Sharp whets punters' appetite

Greg Wood examines the prospects for Royal Ascot's biggest ante- post plunge
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The Independent Online
Ascot will be dripping with class on both sides of the running rail during next week's Royal meeting but the punters, as usual, will dabble in the Pattern races and save their serious betting money for the handicaps. Above all, the Royal Hunt Cup on Wednesday, which will see 30 handicappers pounding out the straight mile, is the contest which will make, or more realistically break, the week's fortunes.

It requires only a few moments' study of the latest Hunt Cup betting, however, before it becomes clear that the smartest punters are still the ones who invest in bookmakers' shares. The current favourite with Coral is Madly Sharp, trained by Bill Watts, who has been backed down to 10- 1 after opening at more than double those odds with several firms. The second-favourite is John Dunlop's Governor George, at 12-1. And what do they have in common? Neither has won a race of any sort over a mile, far less a hotly-contested, truly-run event over one of the country's stiffest courses.

It is an unusual situation, as Madly Sharp's trainer acknowledges. "I think he'll stay," Bill Watts said yesterday, "but obviously there has to be some doubt about it. The main reason that he's been racing at shorter distances so far is that it's taken him a lot of time to learn to relax in the early part of a race. He's been a big, weak horse who's only going to get better with age, and I'm sure he'll stay a mile eventually. Whether he does now, we'll find out on Wednesday."

Watts is well aware of what is required to win the Hunt Cup, having saddled Calpurnius to take the race as long ago as 1970. The jockey that day, incidentally, was George Duffield, though the possibility that jockey and trainer might record an improbable second success a quarter of a century later was removed when Pat Eddery was booked to ride Madly Sharp.

With seven other successes to his credit at the Royal meeting, including the subsequent Arlington Million winner Teleprompter in the 1983 Britannia Handicap, Watts will certainly not require directions to the winner's enclosure if Madly Sharp obliges the punters in six days' time. "It's been a lucky place for me," he said. "I've been at it a bit longer than some of the others, but I haven't done too badly for a poor northern trainer."

Yet as Watts also points out, "in the Hunt Cup you need to be drawn where the pace is, and if you haven't got something to carry you along, you can be out of the race before halfway." It is another good reason why the 10-1 offered about Madly Sharp is hardly a price to be interested in at present.

Ascot often provides a consolation lap for also-rans or late absentees from the Derby, but the Classic's move to a Saturday this season may mean that it will be a little while yet before the Epsom form is seriously tested. Certainly, the Royal meeting will come too soon for Sebastian, who was gambled from 50-1 down to 9-2 for the Derby only to be withdrawn two days before the race following a minor training setback.

However, Henry Cecil, Sebastian's trainer, reported yesterday that the colt is on course for the Irish Derby at The Curragh on 2 July, and given that his form includes a narrow defeat by Tamure, runner-up to Lammtarra at Epsom, he would go to Ireland with a considerable chance.

"He's recovering, and this morning he went out walking and trotting," Cecil said "It was very unfortunate that he could not run in the Derby because I thought we had a tremendous chance of beating the second, but fingers crossed and hoping for the best, he can make the Irish Derby."

With Celtic Swing, Lammtarra and Moonshell, the Oaks winner, also possible runners at The Curragh, backers could even be tempted to hold back a little of the money earmarked for the Hunt Cup.