'Brute' Junior ready for Ascot freak show

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The Independent Online

A week today, on the opening afternoon of the Royal Ascot meeting, stand by for what seems to be developing as a freak show. First up will be the explosive 2,000 Guineas winner Frankel, a horse who has attracted that particular f-word more than any other this season. And on the same bill is Junior, to whom that and other f-words have been applied for some time.

Junior, despite his name, is no ephemeral young comet but a remarkable veteran of 31 races over five years. Next week he will defend his title in the Ascot Stakes, a classy handicap run over the Gold Cup distance of two and a half miles. And therein lies part of his claim to distinction, for the last time he appeared in public it was to triumph at the Cheltenham Festival.

The eight-year-old's bounding victory in the Kim Muir Chase made him only the eighth horse in a century to have shown the class and versatility to score on both Flat racing and jump racing's greatest stages, a list that includes legends such as Brown Jack and Trelawney.

"That alone would make him a bit of a phenomenon," said Tim Palin, manager of the Middleham Park Racing syndicate whose colours the gelding carries, "but it's more than that. We bought him at an auction sale, and when we first saw him, that was it. He wasn't just walking round, he was strutting round with attitude, this massive brute of a bright chestnut.

"When we got him he was a serial underachiever, considering the talent that the trainers who had previously had him – top men like Brian Meehan and Alan King – knew he had, and he'd been called many things, most of them uncomplimentary.

"He's by the Flat sire Singspiel and he's now one of the long-term favourites for next year's Grand National. And I think that all does make him more than a bit of a freak."

Junior, who cost £35,000 when he went under the hammer 13 months ago, won the Ascot Stakes on his first outing under the care of his current trainer, David Pipe.

"I won't say we were clever, because no one can count themselves clever in this business," said Palin, "but the luckiest decision we made was to send the horse to David. There is no one better than the Nicholashayne team in finding the key to a quirky mind and sweetening a horse.

"For the last year we've seen him do nothing but get better, he's been turned inside out mentally and physically. He'll be top of the weights for sure next week, but if he's made the same improvement on the Flat as over jumps, then I think he'll still be ahead of the handicapper.

"If I was a bookmaker, I'd want him on my side."

Turf Account

* Chris McGrath's Nap

Ryedale Dancer (3.00 Redcar) Stepped up on previous efforts in her handicap debut last month, despite showing signs of inexperience. With only four outings under her girth, she should have scope for further progress for her bang-in-form yard.

* Next best

April Fool (3.20 Salisbury) Is at home in this lowly grade and at this distance, to which he returns after failing to cope with better company and a shorter trip last time.

* One to watch

Nationalism (John Gosden) produced an eyecatching debut at Group level at Epsom on Saturday, just missing third place as he bounded home on his first run for seven months and his first since being gelded.

* Where the money's going

Australian sprinter Hinchinbrook was the punters' Royal Ascot target yesterday, cut from 25-1 to 14-1 by Totesport for the Golden Jubilee Stakes on Saturday week.