The Classic trials at Lingfield on Saturday afternoon will offer a few more pieces of the puzzle before the Derby and Oaks at Epsom next month, but a more immediate priority for many punters will be an annual attempt to find the winner of the Victoria Cup at Ascot, one of the most competitive Flat handicaps of the season.
A double-figure draw has been vital in the last decade, and Vafortino, who joined Kevin Philippart de Foy from Joseph O’Brien’s stable over the winter, is interesting from 27 after a promising return in March, while the 33-1 shot Royal Pleasure could outrun his price if he gets away on terms.
The runner with the most positives, though, is Fresh (4.05), whose form figures in big-field Ascot handicaps last season were 1-2-3. He was first home on his side in a valuable race over track and trip in October and is off the same mark on Saturday.
Ascot 1.45: Lightly-raced Screaming Petrus was steadily progressive at three and his opening mark of 76 could be generous.
Lingfield 2.05: Verreaux Eagle is on her last winning mark and may not need to improve on her last run at Brighton to win here.
Ascot 2.20: Al Aasy, talented and quirky in equal measure, was beaten three times last season after trading at long odds-on in running. Third Realm, at his best in early 2021, looks a safer bet.
Lingfield 2.40: United Nations looks sure to improve with every step up in trip and can extend O’Brien’s strong run of form in Classic trials.
Haydock 3.00: Top conditional Mark McDonagh takes 5lb off the back of Anna Bunina and that could tip the balance.
Lingfield 3.15: Belt Buckle was much better than the bare result at Wolverhampton in February and could well improve past Ballydoyle’s runner, Emily Dickinson.
Ascot 3.30: Delta Bay will go close if the switch to Hughie Morrison sees a return to her winning form at Newmarket last spring.
Lingfield 3.50: Wren’s Breath, a Listed winner last July, is an interesting Flat runner for Henry de Bromhead. She has scope for improvement this year with just three runs in the book.
Derby cloud gathers over Luxembourg
Luxembourg, the clear favourite for the Derby since his running-on third in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, could miss the Classic at Epsom on 4 June after suffering a setback on the gallops, Aidan O’Brien, the colt’s trainer, said on Friday.
“Luxembourg was just a little bit lame on his off-hind this morning after cantering,” O’Brien said. “We’re not sure why just yet, but wanted to let people know with the Derby coming soon. In a couple of days, we’ll hopefully know a bit more and will issue a further update.”
Luxembourg was a 5-2 chance for the Derby on Friday morning but drifted to 6-1 after news of his setback emerged.
His stable companion Changingoftheguard, who finished six-and-a-half lengths clear of Charlie Appleby’s highly-rated New London in the Chester Vase on Wednesday, is 6-1 (from 10-1) while Walk Of Stars, a runner in the Derby Trial at Lingfield on Saturday, and Piz Badile, the winner of the Ballysax Stakes in April, are both available at 7-1.
O’Brien runs United Nations, currently 50-1 for the Derby, in Lingfield’s Epsom trial on Saturday, and Stone Age (14-1 for the Classic) in the Group Three Derby Trial at Leopardstown the following afternoon.
Later on Friday, O’Brien continued his domination of the major races at Chester’s May meeting as Cleveland came with a strong late run under Ryan Moore to give the trainer a first success in the Chester Cup.
Cleveland was held up in the early stages and stayed on well from the home turn to overhaul Coltrane, the 9-2 joint-favourite, by a neck with Rajinsky, at 6-1, back in third.
Friday’s race, over two-and-a-quarter miles, was a mile further than any of his previous four starts and he was cut from 66-1 to 10-1 by Betfair to emulate Trip To Paris, the 2015 Chester Cup winner, who followed up in the Ascot Gold Cup six weeks later.