Mission accomplished as Champions Day negativity sinks in the mud

DUEL TO REMEMBER -- Noble Mission (far side) fights off Al Kazeem in the highlight of QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot (PHOTO BY: Steve Parsons/PA Wire)

DUEL TO REMEMBER -- Noble Mission (far side) fights off Al Kazeem in the highlight of QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot (PHOTO BY: Steve Parsons/PA Wire)

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If ever the merchandisers came up the idea of a QIPCO British Champions Day stick of rock, then Frankel would be the name written right through it.

Not content with illuminating the first two versions of British racing’s new end-of-season spectacular, Khalid Abdulla’s colt passed on the baton to his full brother, NOBLE MISSION, at last Saturday’s fourth renewal.

It was very much a case of Mission accomplished too. The five-year-old followed in Frankel’s footsteps to provide the headline act of a triumphant day -- and delivered a duel with AL KAZEEM in the Champion Stakes that will live long in the memory.

The tears that flowed, in deference to Sir Henry Cecil and in tribute to his widow, Lady Jane Cecil, threatened to turn the going even heavier at Ascot.

But more importantly, they succeeded in making a mockery of the depressingly negative theme that enveloped the build-up to last Saturday’s event.

Make no mistake about it, there is a section within the racing media that wants the concept of Champions Day, and its junior spin-off, Future Champions Day, to fall flat on its face.

The bizarre logic behind the opposition is simply that it might rain. And so when it did rain, and in bucketloads, last week, the grumps seized their chance. No matter that Newmarket’s July meeting, at the height of summer, had almost been washed out to sea by similar weather. This was the moment to sharpen their knives.

The ‘Racing Post’ spearheaded the negativity with a news agenda dominated by the going. Even as late as the night before the meeting, they led with concerns about heavy ground, totally ignoring the fact that , despite the weather, Ascot had attracted a stellar six-race card and conveniently ignoring the fact that most of the big-name absentees were missing because of retirement or injury or other, more suitable, targets, not because of the mud.

Quite how the dissenters were feeling when they woke up on Sunday morning would be revealing to know. After a day of riveting racing. After a day that greeted a crowd-figure 15% up on last year. After an event that was watched by more TV viewers than last year. And after an expertly-organised fiesta that left everyone who was there feeling good about their sport.

It had been a similar story at Newmarket for Future Champions Day 24 hours earlier. A high-quality meeting, bolstered by an attendance larger than it received on a Saturday in 2013.

The atmosphere on both days was one to be savoured, infused by a feeling that most who were there were genuine racing people. The professionals, the connoisseurs, the purists, at whom it has become fashionable to sneer but who keep the show on the road and have largely been forgotten in the recent obsession to find “new” racegoers.

As a Champions Weekend event, it requires much more marketing work before the two days become joined at the hip. But very few racegoers who were there could have gone home disappointed -- and it’s not often that can be said about cards which fail to yield a single outright favourite.

Of course, the show was stolen by Noble Mission, a horse, ironically, that Sir Henry could never quite fathom. Huge credit must go to Lady Jane and her admirable assistant, George Scott, for unlocking the secret to fulfilling his potential -- namely allowing him to bowl from the front, preferably on testing ground. The attitude the horse showed in the final furlong of Saturday’s contest was unrecognisable from that he displayed when throwing away a series of races earlier in his career.

Ascot’s day wasn’t all about winners who needed softish ground, however. It even ended with victory in the newly-created sixth race, Europe’s richest mile handicap, by BRONZE ANGEL, a five-year-old who has always been considered a fast-ground specialist!

And therein, of course, lay the truth behind the whole day. That it is folly to allow hang-ups about the ground and the weather to tarnish the richness of competition.

Some horses, such as QEII protagonists, CHARM SPIRIT (what a pity he’s off to stud) and NIGHT OF THUNDER, will act on it. Others, such as crack sprinter G FORCE and The Queen’s stayer ESTIMATE, will not.

It could be said that the mud, glorious mud helped to create the duel between Noble Mission and Al Kazeem as they slugged it out, toe to toe in attritional combat . It needs to be said that the one superstar guaranteed to act on the surface, CIRRUS DES AIGLES, did in fact flop.

But most of all, after the doom and gloom of the build-up, no-one can claim the ground had a detrimental effect on an afternoon of racing that served its purpose of wrapping up another wonderful Flat season in the UK.

Old favourites, such as GORDON LORD BYRON, mingled with emerging stars, such as FORGOTTEN RULES, at a meeting that proved QIPCO Champions Day is here to stay -- and here to stay in the middle of October, come rain or shine.