It was always a vain hope to expect the 20 leading European milers to assemble at Ascot when ground-poking and track-tramping is such a major part of a trainer's life. Rodrigo De Triano, Alnasr Alwasheek and Zaahi were ejected yesterday, but despite the sock-soaking conditions at Ascot, Mystiko, Second Set and Marling all stood their ground. Amazing how pounds 250,000 in prize-money can affect convictions.
None of this matters to the connections of Selkirk, who won this race last year to secure the vote as champion miler and who is, according to his trainer, Ian Balding: 'a better horse now than he was then'. Good job too, because with All At Sea, Lahib and Brief Truce (probably) all likely to be suited by spongy terrain, Balding's leggy and powerful four-year-old will need to be purring at optimum revs to retain his title. And that is discounting Second Set and Marling, who deserved an equine Victoria Cross for the courage she showed in beating Selkirk in the Sussex Stakes.
It would be an insult to John Reid, Selkirk's rider today, to say that he is a changed man this season - the skill he has shown on Dr Devious, particularly in the Irish Champion Stakes, was really always there - but the horse beneath him will definitely feel different to the one he accompanied 16 months ago. Reid was Selkirk's jockey before Ray Cochrane (who is currently suspended) took over, and before Selkirk was operated on for a painful testicle. Or deprived of it, more accurately.
'At the time I rode him I couldn't work him out at all,' Reid said yesterday. 'He just wasn't finishing his races. He'd come there and just flatten out. I haven't ridden him since his early three-year-old days, but he's been able to show his true potential since his operation. I'll be sitting on a new horse now. A happier horse, anyway.'
Now that Selkirk is no longer suffering the sensation of a man jumping on to a bicycle seat too fast, he should be the most forceful of the many late-finishers leaping after the Festival's biggest prize. The way the market stands, though, Brief Truce (2.50) appeals as a sound each-way bet: he is an improving three-year-old with Group One form, a master trainer, and the ability to scoop away muck as he gallops.
Balding's other great mission today is to transform Lochsong from eminent handicapper into front-rank sprinter, but with the likes of Wolfhound, Montendre and last year's winner, Shalford (2.05), in the line-up for the Diadem Stakes, Balding's 'fantastically genuine' Lochsong may find herself scuffling after a place. Low numbers ought to be favoured on the straight course, which makes SHARPALTO (nap 1.30) a cracking bet for the Festival Handicap.
Nobody at Ascot will thank you for drawing the contrast with the Ciga weekend at Longchamp, but only one race (the Krug Trophy) at this Festival is sponsored, a fact which will leave the course with a huge bill for prize-money and promotion. It is the same old story: good racing, bad structure, and unless Ascot can find an overall backer for these quasi-national championships, the show, as a one-day event, could go.
Krug, not surprisingly, has seized the foremost betting race of this meeting, and a horse who is certain to give you a run for your money here is Green Lane (next best 4.00), who will shortly be dragged up the weight-scale by the handicapper and so is leniently loaded here. He is also as tough as brogues, something a two-year-old filly needs to be, according to Barry Hills, the trainer, to survive a hard race for the Fillies' Mile.
'I won it with Silk Slippers a few years back and she was no good afterwards,' Hills says. Bright Generation (3.25) has looked pretty good thus far, and though not all of Paul Cole's two-year-olds are running to par, she can break the trend and provide the stable with its second consecutive win in the race.
Culture Vulture took it last year, and contrary to Hills's theory, it would take a falling building to break her.
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