The Dark Horse looks at the closing sprint on Ascot's Sunday card and has a 33/1 selection.
Ascot 5.20 – Free Zone
The test provided by Ascot’s straight track is a unique one and can produce many track specialists. Although he has only had 2 runs at this track, Free Zone might turn out to be one of them.
2 of the best, if not the best 2, performances of his 30-race career have come over the same C&D that he will race over today. In 2012, he finished a neck 2nd in a Listed race on soft ground, having led for much of the race before being headed late on by the 104-rated Doc Hay. That was a good performance from a 3yo, with all bar one of the 7 horses behind him being rated 102 or higher. He finished 4th in the 2013 renewal of that race on good to soft ground, beaten ½l. Only Steps (winner of a Listed race and 6th in the King’s Stand this year), Eton Rifles (winner of 2 Listed sprints in France since) and Medicean Man (twice 4th in Group 1s this year) beat him that day.
Free Zone has also performed very well on both runs at Sandown, another course with a stiff climb to the line, and those would arguably be in his top 5 performances along with the 2 runs at Ascot.
Free Zone has run well below his best on his 4 most recent runs. 2 of those came at Doncaster on his final 2 runs of last year, so he might have had enough by then after a big effort at Ascot. On his first start of this year, he was drawn 15 at Chester, so had little chance and finished well behind (jockey reported ‘never travelling’). Following that run, he moved from Bryan Smart to Robert Cowell, a trainer who has excelled in recent years with sprinters, including Spirit Quartz, Kingsgate Native, Prohibit and Jwala. His sole run for his new trainer so far came at Epsom, a track that would seem completely unsuitable given his exploits over stiff 5f courses, and he finished well beaten having been quite prominent early on.
It is worth noting that some of Cowell’s horses that have had success after joining him from other yards have improved significantly from their first to second run for him. Goldream was beaten 8l into 8th at Newmarket on his first start for Cowell having left Luca Cumani, before being beaten a neck next time at York. Iffranesia was beaten 15l at Yarmouth before winning her next 2 starts (and 5 more since). On a lesser scale, Normal Equilibrium was a slightly unlucky 4th at Sandown before winning comfortably at Chester next time.
Being drawn in stall 3 is a slight negative given the middle or near side have tended to be favoured by the jockeys this year but the early pace that he has shown in the past could allow him to get nearer to the middle of the course.
6 of Free Zone’s rivals ran in a handicap over C&D 15 days ago, and 3 of these are the front 3 in the market. It is easy to see why these 3 have strong chances, with Robot Boy and Milly’s Gift both still on the up and Barnet Fair back to the same mark that he won off over C&D last year by a length. They obviously have to be respected along with Ajjaadd, who ran very well last time at Sandown from stall 16 when beaten ½l by Milly’s Gift.
It could be that Free Zone is simply an unreliable horse who will occasionally show his best when in the mood, as was the case at times in 2012 and 2013, or he could be on the start of a slippery slope.
However, given the evidence on offer and the 40-1 available, I think he is worth taking a chance on back at a track that appears to suit him ideally and on his 2nd start for a trainer who excels with sprinters.