Alex Hammond: Pitmen's posers

Sky Sports Racing’s Alex Hammond looks back on Royal Ascot and ahead to the Northumberland Plate in this week’s blog.

So how was Royal Ascot for you? I always find it an exhausting, but incredibly rewarding week and to play a small part in a huge team effort on Sky Sports Racing is a real privilege.

The days are long with 4am alarm calls (that’s a lie in compared to my old life on Sky Sports News when the alarm used to go off at 1.30am) when I grab the first of many cups of tea and head into my home office (spare bedroom to most of us) to finish prepping the runners and riders.

Then it’s off to the course mid-morning to be glammed up by the pros, on air at lunchtime, home early evening, then back in front of the laptop until late evening, sleep, repeat.

It’s full on but the buzz you get from being a part of this iconic occasion with a hardworking and talented team is what makes me tick. We saw some wonderful performances on the track and despite mother nature’s best efforts on Friday, managed to get through the week unscathed.

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There were several amusing moments, but one that still tickles me is when leaving the track on Friday after 45mm of rain had fallen over a 24-hour period, an enthusiastic official tried to confiscate the rain gauge I was clutching, assuming I was trying to make off with one of Ascot’s champagne flutes!

He must have thought I was crazy when I tried to explain the markers on the side of the plastic container were for measuring rainfall, not the amount of champagne I must have been consuming. For what it’s worth, 10mm of rain fell between going on air at 1.30pm and finishing at 6.30pm; quite incredible.

A rain gauge won’t be required this weekend thankfully as I’m making the long journey up north to Newcastle for the Northumberland Plate on Saturday, which nowadays is run on an all-weather surface of course.

The feature race has an intriguing look to it this year with Group One-winning stayer Trueshan being diverted to this handicap after he was denied the opportunity to run in the Gold Cup at Ascot last week when the rain arrived 24 hours too late for him.

Trainer Alan King is taking the unpredictable weather out of the equation and running on the Tapeta surface instead as his star stayer prefers ease in underfoot conditions. In another twist, he has booked a jockey to ride that he has never employed before.

Apprentice Rhys Clutterbuck claims a 5lb allowance which will alleviate the 10st 4lb burden that he would otherwise have to shoulder. This is a superb opportunity for the rider, who thought his boss Gary Moore was pulling his leg when he told him he had come in for the ride on last October’s Champions Long Distance Cup winner.

He has ridden 30 winners to date in his burgeoning career with his first winner coming in February 2019 and none of those winners have come for King. In fact, he has never ridden for the Barbury Castle handler, with the bulk of his winners coming for his boss, Moore.

It would be his most prestigious winner to date if he can do it, so I wish them all the luck in the world. As an aside, how good is it to see a top-class horse running in a handicap with top weight?

This is a debate that has reared its head recently during the jump season with top horses able to avoid each other and contesting uncompetitive graded races rather than carrying big weights in handicaps, which many of the stars of the past did with mixed results but ensured some fabulous competition for racing fans. Anyway, I digress. Who wins the Pitmen’s Derby then?

Trueshan is a winner on the all-weather, so this surface will hold no fears and his talented rider has plenty to look forward to on his first visit to this track. This will be a stepping-stone to higher graded targets in the future, but this historic £150,000 prize would be well worth winning for connections en-route to those races.

King holds a strong hand because he is also responsible for Rainbow Dreamer, a horse that goes particularly well on the all-weather. His three previous trips to Newcastle haven’t yielded a win, but he’s gone well on each start, including finishing fifth in this last year off a 3lb lower mark. He has a more manageable draw this time round too, so plenty to recommend him.

Dubious Affair is an interesting contender after her close second in the Copper Horse Handicap at Royal Ascot last week and she is unexposed at this trip and a dual winner on an artificial surface. She’s now 6/1 second favourite, so pretty short thanks to that good recent run.

Mark Johnston runs just the five here with Hochfeld just holding off his stablemates in the market at 10/1, Mildenberger is 11/1 with Themaxwecan at 18s. Watersmeet is 28/1 and Lucky Deal 33s for the stable.

Australis was 2nd in this last year and is another horse that seems to enjoy this track, so is a good ride for David Egan. He’s 7/1 to go one better this year.

It’s a big ask for Reshoun (12/1) to bag another valuable prize after his tussle with M C Muldoon in the Ascot Stakes last week as he had a hard race there and has a 5lbs penalty to carry in his bid to improve on his 8th in this race in 2020.

Joseph O’Brien sends Grandmaster Flash over to the UK again after he finished ninth in the Chester Plate on his last excursion over here. Don’t be put off by that though as he’s a better operator on the all-weather and has been well supported in the run up to this. He’s now 11/1, so looks appealing to each way punters (Sky Bet are paying six places instead of four). In a wide-open race, I’m happy to have him on my team.

Just a quick word on the aforementioned M C Muldoon. I backed him at Ascot and was gutted to see him chinned there. However, it would be some compensation if he were to win the Sky Bet Ebor at York in August for which he’s a 16/1 shot.

There are two Derbies this weekend as it’s also the Irish Derby at the Curragh on Saturday. Dante third High Definition is Sky Bet’s 13/8 favourite, but as they are paying four places instead of three, I’m going to look elsewhere. We have the Derby 2nd and 3rd heading over to Ireland, Mojo Star and High Definition. Mojo Star is bidding to become the first maiden to win a British classic since the Paul Cole trained Snurge won the St Leger back in 1990. If I have those stats wrong, I’m sure someone will let me know, but I believe that to be correct.

There are two horses running on Saturday that I’ve followed closely this season, Lone Eagle and Mac Swiney, with varying degrees of success. I have followed Jim Bolger’s Mac Swiney blind this term and his win in the Irish 2000 Guineas beating stablemate Poetic Flare looks exceptional given the manner of Poetic Flare’s win in the St James’s Palace Stakes, which was the outstanding performance of last week.

Lone Eagle let me down in Sandown’s Classic Trial in a race that has worked out exceptionally well but bounced back in Goodwood’s Cocked Hat Stakes. Frankie Dettori was quickly on the phone to his trainer Martyn Meade when he realised regular rider Silvestre de Sousa was required elsewhere on Saturday, which is a huge vote of confidence.

On the basis that Epsom takes plenty out of a horse, I’m going with the former who comes here fresher than some of the protagonists and at 15/2 is quite appealing. He could be one for the Leger further down the line and is currently 20/1 for the Doncaster classic.

Right, I’d best get packing for my overnight trip to the Northeast and look forward to seeing you all on Sky Sports Racing on Saturday.

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