Racing: Punters seek a soft touch with Turtle: Rain returns to give Ascot's Festival turf its customary soaking - Greg Wood reports on the betting moves as the line-ups for Saturday's races take shape

CAST your mind back over recent Festivals of British Racing at Ascot and a common thread quickly emerges. Who could forget Warning winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, in the pouring rain? Or Selkirk's late surge to take the same race? In the pouring rain.

You can put it down to coincidence or bad luck, but as rain swept the Berkshire track yesterday afternoon, the clerk of the course could have been forgiven a minor persecution complex. Ascot has a particular problem with heavy rain, which causes the track to deteriorate swiftly to the consistency of wallpaper paste, making racing - not to mention punting - an exhausting and generally thankless task.

'We have had half an inch of rain and it is still raining,' Sir Nicholas Beaumont, the clerk of the course, said yesterday. 'The going is currently good to soft, and soft entering Swinley Bottom.' These are not the conditions to suit Grand Lodge, winner of the St James's Palace Stakes at the Royal meeting, and as expected William Jarvis's colt was withdrawn from the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, the feature event of Saturday's Festival card, at yesterday's five-day stage.

'He is absolutely fine, but he was never going to be declared for Ascot,' Jarvis said yesterday. 'His next run will probably be in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket on 15 October.'

The nine entries remaining in Saturday's race may be further depleted if the rain continues. Sayyedati, last year's 1,000 Guineas winner, 'will not run if the ground is soft,' according to Clive Brittain, her trainer. 'Her main target is the Breeders' Cup, so we don't want to give her a hard race on ground too heavy.'

Predictably, betting interest yesterday centred on horses with proven form on easy going, and one in particular. Turtle Island, the Irish 2,000 Guineas winner, may finally get a repeat of the conditions which saw him succeed by 15 lengths at The Curragh, and after an original quote of 10-1 in Hill's ante- post book, Peter Chapple- Hyam's colt was cut to 4-1 (from 5-1) yesterday.

Favourite with that firm is Distant View, the Sussex Stakes winner, at 2-1. After 4-1 Turtle Island, they bet: 9-2 East Of The Moon, 7-1 Mehthaaf, 8-1 (from 10-1) Bigstone, 8-1 Ski Paradise, 10-1 (from 8- 1) Barathea, 16-1 (from 12-1) Sayyedati, 66-1 Maroof.

Saturday's second Group One contest, the Fillies' Mile, has attracted 11 entries, including John Dunlop's impeccably-bred Aqaarid (by Nashwan out of Ashayer) and Sir Mark Prescott's Red Azalea, who might prove to be the top-class performer the trainer so earnestly desires.

In the Royal Lodge Stakes for juvenile colts - won last year by Mister Baileys - the 10 runners have more potential than proven form. Only Henry Cecil's Eltish, the likely favourite, has a Group win to his credit, but Fahal (David Morley) and Stiletto Blade (Ian Balding) should be capable of giving him a race.

The biggest gamble of all yesterday concerned Finger Of Light in the Festival Handicap. Michael Stoute's filly has not seen a track since finishing last in a Listed race at Newmarket in May, but her recent home gallops seem to have persuaded someone that she has a serious chance on Saturday.

Finger Of Light is 8-1 from 14-1 with Hills, two points behind Hever Golf Rose at the head of the market. However, the smart cash is now on and anything that follows at such short odds is mug money, particularly since midweek gambles tend to drift on race day. Even then, with the draw also likely to play a part, there will surely be more attractive bets.

(Photograph omitted)

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