Racing: Punters call for Dr Fong

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The Independent Online
ANYONE with an expensive outfit put aside for Royal Ascot will have preferred to see heavy rain before rather than during the most competitive four days of Flat racing all year. For punters trying to turn an honest penny from the proceedings, however, the downpours which swept Berkshire over the weekend could not have been more disastrously timed, and those who had already spent hours studying the form will probably need to start all over again.

Nick Lees, Ascot's clerk of the course, said yesterday that the turf had soaked up "three quarters of an inch of rain on Saturday", with more heavy showers forecast for yesterday evening. As a result, the going is now soft, and as educated punters should know, when the ground is wet at Ascot, it can get so sticky that you could use it to hang wallpaper.

This is desperate news for anyone who prefers to see top-class thoroughbreds skipping over the ground rather than battling through the top nine inches of it, not to mention those who would like to be able to rely on the Ascot form in the months ahead.

At least, though, backers will have one of their most lethal finishers back in the starting line-up tomorrow. Kieren Fallon, the champion jockey, has recovered from a knee injury sustained on Henry Cecil's gallops last week, and while he could not find any rides at Windsor this evening, Dave Pollington, his agent, reported yesterday that Fallon is "raring to go" at the Royal meeting tomorrow.

Both the rain and Fallon's recovery seem to have played a part in the developing gamble on Dr Fong, the jockey's mount in the St James's Palace Stakes, the feature event on Ascot's opening day. Henry Cecil's colt was a close third to Almutawakel in the Group One Prix Jean Prat at Chantilly last month, but had previously appeared to have his limitations exposed when well beaten in the Dante Stakes at York.

None the less, some punters have gone back rather further in his record, to the Autumn Stakes over tomorrow's course and distance last October. Run on heavy ground, the race was won by Dr Fong with Rabah, winner of this year's Predominate Stakes, almost 13 lengths away in third. William Hill cut his St James's Palace Stakes odds from 7-1 to 5-1 yesterday, and further rain could see his price contract still further.

One significant scratching from the race over the weekend was Lend A Hand, the runner-up to King Of Kings in the 2,000 Guineas. With King Of Kings already retired following an injury sustained in the Derby, the Newmarket form is now without a worthwhile representative in tomorrow's race. Lend A Hand has caught a cough which is affecting several horses at Mark Johnston's stable, but is the only one of his trainer's intended Ascot runners to be affected.

"The soft going is not ideal for any of my horses, except perhaps Fruits Of Love who runs on Friday [King Edward VII Stakes]," Johnston said yesterday. "Double Trigger [Gold Cup] definitely likes to hear his feet rattle and Land Of Dreams [King's Stand Stakes] wouldn't want it soft either."

In the absence of Lend A Hand, the favourite for tomorrow's feature - although it still takes a bit of getting used to - is Victory Note, part of the team of three-year-olds for whom Peter Chapple-Hyam held out little hope at the start of the season. He is a 7-4 chance, and another for whom soft ground is not a problem.

"He had a good blow out this morning, and was looking good and moving great," Ben Sangster, Chapple-Hyam's assistant, said yesterday. He won on soft at Newbury [in the Greenham Stakes] and fast ground in France [French 2,000 Guineas]. He is a very genuine horse who appears to go on any ground."

William Hill and Ladbrokes have opened books on the Gold Cup, with the former going as short as 3-1 about Persian Punch lifting the stayers' crown. "Persian Punch was placed in Group One company in France last season," William Hill's David Hood said, "and he has made the right progression in staying races this term."