They used to hang highwaymen on the Knavesmire but nowadays it is bookmakers who tremble in fear of being strung up. This day 12 months ago they were drawn and quartered too, when Foreign Affairs landed one of the coups of the season in the John Smith's Cup.
This afternoon's 43rd running of the valuable 10-furlong handicap forms the centrepiece of a day which should be a punters' paradise with competitive racing at all points of the compass in England. Winners may be hard enough to spot but the fun is in the cerebral challenge. The factoring in of non-triers, trainers' insider information, hands-dropping jockeys, forgotten weightcloths and slipping saddles is optional.
Last year's raid in the satchels notwithstanding, favourites do not have a particularly good record in the John Smith's Cup. The only other market leader to score in the past decade has been Baron Ferdinand at 4-1 nine years ago. But neither is it a contest for wild outsiders; Achilles at 25-1 in 1991 and Sobriety at 20-1 the following year were very much against the run of play.
The other statistic that must be seriously considered at York is the draw; Mr Confusion, from stall 14 a decade ago, was the last to win this contest from a double-figure berth.
It is even stevens in terms of the age of the winner; five three-year-olds and five of their seniors have scored in the past 10 runnings.
A certain amount of class, actual or potential, seems a bonus. Cezanne, the 1994 winner, went on to win the Group One Irish Champion Stakes; Pasternak, the winner in 1997, hacked up under a big weight in the Cambridgeshire; Foreign Affairs holds an entry in the Group One York International next month. Even the despised long-shots proved no mean performers; Achilles was later Graded-placed in the States and Sobriety, under the name Industrial Pioneer, won the Hong Kong Derby and Gold Cup.
Of the horses under consideration, Man O'Mystery, runner-up for the past two years and primed for this third-time-lucky attempt, gained his place last time despite, rather than because of, his hold-up style, generally a disadvantage on the Knavesmire. Beauchamp Pilot, whose stamina is unproven, and Kirovski, may be undone by their high draws.
But there is a well-fancied, low-drawn, progressive three-year-old who can race close to the pace among the contenders. Sometimes it can pay to stay with the obvious and Leadership (3.35) can give Sir Michael Stoute compensation for near-misses with Siege and Nooshman, and for subsequently top-class Medicean's ignominious defeat. The son of Selkirk's close third to Systematic in the King George V Handicap at Royal Ascot reads even better since the runner-up, Highest, scored yesterday.
The feature at Ascot, the marathon Tote Exacta Handicap, will be less frenetic but no less competitive, with 10 decent stayers in opposition. Ranville (nap 2.45) was caught slightly flat-footed as the pace increased in the straight at Sandown a week ago, but rallied and was gaining on the winner all the way to the line. Ascot's stiff two miles will suit him admirably and he is not only progressive in the broader sense but, as a stuffy type, should have come on in condition for that effort, only his second of the season.
The main event at Chester could not provide a greater contrast. The City Wall Stakes is a five-furlong helter-skelter dash on the turn virtually all the way round the Roodee wall of death. The admirable veteran Tedburrow is one of four course specialists in the field, and Jessica's Dream will appreciate the drop in class, but a chance might be taken with Autumnal (2.40), who has long been the apple of her trainer's eye.
In Ireland tomorrow Aidan O'Brien seeks to continue his trawl of this year's Group One prizes (eight so far), supplying three of the 12 runners for the Irish Oaks at the Curragh. The Co Tipperary stable's hegemony in the Irish Classics is almost complete; of the nine places contested in the local 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas and Derby, only Gossamer's 1,000 win prevented a Ballydoyle whitewash.
Another victory is likely tomorrow, courtesy of the nervy but talented Quarter Moon, runner-up to Gossamer and then second to Kazzia in the Epsom Oaks, a most creditable effort after negotiating Tattenham Hill like a square-wheeled bike. But a 1-2-3 may be more problematic, with the upwardly mobile Mellow Park, one of four British raiders, most likely to prevent it.
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