Wonder horse FRANKEL won’t be there. But rain and testing ground might be.
The concoction that will be music to the ears of the cynics and the critics still determined to mock QIPCO British Champions Day.
So how will the richest raceday of the year in the UK, boasting £3.5 million in prize money, hit the opposition for six when it returns to Ascot on Saturday?
Quite simply, by focusing on the hugely positive impact Champions Day has had on the racing landscape in its first two years.
As a grand finale to a Champions Series that runs through the season, it does not work. Flat racing’s narrative is based on meetings and festivals, not races. It runs from Newmarket’s Guineas Weekend and encompasses events such as Royal Ascot and Glroious Goodwood.
But as a finale to the Flat campaign. As a raceday oozing quality. As a British alternative to Arc Day in France and the Breeders’ Cup meeting in the US. As a vehicle for selling British racing to a wider public, for plonking British racing centre stage, for attracting fresh sources of investment, it certainly does work.
And if this Saturday’s third renewal is anything like the treats that were served in 2011 and 2012, the thousands watching live at the track or on Channel 4 at home will not be disappointed.
Of course, nothing can match the exploits of Frankel, and particularly the poignantly emotional scenes that greeted his farewell triumph in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Sir Henry Cecil’s last major winner as trainer last October. But we might have to wait 100 years before another Frankel comes along.
Yes, it will be muddy underfoot. But the day will be dry and, in any event, why should the meeting suffer because of Soft ground? It’s hardly affected Arc Days at Longchamp over the years.
The biggest threat to Champions Day is the snide criticism from within racing itself. For the sake of the sport, for once, let’s shut up and enjoy, can’t we?
If your answer to that question is yes, OK fine, Scoop, anything you say, then let’s take a brief look at the six races in an attempt to find the winners!..
1.45 GROUP 2 LONG-DISTANCE CUP 2M
All eyes are on the return to Ascot of the Queen’s filly, ESTIMATE, after her memorable victory in the Gold Cup at the Royal meeting. This is her first outing since, but she is reported in terrific form by trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, and won’t mind the Soft ground. Her chance is glaringly obvious, and victory would give the day the perfect lift-off.
Her main dangers are Godolphin’s Goodwood Cup runner-up AHZEEMAH, who might lack a turn of foot but is as tough as nails, and Aidan O’Brien’s EYE OF THE STORM. The three-year-old, who started the season running in a Derby trial, is blind in his left eye but comes here fresher than most. He handled the step-up to 2m with aplomb last time and is proven in testing conditions.
2.20 GROUP 2 SPRINT STAKES 6F
It’s not often sprinters get to the middle of October in the peak of form. But MAAREK and JACK DEXTER are two notable exceptions and, what’s more, both are proven on Soft ground and at Ascot. Irish-trained six-year-old Maarek bids for back-to-back victories in this race and although he’s switched yards since 2012, he proved his wellbeing by landing an ultra-competitive Abbaye on Arc Day last month. This return to 6f is ideal for him. Jim Goldie’s Jack Dexter also won on this card last season, taking the concluding 7f handicap. But his aptitude for sprinting was underlined by a mammoth performance off top weight in the Ayr Gold Cup four weeks ago. Of the rest, trainer Edward Lynam could field three, the pick of which is the lightly-raced filly, VIZTORIA, who is dropping in trip but will relish the ground. And I wouldn’t be surprised by a bold showing from Tommy Stack’s CAPE OF APPROVAL, another mudlark, who beat Maarek at Cork in June but was drawn too wide to be effective in the Abbaye.
2.55 GROUP 1 FILLIES AND MARES 12F
Not the strongest of renewals but a truly international field, with the UK challenge spearheaded by Oaks winner and St Leger runner-up TALENT. Ralph Beckett’s filly won’t be far away, but I expect Epsom placings to be reversed by THE LARK, who is a different filly on Soft ground and was mightily impressive on her return to action at Doncaster last time. The figures will tell you Michael Bell’s daughter of Pivotal cannot win, but she boasts an abundance of class. Of the overseas challenge, German raider NYMPHEA, a Group One winner, is an interesting contender, sure to like the ground, and I have a lot of time for DALKALA, Alain de Royer-Dupre’s four-year-old who won at York in May and ground out victory over an inadequate 10f at Longchamp last time.
3.30 GROUP 1 QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES 1M
The testing ground looks certain to rob the race of Richard Hannon’s top-class colt, TORONADO, while the likes of FARHH, SKY LANTERN and DECLARATION OF WAR have been earmarked for the Champion Stakes instead, ground permitting. In the eyes of the betting market, such defections pave the way for a successful return to the track by 2,000 Guineas hero DAWN APPROACH, fending off the challenge of another of Hannon’s crack milers, OLYMPIC GLORY. I read it a little differently. Jim Bolger’s favourite has questions to answer, in my view, after his Deauville flop two months ago. Olympic Glory, who thrashed Dawn Approach that day, should confirm that form and will enjoy the ground. But I am concerned that Hannon is reaching for first-time blinkers for the colt. He says they could improve him by three lengths, but he has five lengths to make up from his runner-up display in the Prix du Moulin at Longchamp last time. Therefore, I prefer to concentrate on Olympic Glory’s Moulin conqueror, MAXIOS, trained by a master of his craft, Jonathan Pease, who does not waste lightly trips back to native land. It’s true that jockey Stephane Pasquier rather stole the race, but the five-year-old entire was bouncing back from a two-month break and is a class act over this trip on Soft ground. My only concern is that he might prefer a turning mile to this straight mile, in which case South African import SOFT FALLING RAIN comes strongly into the reckoning. The four-year-old has yet to win a Group One and is unproven with give underfoot, but he was highly impressive at Newmarket last month when readily dismissing another of Hannon’s talented milers, Montiridge.
4.05 GROUP 1 CHAMPION STAKES 10F
Anyone who witnessed the laboured display on fast ground of CIRRUS DES AIGLES in the King George here at Ascot in midsummer must be surprised the way the seven-year-old veteran has roared back to form this autumn. And on his best form, which embraces victory in this very race two years ago and honourable defeat at the hands of the mighty Frankel last year, Corine Barande-Barbe’s gelding is a worthy short-priced favourite, especially in the absence of one of his main rivals, DECLARATION OF WAR. The Soft ground will suit, as will the strong pace likely to be provided by MUKHADRAM or Irish Derby winner TRADING LEATHER (the best longshot). However, doubts that Cirrus can truly recapture his best in Group One company leave the door ajar, if not exactly wide open, for the Godolphin stable star FARHH. Off the track since winning the Group One Lockinge Stakes at Newbury in May, the five-year-old’s CV is littered with near-misses behind Frankel -- and also a notable one behind superfilly, Moonlight Cloud. If he were mine, I’d have stuck to 1m and tackled the QEII. Indeed he is yet to win over this 10f trip. But the ground won’t be a problem, he goes best fresh and, unquestionably, he has the ability to spring a surprise.
4.45 FUTURE STARS APPRENTICE HANDICAP 7F
Raised eyebrows continue to question the right of this race to a place on such a star-studded card. But Ascot does specialise in terrific, competitive 7f handicaps -- and this one offers punters the chance to round off the day by solving a fascinating puzzle. As I write, the make-up of the field is far from certain, while one or two crack apprentices are double-booked. However, two three-year-olds catch my eye -- Jeremy Noseda’s CONSIGN, who improved enormously for an easy surface when bolting up here two weeks ago, and David Simcock’s BRETON ROCK, who also ran at Ascot that day but was palpably unsuited by the drop to 6f. The latter can quicken off a fast pace in Soft ground, while the former might have the assistance in the saddle of Oisin Murphy, one of the finds of the season.
BY RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD -- @ScoopSilverwood.