The sneering critics who opposed the concept of Qipco British Champions Day (BCD) on the basis that, because it is held in mid-October, it might rain must have spent the week apoplectic with rage as a lengthy dry spell hovered over Ascot.
Clinging to the flimsiest of arguments, the BCD antis are under the illusion that tracks and race planners can somehow control the weather and that big races must be staged only on the type of pristine ground normally associated with midsummer heatwaves.
So how do they explain that this Saturday’s £4.1 million bonanza will take place on the same kind of Good to Soft surface that opened Glorious Goodwood and York’s Ebor Festival? And on much better ground than for that quintessential midsummer highlight, King George Day?
In actual fact, the state of the Ascot going has failed palpably to affect the success of the Champions Day as an end-of-season showpiece. Soft or heavy it has been for the past three seasons, and yet the day has still yielded top-class racing, feasted on by sizeable crowds, and dramatic stories, feasted on by the media.
To complement the main event, Future Champions Day was an admirably worthy creation in 2014. And this evolved seamlessly into an excellent two-day Future Champions Festival held at Newmarket last weekend.
Worryingly, the Rowley Mile course continues to be plagued by spectators who prefer boozing to betting, hence the drunken brawl that broke out between the grandstand and the paddock after the Dubai Zetland Stakes on the Saturday. And why oh why tracks persist in thinking that, even though such high-quality racing is on offer, they need to jazz things up with gimmicky add-ons, I do not know. This time, a Varsity horse race, comprising jockeys representing either Oxford or Cambridge University, was forced upon us as a prelude to Saturday’s action. Barely a soul in the crowd was remotely interested and after one horse had bolted, dumping his pilot, and another had stolen an irretrievable 50-length lead at the start, it could easily have been re-named the Farce-ity Race.
Nevertheless, for a track that is so often unfairly derided for its attendance figures, atmosphere and ambience, Newmarket did remarkably well to attract an aggregate crowd of more than 19,000 for such a fledgling fixture. The performances of Aidan O’Brien’s star juveniles, AIR FORCE BLUE and MINDING, were worth the admission price alone.
Who needs gimmicks when equine superstars are in our midst? So it has to be a concern that the organisers of Champions Day itself believe an after-party DJ set by Paloma Faith is required to bolster this Saturday’s fantastic fare. One of the appealing characteristics of the inaugural event, headed by Frankel and Sir Henry Cecil, was its manifestation as a purist’s paradise, the very antithesis of the piss-ups in the park that blight too many of our Flat meetings. Perhaps Paloma’s presence has put the purists off because a worrying number of heavily discounted tickets have been flaunted in recent weeks for what should be a top-of-the-range, flagship day, without being elite or exclusive. Let’s hope Great British Racing and Qipco are not losing their bottle in the face of those critics.
However, complain too much I must not when it looks almost certain that the six races will live up to their billing as contests fit for champions. Here’s a very personal potted guide:
12.45 QIPCO LONG DISTANCE CUP (2m)
Last year’s winner FORGOTTEN RULES is back for more, bidding to maintain Dermot Weld’s fine record at the meeting. But he hasn’t looked the same horse since being risked on unsuitably fast ground in the Ascot Gold Cup, and could find it hard to confirm placings with giant duo, PALLASATOR and FLYING OFFICER, from the 2014 renewal. The former, who was bought specifically to win this very contest, bounced back to form by landing the Doncaster Cup last month, while the latter, now he has fully grown into his frame, is finally fulfilling the exciting potential he has always displayed. Two intriguing contenders from small yards are veteran CLEVER COOKIE, who was considered good enough to have a go in the King George in July, and Joe Tuite’s Ebor winner LITIGANT. But probably the one they all have to beat is Brian Meehan’s AGENT MURPHY, who has developed into a top-class four-year-old this term. Proven on the track and with a bit of give in the ground, he bolted up spectacularly at Newbury two runs ago and followed up with a staying-on second in the Irish Leger. The worry about him, particularly on his first try at 2m, is that he can be keen and an outside draw won’t help him to settle.
1.20 QIPCO SPRINT (6f)
The first of four consecutive Group One events appears, at first glance, to be at the mercy of crack three-year-old sprinter MUHAARAR, considered by Charlie Hills to be the best horse he’s trained. But 2/1 looks plenty short enough for a colt who has been absent for ten weeks since racking up a top-level hat-trick in the summer and would prefer faster ground. There’s also a suspicion that the form of another Group One, Haydock’s Sprint Cup, in which stable companion STRATH BURN was just touched off by TWILIGHT SON, reads better. Those two renew rivalry and both come into the race fresh and still on the upgrade. What’s more, Strath Burn is overpriced at around 10/1, while Twilight Son can only benefit for a link-up with Ryan Moore. Each/way value can be found in DANZENO, who was flying behind Muhaarar in the July Cup and is much better than when receiving a rare poor ride by Frankie Dettori at Haydock. Similarly ADAAY might return to form under more conservative tactics than those employed last time. Don’t be surprised to see NAADIRR make a mockery of his huge price but, conversely, don’t expect THE TIN MAN to justify his extremely skinny price considering he faces a huge ask on his first step outside handicap company.
1.55 QIPCO FILLIES AND MARES (1m4f)
As the only horse to have beaten Derby and Arc hero Golden Horn, ARABIAN QUEEN is a big double-figure price. But that merely reflects the high quality of the race, in which proven Group One three-year-old fillies, COVERT LOVE, CANDARLIYA and SIMPLE VERSE lock horns. It remains to be seen whether impressive victories at Longchamp’s Arc meeting only two weeks ago have taken the edge off Hugo Palmer’s stable star, whose long season has also included a memorable Irish Oaks success, and Alain De Royer-Dupre’s strong-staying French raider. In her prep for The Curragh, Covert Love also hammered JOURNEY, but John Gosden’s filly has improved immeasurably since then and arrives here on the back of an eye-popping romp at Newmarket last time, albeit in Listed company. Simple Verse was only granted the St Leger on disqualification appeal but travelled so strongly at Doncaster that she shouldn’t be inconvenienced by this drop in trip. It is such a superb, deep contest that we haven’t even mentioned last year’s winner, MADAME CHIANG, or another Gallic challenger, SEA CALISI, just touched off by Candarliya and Covert Love on her last two starts, or even Aidan O’Brien’s brilliant TAPESTRY, who has been considered good enough to run in the last two Arcs and beat last year’s Longchamp runner-up Taghrooda when landing the 2014 Yorkshire Oaks. In a race full of possibilities, I wouldn’t even rule out Godolphin’s one-time exciting Oaks hope, BEAUTIFUL ROMANCE, who was in too deep when tackling Treve last time.
2.30 QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES (1m)
Outrageous criticism has been levelled at Aidan O’Brien and the Ballydoyle boys for withdrawing the mighty GLENEAGLES from his last four engagements because of rain-softened ground. So mean has it been that his scintillating Group One hat-trick in the first half of the season has almost been forgotten! My view is that they were hasty, and wrong, to pull him out of the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood but that on the other three occasions, they were simply unlucky with the weather. The colt did not handle or, more pertinently, enjoy give in the ground when he won the Irish 2,000 Guineas, so for connections to be crucified for putting the horse’s welfare first is scandalous. Sadly, for the racing public, those connections face another agonising decision this Saturday with O’Brien vowing to walk the Ascot track on Friday evening to determine whether the ground is quick enough for the colt to take on SOLOW, who has won 11 of his last 12 starts and who, in the wake of Treve’s retirement, must be considered France’s number one racehorse. The formbook says that, on a line through Esoterique, there is absolutely nothing between the pair. If that is the case, Freddy Head’s five-year-old grey would be a worthy long odds-on shot if Gleneagles defected and waited for a crack at the Breeders’ Cup, even though his last two victories, at Royal Ascot and Goodwood, have been only workmanlike at best. His new main rival would be fellow French raider TERRITORIES who, while very classy, was well beaten by the O’Brien colt in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, while the likes of KODI BEAR has it to prove at the highest level. One-time Derby fancy ELM PARK and Sir Michael Stoute’s INTEGRAL do have Group One prizes in the bag and should make it a true test from the front, although supporters of the latter should be aware that it is 28 years since a fully won this historic race.
3.05 QIPCO CHAMPION STAKES (1m2f)
With retirement beckoning for Golden Horn after his Breeders’ Cup mission, the John Gosden-trained stablemate JACK HOBBS, who chased him home in the Derby, will be ready to fill the breach as Europe’s leading middle-distance horse if he can add this contest to the Irish Derby he won so convincingly in the summer. Worries about the drop in trip from 12f are easily allayed when you watch again how powerfully and smoothly he travelled at The Curragh and at Epsom. A bigger concern, to Gosden at least, is his draw on the wide outside, giving genuine hope to a trio of fascinating, improving challengers, THE CORSICAN, VADAMOS and RACING HISTORY. All three, however, lack proof that they are genuine Group One performers, although David Simcock’s four-year-old excelled himself in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot. Therefore, a bigger threat could come from the fairer sex, via FOUND and RIBBONS, especially as fillies and mares boast such a fine record in the race, and FASCINATING ROCK, who has been specially prepared for the race by Dermot Weld. Given how highly she was regarded after a brilliant juvenile campaign, it almost beggars belief that Aidan O’Brien’s three-year-old, unlucky not to be placed in the Arc a fortnight ago, has failed to land a major pot since. She got closer to Golden Horn in Ireland last month than Jack Hobbs did at Epsom. Ribbons is trading at extraordinarily tempting odds, given she’s proven at the top level, will relish the cut in the ground and has been laid out for the contest by a trainer, James Fanshawe, who is in remarkable form. It’s hard to forgive Fascinating Rock an abominable effort at Windsor two starts ago, but he’s a four-year-old oozing class, especially with dig in the ground, and he fits the race trends like a glove.
3.45 BALMORAL HANDICAP (1m)
You won’t see many handicaps in which no fewer than 15 of the runners carry official ratings of 100 or more. But that doesn’t only underline the high quality of the £250,000 heat but also its status as a real head-scratcher for punters. Many horses appear handicapped to the hilt or thoroughly exposed after long, hard campaigns, while many others appear better suited to 7f than 1m. The one glaring exception is the sole three-year-old in the field, SACRIFICIAL, trained in Ireland by Ger Lyons. The son of Showcasing might be 13lb higher than when finishing third in the Britannia Handicap over course and distance at the Royal meeting, but that merely reflects what a blinder of a race he ran that day from the ‘wrong’ side of the track. Given only two runs since, he has been laid out for this prize to provide a fitting finale for his owners, Qatar Racing. If you snapped up the 10/1 that was on offer at the beginning of the week, give yourself a pat in the back. He will go off a warm, much shorter favourite. If there is to be a surprise, check out MERRY ME on one side of the track and SPARK PLUG on the other.