group 3 at Windsor on his penultimate start and caught the eye when a checked then never-nearer fifth in a handicap at Doncaster last time.

That Doncaster run came on good to firm, but both of King Ottokar’s wins have come on soft, Windsor was on heavy, and that Royal Ascot run – his best on Timeform ratings – was on good to soft. Conditions are likely to be right up King Ottokar’s street on Saturday.

King Ottokar probably has his quirks, and the visor he wore on his last two starts remains on here, which is one reason to favour siding with him each way. The other is that it makes mathematical sense: 20-runner handicaps are good each-way fodder even before any enhancements to place terms.

I also think it is worth reiterating a point I made in last week’s Cesarewitch preview that Irish-trained horses may be slightly well in as a group, having been dropped a couple of pounds en masse by their official handicapper recently. The cohort provided four in the first eight of that race from eight runners, including the winner Great White Shark, for 66.7% rivals beaten.

There are just two such contenders in the Balmoral, and Keats does not look all that well treated under a penalty. His compatriot Njord could fare better and is proven on heavy ground at a mile.

I might have taken a swing at Njord at a bigger price, but there is little between him and King Ottokar in the betting at the time of writing, and the latter gets the vote.

Recommendation:

0.5 pt e/w KING OTTOKAR at 9/1

 
 

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