Racing: When hearts and minds are miles away

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WINSOME WOOSTER and Robin Lake went at it like prizefighters in the final furlong of the opener here yesterday, but their attempt to generate some excitement from a thin card of claimers and handicaps was as brave as it was futile. Most punters' minds were miles away.

Fifteen miles away, at Ascot, with an occasional thought spared for the mid-Atlantic weather systems which could yet transform next week's Royal meeting.

In the turf's most sustained and merciless battle between backers and bookmakers, two inches of rain could shift the balance of power completely.

'If it's good or fast, then it's evens the bookmakers, but if it's soft, then we're long odds-on,' Victor Chandler, the leading rails bookmaker, said yesterday. Chandler's reputation for cheerfully accepting bets the size of the average annual wage makes him one of the ring's most visible targets, but as countless punters have discovered, a very difficult one to hit. He is a living monument to Ascot's beaten favourites.

It is a thought worth pondering for anyone who is tempted to pay off the mortgage with one stupendous bet on Zafonic, the 2,000 Guineas winner, who will start at around 1-3 in the St James's Palace Stakes on Tuesday. At that sort of price you only need one good reason to discard a horse from consideration, and the distinct possibility that he needs at least good-to-firm going to show his best is more than enough.

For betting purposes the race is best avoided, but if all five entries go to post and thus allow each-way bets, Wharf might be worth a small interest. He is better than just a pacemaker for Zafonic, and would not be stopping if the favourite's acceleration deserted him.

The beauty of Royal Ascot is the chance to back high-class, proven animals at decent prices. Throughout the week, the best strategy is to avoid a headlong charge at the favourites and seek out less obvious opportunities.

Arcangues, another member of Andre Fabre's party, fits the description in the Prince of Wales's Stakes (Tuesday), while Zarani Sidi Anna (Coronation Stakes) and Philidor (Royal Hunt Cup) should both go well at decent prices on Wednesday.

Drum Taps, last year's winner, is one of the few runners in the Gold Cup (Thursday) who looks guaranteed to stay the two-and-a-half-miles trip. His odds reflect that, of course, so it may be worth chancing the stamina of Allegan, whose extra touch of class will be decisive if his legs are still moving a furlong from home. The supporting card on Ladies' Day looks treacherous, though Hamas will not be far away in the Cork & Orrery.

Friday's two sprints offer differing paths to salvation for drowning punters. The King's Stand Stakes, a Group Two conditions event, is the sensible choice, but betting rings are rarely awash with common sense and most will try to find the winner of the Wokingham Handicap. Everglades, who will surely come on for his successful seasonal debut, looks as rational a choice as possible, while the King's Stand should fall to Wolfhound.

That one made his seasonal debut down the same five-furlong track that Winsome Wooster and Robin Lake used for their personal duel yesterday. Theirs was not the only close finish of the day: Remany struggled to hold off Swift Silver in the stayers' handicap.

It all seemed like too much fuss. Out on the terraces, the backers were dreaming of Berkshire.