(Published 11:00, July 5, 2018) – With £200,000 in guaranteed prize money the John Smith’s Cup, staged since its inauguration in 1960 at the expansive York racecourse, is one of Europe’s top mile-and-a-quarter handicaps and is officially the longest -running sponsored race on the British calendar . The Yorkshire-based John Smith’s brewery having supported the race throughout its history.
Invariably won by a smart handicapper bordering, or already proven in pattern race company, the race is normally run at a strong gallop meaning any short-runners are easily exposed. As it’s a mid-summer event – and in particular this year due to the unusually dry summer – the race is more often than not run on fast ground, another important factor to take into consideration when assessing the prospects of the various contenders.
This year’s renewal will take place on July 14 and, as ever, this coveted prize has attracted a strong field who will storm down the straight at the Knavesmire in front of a crowd usually in the region of 30,000 plus, with the sponsors bringing scores of coach loads of racegoers from their pubs all over the north of England.
Spice and King Head Ante Post Market
At the time of writing they are currently betting 8/1 the field in the ante-post market for the John Smith’s Cup, the betting headed jointly by David Elsworth’s Dash of Spice and the Roger Varian-trained Ajman King, who could meet for the third time in the space of nine months.
Dash Of Spice is a really progressive four-year-old colt who is still relatively unexposed having raced just seven times in his career. He will head to the start at York bidding for a hattrick, following a six-length romp in a good handicap at Epsom on Derby day (off a mark of 87), with a no less impressive effort off an 11lb higher mark when landing a big on and off-course gamble in the Duke of Edinburgh Handicap at Royal Ascot a few weeks ago, beating the staying-on Sir Chauvelin.
Both those wins came over a mile-and-a-half, but this prominent racer had his race won or was clearly going best some way from home on both occasions, suggesting that this drop back in trip should not be an issue. He has picked up a 5lb penalty for his latest success which came following the publication of the weights. Had the weights been allotted following his Ascot win he would have had to carry 4lb more having been raised to a new career-high of 107, so it comes as no surprise to see him vying for outright favouritism on that basis. He looks sure to go well and can be backed at 8/1 with Sportingbet.
Ajman King represents Newmarket-based Roger Varian who won the 2014 renewal with the 6/1 shot Farraaj. He has a similarly progressive profile to Dash Of Spice but is set to carry 5lb more having won his last four starts, three of them on the undulating Epsom Downs. He began with a two length defeat of Dash of Spice in a maiden at Epsom last October, then followed up a few weeks later on his handicap debut at Doncaster on Racing Post Trophy day.
— Racing UK (@Racing_UK) April 25, 2018
This season the Lope De Vega began by giving 8lb and a length beating to Dash Of Spice back at Epsom over a mile-and-a-quarter in the City and Suburban Handicap (see above), then followed up over the same course and distance on Derby Day beating the useful Brorocco by nearly three lengths. On the face of it he should be clear favourite for the York feature, but the one potential flaw in his profile is fast ground. All Ajman King’s runs have come on good or softer ground, suggesting that connections have deliberately sought to avoid a quick surface. The anticipated ‘Good to Firm’ going might be something of a leveler, but he remains solid in the market at 8/1 with Bet365.
At the time of writing there are still 67 horses entered for the John Smith’s Cup which will have a maximum field of 20 runners, so there are going to be plenty of disappointed owners and trainers who find their horses being balloted out.
One that will have no problems on that score is another Roger Varian-trained horse, Sharjah Bridge (10/1 with Betfair), like Ajman King owner by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid who also has Appeared (20/1 with 188Bet) as a possible representative. Sharjah Bridge has only won one of his six starts but has shown good form on all five other outings, but on his first attempt at 10 furlongs at Royal Ascot last month in the listed Wolferton Stakes he appeared to run out of steam in the last 100 yards and eventually finished eighth behind Monarch’s Glen. Her may well bounce back, but the fast ground that day might also have been a contributing factor so he has a little prove now.
Should he take his chance, Appeared, also trained by Varian, would be dropping back in trip having just failed to get home over a mile-and-a-half when fourth behind Dash Of Spice at Ascot on his seasonal reappearance. He is 5lb better off and is very much respected as this trip could bring out the best in him.
Worth Giving Afaak Some Thought
Charles Hills’ charmingly named Afaak (12/1 with Betfred) is guaranteed a run if connections decide to let the improving colt take his chance following his gallant second of 30 at Royal Ascot behind Settle For Bay in the Royal Hunt Cup.
His only previous attempt beyond a mile came over nine furlongs last season in a hot Newmarket handicap where he found only Addeybb too good for him. With the winner that day going on to Group 2 success this term that form looks rock solid. Afaak landed the Hambleton Handicap at York’s May meeting this year so clearly goes well at the track, and fast ground is no problem so he does have the look of a genuine contender and should stay the extra furlong.
Only five three-year-olds have been entered to take on their elders in this big race, and by far the most interesting of the bunch is Sir Michael Stoute’s Zaaki (12/1 with 888Sport), who has consistently tackled quality rivals during his short career. Stoute won the race in 1989 with Icona, and also sent out last year’s winner, the ill-fated subsequent dual Group 3 winner Ballet Concerto.
Zaaki was trained last season by Mohammed Moubarak but has progressed well under Stoute’s guidance this term, landing the odds in a Thirsk mile novice event in April on his first start for the yard then staying on well to be third at Chelmsford in a decent handicap after meeting trouble-in-running. In the Group 3 Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot last time out he was slow to break and had to come from well off the pace, but was noted finishing fastest of all into third behind Hunting Horn. He can’t afford a sloppy start at York, but if he gets away on terms it wouldn’t surprise to see Zaaki play his part at the finish.
Michael Appleby’s Big Country (14/1 with Paddy Power) made every yard of the running at Redcar in May to land the competitive Zetland Gold Cup Handicap and despite being 4lb higher in the weights remains a horse to consider.
— Racing UK (@Racing_UK) May 28, 2018
He never got into it at Ascot last time when he sweated up badly prior to the start, but 12 months ago he found only Ballet Concerto too good for him in this race and deserves plenty of respect. He holds What’s The Story, Nicholas T and Sir Chauvelin on Redcar running and will make a bold bid to go one better than last year.
Best Of The Outsiders
At bigger prices, Ed Dunlop’s Dark Red (16/1 with Betway) has run well on three of the four occasions he has raced at York, including a course and distance win last October. He disappointed in last year’s John Smith’s Cup but has improved since then and ran well last time out over an inadequate mile at Newcastle. On a line through Ajman King he is arguably one of the best handicapped horses in the race.
Richard Fahey has won this race three times and his Another Touch is another horse who looks attractively weighted. He was beaten just over a length by Ajman King at Epsom in April, conceding the winner 9lb, but is now 16lb better off. His close third in a listed event over a mile last time is solid form and he is offered at 33/1 with BetVictor.
Written by Paul Alster
Paul Alster has been part of the British and international racing media for more than three decades working as a race commentator, TV/radio presenter, journalist, betting correspondent, SP returner, and form analyst. He’s always sought out overpriced runners in handicap races, a quest that excites him as much now as it did at the start of his career.