Racing: Almandab to take scalp of Note

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The Independent Online
NICK CHEYNE is as able as any clerk of the course in the country, but he could choose his words with a little more tact. Ascot, he said yesterday, is "ready for the onslaught", a description which should draw a wince from any punter with long-term experience of the Royal meeting. When the best and most competitive four days of the Flat calendar are over, it is usually the trenches on the backers' side of the battlefield where a tattered white flag is fluttering in the breeze.

Like the racing at the Cheltenham Festival, the action at Royal Ascot is so competitive that nothing can be taken for granted, and while there are no obstacles to get in the way of the form horses, the imminence of high summer can bring unexpected improvement from three-year-olds in particular. With recent rain bringing soft ground on the opening day for only the second time in 20 years, the cards should be treated with even greater respect.

Yet there are still opportunities for those who are prepared to ignore the obvious and root out the runners who offer some value, and the feature race today, the St James's Palace Stakes, is a case in point. With Victory Note, the French 2,000 Guineas winner, and Desert Prince, who was behind him at Longchamp but then went to the Curragh to take the Irish equivalent, among the eight-strong field, this might appear to be a two-horse race, but in fact it is not nearly so straightforward.

The worry about Victory Note is that the French Guineas, which represents by far the best form of his life, was run on very fast ground, and while Peter Chapple-Hyam's colt had earlier won the Greenham Stakes on a soft surface, he did so by just a neck from a weak field. Desert Prince, meanwhile, was a little fortunate to win at The Curragh, for though Olivier Peslier rode him beautifully, the exact opposite was true of Christy Roche's mount, Second Empire.

Dr Fong has been well backed as the ground has softened, but it is hard to forget his poor run in the Dante Stakes at York. He has since been beaten only narrowly in a Group One at Chantilly, but a more interesting name which appeared in the same five-horse blanket finish is that of Almandab.

Just a couple of inches separated Dr Fong and Almandab last time, but while Dr Fong is a 9-2 chance, John Gosden's runner can be backed at three times that price. Almandab has taken time to learn his trade, but he hit the front inside the final furlong at Chantilly, only to falter near the line. He has been campaigned like a middle-distance prospect, presumably on the basis of his breeding, but it could be that a stiff mile will prove ideal. At 14-1 with Coral and William Hill this morning, ALMANDAB (nap 3.45) offers exceptional value.

The Queen Anne Stakes often produces a surprise result, and unless the four-year-old Poteen is more reliable than last year's model, he is certainly a false price at around 7-2. The favourite to beat him is Intikhab, but this may come a little soon after his win in the Diomed Stakes at Epsom, and Great Dane (2.30), who won by 13 lengths at Haydock last time, could go close at around 6-1.

Insatiable (3.05) should beat Daylami in the Prince of Wales's Stakes, although his price will not be anything special, while Be The Chief (4.20) is a tentative choice for the Coventry. It may be better, though, to save the money for a punt on a rank outsider with a glimmer of a chance in the shape of Overture (next best 4.55) in the Britannia Stakes.

Richard Hannon's runner is a 66-1 chance with the Tote, and 50-1 is widely available, yet there is not the absence of hope about his chance which those odds suggest. He has a low draw, which is a considerable advantage on the straight course when the ground is soft and his two runs this season over six furlongs suggest that a mile will be his trip. At 16-1 for a place, he is worth an each-way interest, and it is worth recalling that Fox Chapel, also trained by Richard Hannon, won this race at 100-1.

It Overture wins, it will be time to retire from the fray - possibly forever - but if not, Rainbow Frontier (5.30) is the bet in a race which Martin Pipe has a habit of winning.