Balding’s Stirring Ballad can raise the roof in the Royal Hunt Cup

BILL ESDAILE PREVIEWS THE ROYAL HUNT CUP AND SANDRINGHAM HANDICAP

THE winner of the Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot today, which promises £150,000 in prize money to one of the 30 runners taking part, is likely to be one of the biggest betting events of the week.

It is a race in which the draw normally plays a big part, but there is no point guessing where the best place is to be at this stage. They will more than likely split into three groups, and in recent years it has paid to be drawn on either side rather than down the middle.

The ante-post favourite for the past couple of weeks has been Ed Vaughan’s Dance And Dance, who finished second in this very race two years ago. However, he missed the cut by just two places and connections must be extremely disappointed as he looks very well-handicapped.

Last year’s winner, Prince Of Johanne, is back down to the same mark he won off 12 months ago. He often runs well in these big field handicaps, but the worry is he is now seven, and the last horse older than six to win this was Kamandu in 1969. This fact alone rules out another six contenders too.

Excellent Guest deservedly got his head in front in the Victoria Cup last time and although he is yet to win over a mile, he was second in this race last year. He is certain to be on the premises once again, even if a 4lb higher mark than a year ago makes things more difficult.

Ismail Mohammed has made a bright start to his training career and Educate looked to be a seriously progressive animal when he won first time up at Doncaster. He was then desperately disappointing at Newbury before beating Sheikhzayedroad at Lingfield last time. The latter then franked the form in no uncertain terms at Epsom on Derby day.

Jamie Spencer has kept the ride and he is two from two on the son of Echo Of Light, so he has to be in the reckoning at 16/1 with Coral.

However, the one runner in the line-up that has the potential to be miles ahead of her handicap mark is Andrew Balding’s STIRRING BALLAD. My selection rattled off a quickfire four-timer last summer and although she is yet to win this season, there have been genuine excuses for those defeats.

She needs a rattling quick pace to be seen at her best and her starts at Kempton (twice) and Goodwood this term have been slowly-run, muddling affairs. That will definitely not happen here and the only real worry is her draw in stall three. Generally, the stands side rail has produced the most winners over the past decade, but there are plenty of fancied horses drawn low. The fairer sex haven’t done too badly in this race either, with Macadamia the last to win it in 2003.

I like to have one on each side in the Hunt Cup and the one drawn high that interests me most is Joanna Morgan’s MORAN GRA. His seventh in last year’s Cambridgeshire proved that these big field contests hold no fears for him. He’s also running off a competitive mark.

Pat Smullen takes the mount – and from stall 33 I could easily see the pair outrunning their odds of 33/1.

■ Pointers...
STIRRING BALLAD 4.25pm Ascot (today)
MORAN GRA e/w 4.25pm Ascot (today)