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Can Highest Ground enhance Sir Michael Stoute's superb race record?

Highest Ground: had a big reputation last season
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3.40 Royal Ascot
Hardwicke Stakes (Group 2) | 1m4f | 4yo+ | ITV/Sky

Whenever the Hardwicke is mentioned, Sir Michael Stoute's race record should bounce to the forefront of your mind. The legendary Newmarket trainer has farmed this event, which suits his patient training model with middle-distance prospects, with 11 winners since a breakthrough strike with Dihistan in 1986. Can Highest Ground better his record?

The bookmakers would have you believe the Niarchos family-owned four-year-old is one of the more unlikely winners and this season's form would back up that opinion, but it is foolish to write off a Stoute trainee. 

Highest Ground, whose sire Frankel has had an excellent week at Royal Ascot, was thought likely to go right to the top last season when sent off 8-11 favourite in the delayed Dante at York.

A strong move with three furlongs to go took the then unbeaten colt to the front, only for rider Oisin Murphy to subsequently regret going for home too soon, as he was worn down by the strong-staying Thunderous.

Murphy, who hasn't ridden Highest Ground on his three subsequent starts, now gets the chance to make amends as he returns to the saddle after Highest Ground's workmanlike victory in a conditions race at Leicester. Maybe that confidence-boosting win and the quick turnaround will see him to good effect.

On official ratings, he has around half a stone to find with Broome and Hukum, who boast contrasting profiles.

Broome, who returned to form during a busy early-season campaign, has stamina to prove on the step up to 1m4f. His form figures at the trip and over further read 4640, while all three successes this term have come over 1m2f. 

Broome: has been busy this year

The five-year-old brigade of Broome, stablemate Japan, 2019 St Leger winner Logician and runner-up Sir Ron Priestley and Pablo Escobarr will try to defy recent trends. Only one horse aged five in the last 13 years – Defoe in 2019 – has won this race, with all the rest four-year-olds.

Hukum's lightly raced profile indicates he hasn't been the easiest to train. Early immaturity led to just two juveniles starts, while he picked up a nasty-looking cut when scoring in the King George V Stakes at this meeting last term. 

Racing Post Ratings suggest he's been below his best in two starts this year, perhaps due to the fact he's been slowly tuned up for this race. His course form is hard to overlook as well.

With the rain that has fallen, soft-ground specialist Wonderful Tonight has become a strong contender against the boys. She is already a Group 1 winner over this course and distance and connections delayed an early trip to the breeding sheds in order to come back for a much anticipated four-year-old campaign. Her record fresh (0-2) is a slight concern.

Another to consider is ante-post Ebor favourite Ilaraab, who was one of the most improved horses around last season and took his winning streak to six when he stayed on powerfully to take the Jorvik Handicap at York last month. William Haggas wouldn't run a handicap winner in a race like this for no reason and clearly believes he has the class to feature.
Race analysis by Tom Collins

'I can't guarantee she won't blow up'

Friday’s torrential downpours may have convinced punters that confirmed mud-lover Wonderful Tonight is the one to be on for the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes, but her trainer David Menuisier remains more cautious.

Backed from 11-1 to 9-2 in the space of two hours, Wonderful Tonight will definitely act on the heavy ground, but there are concerns such conditions may prove too much of a test first time out for the Group 1 winner on her first start since October.

“She’s definitely ready to run,” Menuisier said. “I gave her a blowout this morning and she didn’t blow much afterwards.

“They are good conditions for her first run. It’s the right race at the right time and at the right place, but she does tend to race a bit freely – I can’t guarantee she won’t blow up. Win or lose, she will come on big time for the run.”

Wonderful Tonight: "The Hardwicke isn't do or die"

Menuisier has made no secret of the fact Wonderful Tonight’s principal aim in 2021 is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in October.

“Her whole season is based around that,” he confirmed. “I’d love her to win the Hardwicke, but it’s not the main target.

“Tomorrow’s race is a very good one. She’s never run against colts before in her life – she was kept to fillies races at two and three.

“I’m sure she’ll be able to cope with the colts. She’ll have to if she’s to achieve what we think she can achieve.”

He added: “It’s a big day for her tomorrow. If she’d had a run I’d be more bullish. I’m hopeful, but I’m not going to lie – Ascot isn’t the big objective.

“I’ll go racing at Ascot with a light heart and enjoy it. The Hardwicke isn’t do or die.”

What they say

Aidan O'Brien, trainer of Broome and Japan
Broome has form with a dig in the ground. We're looking forward to stepping him up in trip and he seems to be in very good form. Japan also has a bit of form on soft ground, so hopefully he'll be okay. We were happy with his run in the Coronation Cup and he seems to be in good form since.

Owen Burrows, trainer of Hukum
He’s in a good spot. We’ve always had this race in mind as his first major target of the season, and it was soft ground when he won at Goodwood and good to soft when he won the Geoffrey Freer. I can’t be too concerned about the ground. I hoped he’d be a bit more impressive at Goodwood – he made slightly hard work of it – but he’s definitely come forward for it. We’ve enjoyed a good spell with him at home since Goodwood, and the hope has always been that he’ll develop into a Group 1 horse some day.

William Haggas, trainer of Ilaraab and Pablo Escobarr
Ilaraab is in good form and is very progressive. He should enjoy the ground if it is testing. Pablo Escobarr is in great form, but I'm not so sure the really soft conditions will provide the ground that he'll want.

John Gosden, joint-trainer of Logician
He was a bit ring-rusty on his comeback at Newbury and has pleased in his work since then. This looks the right spot for him, but we could have done without the rain as very soft ground would be a concern.
Reporting by Richard Birch

Saturday's Royal Ascot previews:

2.30 Royal Ascot: 2,000 Guineas favourite Point Lonsdale out to confirm Classic claims in Chesham

3.05 Royal Ascot: 'I think he's a huge price' – leading trainers on their Jersey contenders

4.20 Royal Ascot: 'He's going exceptionally well and looks a million dollars' – Group 1 insight

4.20 Royal Ascot: Dream Of Dreams to dominate in bid to go one better? Graeme Rodway has his say (Members' Club)

5.00 Royal Ascot: 'There is no denying the phenomenal training that has gone into Rohaan'

5.35 Royal Ascot: 'He's a horse we like a lot' – Roger Varian could hold key to big-field handicap

6.10 Royal Ascot: Tom Collins weighs up the chances of classy Falcon Eight for Dettori and Weld

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He should enjoy the ground if it is testing
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