The Hardwicke looks tailor-made for Varian’s Ektihaam

TOMORROW’S Hardwicke Stakes (3.05pm) is set to be a real cracker with eight of the nine runners separated by just 7lb on official ratings and four of those can already boast a course and distance victory at Ascot.

The one and a half mile contest has been won by some smart sorts in the past few years including Harbinger and Sea Moon, both trained by Sir Michael Stoute, who has a phenomenal record in this Group Two race.

The Freemason Lodge handler has won it seven times, more than anyone else, and he saddles the useful Sir John Hawkwood. The son of Sir Percy comes to Berkshire looking for a hat-trick but will need to step up considerably here, having won by just a head in a handicap at York last time.

EKTIHAAM was thought of as a Derby horse last year but couldn’t quite live up to that tag. However, a gelding operation seems to have been the making of him and Paul Hanagan’s mount returned this term with a close-up third to Al Kazeem at Sandown.

That form looks brilliant now, considering that one has since landed the Tattersalls Gold Cup and Wednesday’s Prince Of Wales’s Stakes, both Group Ones.

Ektihaam bolted up under similar conditions here last month, putting six lengths between himself and Thomas Chippendale, who re-opposes today, but last year’s King Edward VII winner hasn’t won since that triumph.

Frankel’s brother Noble Mission, another previous Ascot winner, is too quirky to trust and bigger dangers are Mount Athos and the progressive Universal. The former ran away with his reappearance at Chester but that form isn’t anything special and Luca Cumani’s six-year-old is surely better over further.

Universal is seeking a four-timer and is as tough as they come. He has form with many of these but I expect Ektihaam to have just too much in his locker.

REX IMPERATOR is an old rogue but I’m willing to give him a chance in an open Wokingham Stakes (4.25pm). He showed so much ability for Roger Charlton but just couldn’t get it together enough.

Now with William Haggas, the Royal Applause gelding has dropped to a fair-looking mark of 98 and returned to form last time out over seven furlongs. Dropping back to six furlongs – the only trip he’s won over – looks ideal and he’s proved well suited to big field races of this nature in the past.

The 10/1 available with Coral looks a good each-way bet and I’d rather chance that than take the 6/1 about favourite Duke Of Firenze.

Another Stoute charge, he is certainly talented but has never put back-to-back wins together. His running style also means he’ll need plenty of luck in running and stall 31 of 31 might not be ideal.

Nocturn is a bit of a wild child but he hasn’t been out of the top two in his last seven starts and had the highly-rated Enrol just behind him at Newmarket last time. Another 5lb hike in the weights means he’ll need a career best but I wouldn’t put anyone off him each-way either.

■ Pointers…
EKTIHAAM 3.05pm Ascot (tomorrow)
REX IMPERATOR e/w 4.25pm Ascot (tomorrow)