Chanelle Pharma 1965 Chase (Grade 2) | 2m5f | 4yo+ | ITV/Sky
Last season's Cheltenham Gold Cup was considered one of the most open runnings of the race since its inauguration in 1924 and that assessment was borne out with a bunch finish.
They went steadily by Gold Cup standards and only seven-and-a-quarter lengths covered the first six past the post. That casts doubt over how much trust can be put in the form and the race has already taken several knocks.
Fourth Monalee, fifth Delta Work, seventh Kemboy and tenth Chris's Dream have all been beaten since and the only winner to come from the race is Thursday's Thurles scorer Presenting Percy, who was staying on when falling two out at Cheltenham.
While backers of Santini might argue, I think the best horse still won. Al Boum Photo was, after all, becoming the first to win back-to-back Gold Cups since Best Mate in 2003. However, there is definitely reason to believe several of those in behind might have been flattered to finish so close, none more so than 50-1 sixth Real Steel.
Stamina was the big question mark for Real Steel going into the Gold Cup, but that weakness was never severely tested given the way the race was run and his speed from shorter trips probably got him a lot closer than he would have been had there been an end-to-end gallop.
Real Steel has since left Willie Mullins and will be well fancied on his debut for Paul Nicholls but, if his Gold Cup form cannot be trusted and a line is struck through that run, he will need to improve plenty just to beat Black Corton, let alone Imperial Aura and Itchy Feet.
Itchy Feet went off shorter (7-2) to win a Grade 1 at the Cheltenham Festival last season than Imperial Aura (4-1) did to win a handicap, but the tables are turned in the overnight market.
Their careers have gone in opposite directions since, with Imperial Aura winning at Cheltenham and Carlisle and Itchy Feet beaten at the festival and on his return at Aintree.
However, Itchy Feet looked like he could be the first real superstar for the Olly Murphy team when running away with the Scilly Isles at Sandown last season and shapes as though he might be better suited by going right-handed. He is unbeaten in two outings on a clockwise circuit over fences and Ascot is a similar track to Sandown. There will be no excuses.
Bailey bemused at Aura favourite tag
Kim Bailey says he is "amazed" that Imperial Aura has been installed as favourite as he prepares to take on three top-class rivals in a competitive Chanelle Pharma 1965 Chase.
Bookmakers believe Imperial Aura, who was a winner of the Listed handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March and successful again at the same level on his seasonal return at Carlisle this month, can make the step up on his first run in Graded company.
However, his trainer issued a note of caution. Bailey said: "It's a very competitive race and I'm amazed that they've made him favourite. It's a big step up in class for him.
"He's ready to go and take his chance and I've been pleased with his progress since his run at Carlisle, but he's got to improve even further for Ascot."
Paul Nicholls, winner of this race a record seven times, runs Grade 1 winner Black Corton while dual Grade 2 scorer Real Steel makes his debut for the yard after moving from Willie Mullins.
"Real Steel looks fantastic," Nicholls said of his new recruit. "He's done all his work nicely and is a good horse. I really like him."
Another Grade 1 winner in Itchy Feet completes the field for trainer Olly Murphy, who said: "The track and trip should suit him well and we’ll know where we stand with him after this. It was a good confidence boosting run for him in the Old Roan and we’re looking forward to running him again."