Royal Ascot, which starts on Tuesday, is the biggest meeting of the flat racing season and has been likened to an annual equine Olympics. What lies in store - aside from the fancy hats and the celebrity watching - is five days of top class action consisting of 30 hotly-contested races.
The festival has always been a potential minefield for punters - in the 1920s the best-selling author and heavy gambler Edgar Wallace, subject of my new biography, lost in the region of £20,000 during Royal Ascot week.
But bearing three key factors in mind can help tilt the percentages in favour of the intelligent punter in the battle with the bookies.
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Play safe in group races, go longer in handicaps
In the seven Group One races in 2014, the starting price of the winners were 4-5, 5-1, 8-11, 11-2 (twice) 10-11 and 7-2. By contrast, the handicaps included winners at 33-1 and 20-1 (twice). It was similar story in 2013 as well.
Pay close attention to previous Royal Ascot form
Horses that have won or been placed at previous Royal meetings have already shown they can compete at this high level and can act on the track and so it makes sense to side with them. In 2013, ten of the 24 non-two-year-old races were won by horses that had either won, or finished in the first four, in previous years at Royal Ascot.
Back trainers who have a good record
Some trainers do better at the Royal meeting than others and have particularly eye-catching records in certain races. Mark Johnston, for instance, has won Friday's Queen Vase seven times in total, while Aidan O'Brien has now won Thursday's Gold Cup six times. Sir Michael Stoute, who has trained more winners at Royal Ascot than any current trainer, has a superb record in Saturday's Hardwicke Stakes.
Now let's take a look at the big races on a day-by day-basis:
2.30 pm. The Queen Anne Stakes.
This one mile Group One event is not a good race for outsiders, you have to go back to 1995 to find a winner at odds bigger than 12-1 and market leaders have won three of the past five runnings. Four-year-olds have the definite edge, accounting for 20 of the past 25 winners. Hong Kong-raider Able Friend, a winner of his last six races, and the French-trained Solow, impressive winner of the Dubai Turf in March, are two of the market leaders.
But the percentage call could be an each-way bet on the 2014 2000 Guineas winner Night of Thunder, who already has some good Royal Ascot form in the book: he finished second behind the brilliant Kingman in last year's St James's Palace. The four-year-old's stable has saddled three winners and a close-up second in this in the past six years.
3.40 pm. King's Stand Stakes.
Sole Power, a close-up third in 2012, and winner in 2013 and 2014, will be favoured by the drying ground conditions and with no rain forecast, he once again looks the most reliable option in this Group One five-furlong sprint. Last year's second and third Stepper Point and Hot Streak, could represent some each-way value.
4.20 pm. St James's Palace Stakes.
Favourites or joint-favourites have won 11 of the past 16 runnings of this one-mile Group One for three-year-olds. Guineas form is usually a very good guide, with eight of the past ten winners having won either the English, Irish or French Guineas. Gleneagles, the winner of both the English and Irish 2000 Guineas, and who is trained by Aidan O'Brien, who has won the race six times before, is the red-hot favourite and is very difficult to oppose.
5.00 pm. Ascot Stakes.
Trainers who specialise in the jumps have won this long-distance (2m 4f) handicap 11 times since the turn of the Millennium - including last year's race which was won by 12-1 shot Domination, whose chances we flagged up in last year's guide. This is usually a graveyard for favourites, with only one obliging since 1992. So the percentage call is to look for horses from jumping yards who don't lead the market. Two each-way possibles are the Nicky Henderson trained Broxbourne, the only course winner in the field, and Hardstone, trained by ex-jockey Johnny Murtagh, who had such a great record at Royal Ascot, and whose rider, Fran Berry, has won this race for the last two years.
3.05 pm. Queen Mary Stakes
The key point here is to focus on runners that have won or finished second on their last run. Although the favourite did oblige last year, three times in the last eight years this five-furlong Group Two race has been won by a filly starting at odds of 20-1 or longer, and there have been big-priced horses in the frame too: in 2013 a last-time-out winner came third at odds of 66-1.
4.20 pm. The Prince of Wales's Stakes
Favourites and short-priced horses do well in this 1m 2f Group One race and outsiders less so: since the turn of the Millennium, the highest priced winner has been only 17-2. Previous form in the race is a clear advantage and last year's winner, The Fugue, had finished third in 2013. This year's race looks tricky, but French raiders have quite a good record (three wins in the past eight years) and Ectot, who won six successive races in 2013 and 2014, could be the each-way value.
5.00 pm. Royal Hunt Cup
Five of the past seven winners of this straight mile cavalry charge handicap have been between 16-1 and 33-1 in the betting, but there have been no winners bigger than 33-1 since 1990. So while it makes good sense to look for an outsider, preferably with some course form in the book, it's probably wise not to go for a complete rag. High draws are usually a major advantage: only one horse with a single-figure draw (Belgian Bill in 2013), has won this race at Ascot since 2001.
Last year's winner Field of Dream had the ideal profile for a winner - he had a high draw (33), was priced at 20-1, and he'd been placed (at odds of 66-1) in the race two years earlier. He's back again for more this year, and enters the shortlist along with Chil the Kite, second in the race last year, and Bronze Angel, placed in big handicaps at the meeting twice before, though watch out for the draw as its important.
4.20 pm. Ascot Gold Cup
Staged over 2m 4f, the Gold Cup is the oldest race at the meeting (it was first run in 1807) and is the only Group One on day three.
This year's renewal looks quite weak: Forgotten Rules, a winner of all four of his races to date is a worthy favourite, but won't want it too fast, so the weather may go against him. The each-way value could be provided by Simenon. Willie Mullins' charge won twice at the meeting in 2012 and has finished second and fourth in this race in the past two years. Aidan O'Brien has won this six times in the past nine years, and even though his representative this time, Kingfisher, doesn't look to have as strong a CV as his other previous winners, he still warrants plenty of respect given his trainer's record.
3.40 Commonwealth Cup
The six-furlong event for three-year-olds is a brand new Group One for Royal Ascot. Obviously there are no trends to go on, but the one who makes most appeal is the US-raider Hootenanny, who was an impressive winner of the Windsor Stakes 12 months ago.
Last year's Queen Mary one and two Anthem Alexander and Tiggy Wiggy, who returns to sprinting after finishing a highly commendable third in the 1000 Guineas, are two more for the shortlist.
4.20 pm. Coronation Stakes
Favourites or joint favourites generally have a good record in this Group One one-mile race for three-year-old fillies, with eight wins since 2000 and we've only seen one double-figure priced winner this century. Winners of the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket used to have a terrible record in this, with no wins between 1979 and 2003, but that has changed in recent years with four 1000 Guineas winners following up in the past 11 years, including Sky Lantern in 2013. Also, eight of the past 12 winners finished in the first seven in the Guineas, including last year's 11-2 heroine Rizeena. Lucida, currently around 11-4 in the betting, finished second in the Guineas, and her trainer Jim Bolger has won this race twice before.
5.35 pm. Queen's Vase
As we highlighted last year, trainer Mark Johnston is the man to follow in this - he has now recorded seven wins in this Group Three two-mile event since 2001, including last year's winner Hartnell. This year the Yorkshire-based handler has two entered in the race, Vive Ma Fille and Yorkidding. Sir Michael Stoute and Aidan O'Brien also have a good record; indeed, you have to go back to 2004 to find a winner of this race not trained by either Johnston, Stoute or O'Brien.
This is not a race for big-priced winners: favourites have won five of the past seven runnings and not since 2001 have we had a double-figure winner. So the percentage call once again is to back the favourite - and Mark Johnston's runner(s) - each-way.
3.45 pm. Hardwicke Stakes
Trainer Michael Stoute has won this 1m 4f Group Two race five times in the past nine years, and eight times in all, so he's clearly the man to follow. He's set to run last year's one-two Telescope and Hillstar and the advice again is to back the former to win and the latter, each-way. If Telescope does win again, it'll be the third time that Stoute has trained a horse to win two years in succession.
4.20 pm. Diamond Jubilee Stakes
Interestingly, six of the past nine winners of this Group One six-furlong event have been drawn either 11 or 15, so each-way plays on the horses in those berths are recommended. Six of the past ten winners, including the 2014 winner Slade Power, had run at Royal Ascot before finishing no worse than seventh. Australian raiders have won the race twice in the past ten years, and this year's representatives from Down Under, Brazen Beau and Wandjina merit serious consideration, as does last year's Jersey Stakes winner Mustajeeb.
5.00 pm. Wokingham Handicap
After a period where low draws were the best in this six-furlong event, the high numbers have reasserted in recent runnings, with three of the past five winners drawn 22 or higher.
Freshness is important as nine of the past 13 winners had raced no more than twice that season. Another important factor is that the past 13 winners had all won over six furlongs or further, so avoid horses that have only won over five furlongs and are stepping up in distance.
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