Cecil marshals Forces to take on Godolphin

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The Independent Online
Eighteen months ago, winter sun was what the better class of Royal Ascot's racegoers enjoyed at Klosters and Aspen in February. When this year's Royal meeting opens tomorrow afternoon, it will mean Dubai and Godolphin and probably the most successful new technique in racehorse training since the Jockey Club banned doping with cocaine a century ago.

The Godolphin approach has not just brought revolution to training techniques. It has also changed the way we bet - only the feckless will play the ante- post Classic markets this winter without checking which of the Maktoum family's juveniles are wintering in the Middle East.

And then there is the trainers' championship. The leading trainer in Britain as the season prepares for its most important meeting is a man whose name was familiar to perhaps one punter in a thousand three months ago. Saeed bin Suroor has saddled just 11 runners, yielding four winners, a runner-up and three third places. But his prize-money total stands pounds 92 short of pounds 800,000, over pounds 200,000 clear of his closest rival. At this rate, his prizes will reach seven figures long before we can count his winners in two.

In fact, the million-pound mark could be breached by Thursday evening, since the Godolphin team for the first three days at Ascot includes Vettori (St James's Palace Stakes), Balanchine (Prince of Wales's Stakes), Darnay (Hunt Cup) and Moonax (Gold Cup).

Yet despite their success so far, this week's meeting is perhaps the biggest test for Godolphin to date. The physiological benefits of their runners' winter in Dubai must now be dissipating as surely as any suntan. Whether their runners can stay ahead of the pack may now depend on Godolphin's intensely-organised training regimes in Newmarket.

Moonax, the winner of the Yorkshire Cup on his only start this season, looks sure to be one of the most strongly-supported horses of the meeting in Thursday's Gold Cup. Before backing him too heavily, however, it may pay to study the performances of Godolphin's earlier runners very closely, since their pre-eminence cannot continue indefinitely. Any time-lag between a drop in their current strike rate of 36 per cent and its reflection in their horses' starting prices would give punters a rare window of opportunity.

Should it appear, there is one man in particular who may allow us to clamber through. Henry Cecil has not trained a Group winner since last September but his strike rate is still a typically impressive 20 per cent and a burst of form from Warren Place must be a matter of when rather than if. Two of Cecil's runners will merit particular attention tomorrow - Charnwood Forest, long a fixture in the gallops-watchers' notebooks, takes on the best in the St James's Palace Stakes, while Allied Forces looks certain to start favourite for the Coventry Stakes. When Cecil starts to roll, few can stand in his way.

A final, essential stopping point before Ascot is the betting on the Ritz Club Trophy for the meeting's leading jockey. Differences of opinion between the leading bookmakers are rare indeed, but the task of pricing up the Ritz Club has produced astonishing variations.

Pat Eddery, who has won every race at the meeting at least once, is 3- 1 second-favourite with Coral to pick up the decanter on Friday evening, but 8-1 with Ladbrokes. Walter Swinburn is 4-1 with Coral, but 8-1 with Hills, and Michael Kinane is available at 6-1 with Coral, but only 9-4 elsewhere. The only point all three firms agree about is Lanfranco Dettori's position as favourite, with 7-4 at Ladbrokes the longest odds about the champion jockey.

At the best prices, the book is 20 per cent underround, so there must be a couple of outstanding bets there somewhere. Kinane at 6-1 and Swinburn at 8-1 are probably the pick.