Rags to riches: Irish sprint sensation Sceptical could go for Royal Ascot double

Horse Racing Sceptical James McAuley Royal Ascot
James McAuley, part-owner, with rags-to-riches star Sceptical. Photo: James McAuley

By Jon Lees

Ireland: Irish sprinting sensation Sceptical could run twice at Royal Ascot next week, attempting the famous sprint double achieved last year by Blue Point by contesting both the King’s Stand and Diamond Jubilee Stakes.

Already Ireland’s top-rated sprinter, the bargain buy burnished his reputation still further with an emphatic Listed-race victory in the Woodlands Stakes at Naas on Monday on his first start on turf.

Bought for just £2,800 by part-owner James McAuley, the ex-Godolphin gelding, who is trained by Denis Hogan, is proving another rags-to-riches success story. The will continue at Ascot next week when the four-year-old takes on the formidable Battaash in the King’s Stand, for which he is 5-1 second favourite.

McAuley owns Sceptical with brother Stephen and their uncle Jim Gough. He said: “Pardon the pun, but everyone was a bit sceptical whether he justified his mark of 114. I hoped he’d win but not with the ease that he did. 

“We could be windy and stay in Ireland, as no English horses can come over at the moment, and be a big fish in a small pond. 

“But the entries close for Royal Ascot tomorrow and we will probably put him in the King’s Stand and the Diamond Jubilee. It hasn’t completely been ruled out to go for the two of them – it’s a definite possibility he could try the both.

“He has blistering speed for five furlongs but the way he powers to the line I don’t think six furlongs will be an issue either.”

McAuley, from Naul, County Dublin, still has a training licence but sends his best horses to Hogan, all cheaply sourced from the unwanted stock of the sport’s leading racing and breeding operations.

Headed by the likes of Hathiq and Yuften, the McAuley string of blue-blooded outcasts won 16 races worth over £250,000 last year but Sceptical, by Exceed And Excel out of Queen Mary winner Jealous Again, could take the owners to another level.

“We look for extremely well-bred horses with Darley, Juddmonte, Shadwell, ones that might need a bit of time or have an issue,” said McAuley, 38. “We knew Sceptical had a wind problem. We’ve had a bit of success with horses by Exceed And Excel and he caught the eye as soon as the catalogue came out. 

“He was a fine big specimen for a sprinter. He had never left Godolphin’s pre-training yard and he was out of a Royal Ascot winner, and an impressive one at that, winning by five lengths.

“At that money he was a no-brainer. I’ve never seen a more laidback horse. We would have gone higher – we were far from done at £2,800, we liked him so much.”

He added: “We take a gamble. They don’t all work out but our thing is we buy them cheap and if they work out, brilliant, but if they don’t we rehome them because they haven’t cost a fortune.”

Sceptical was bought as an unraced three-year-old at the Goffs UK horses in training sale in August and made his debut in October at Dundalk.

“He came back to my stables,” said McAuley. “I rode him out for a couple of weeks and straight away he was showing a bit. I sent him to Denis and he soon said, ‘This lad is a bit better than the ordinary’.

“We gave him a run at Dundalk when he was nowhere near ready. He missed the break by five lengths and ended up thundering home to finish third. We’d not had his wind done at the stage but we thought he’d be good enough to win his maiden. He won on a Friday and had the operation done on Monday. He hasn’t stopped progressing since then.”

When he returned to action Sceptical added two more wins at Dundalk in February and March to enter lockdown at the top of the sprint ratings in Ireland.

“Winning a race at Dundalk is not easy but to get a mark of 114 for winter racing is unheard of,” said McAuley. “Everyone half-doubted him but his work at home with Make A Challenge, who was last year’s sensation, really left us in no doubt that he justified that mark.”

McAuley expects talented apprentice Joey Sheridan to keep the ride next week and will resist any offers to buy the horse.

“We have had offers and I would imagine more will be coming in,” he said. “Jim Gough is in his seventies and if you’d seen him on Monday you couldn’t buy that enjoyment.

“For good or for bad we are going to roll and dice and hold onto him. He can give us years of pleasure.”

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