Champions Days and Champions Weekends in the UK and Ireland are relatively new phenomenons in racing. But as I bask in the afterglow of another radiant success at Ascot on Saturday, it’s hard to imagine how we ever got on without them.
The royal track dished up a treat for the sixth Qipco British Champions Day. Racing that could hardly be faulted for its quality. Results that could hardly be faulted for their appropriateness.
How fitting it was, for example, that jockey Tom Queally, partner of the mighty Frankel, whose exploits helped to sow the seeds for the whole jamboree back in 2011 and 2012, returned to the big-stage limelight aboard sprint winner THE TIN MAN, named after Fred Archer, no less, one of the sport’s ageless greats.
How fitting it was that trainer of the season, Aidan O’Brien, landed yet another Group One, via Queen Elizabeth II Stakes heroine MINDING, to further fuel his bid to break American legend Bobby Frankel’s world record of 25 in a calendar year.
How fitting it was too that the very same Minding helped put our best jockey on the honours board. No, not the newly-crowned champion Jim Crowley, but the irresistible Ryan Moore who, remarkably, celebrated his first Champions Day winner.
On the subject of jockeys, how fitting it was that Frankie Dettori’s stardust, so synonymous with major occasions, particularly at Ascot, was again sprinkled on the Champions Day turf, thanks to a textbook ride on fillies and mares’ winner JOURNEY.
How fitting also that the two powerhouse, standout sires of the day, Galileo and Dubawi, were responsible for 50% of the meeting’s winners.
Most fitting of all, though, was the seamless connection the day provided with its Irish equivalent, staged over the weekend of September 10 and 11. It was then that Leopardstown hosted the race of the season, a blockbusting Qipco Irish Champion Stakes. Staggeringly, the credibility of the form was questioned in some crazy quarters. Yet the runner-up, FOUND, went on to win the Arc, and the winner, ALMANZOR, provided the headline performance, alongside the third, Minding, at the Ascot extravaganza.
When the French fielded just one of the seven big-race winners on Arc Day, many Brits, no doubt still tanked up from their Brexit celebrations, took great delight in rubbing Gallic noses in the Chantilly dirt. But in Almanzor, they possess unquestionably the 3yo colt of the season. A status not too difficult to attain you might say, especially given that the first three home in the Epsom Derby, much to my amazement, have yet to bolster their reputations. But in conquering Found for a second time on Saturday, and having conquered Minding in Ireland, he is the horse of the season too and might well have landed the Arc himself but for the admirable professionalism displayed by trainer Jean-Claude Rouget in sticking to a plan he had mapped out for the son of Wootton Bassett since the spring. The brilliant mare La Cressonniere was his Arc horse and must have gone close had she not been cruelly struck down by injury at the 11th hour.
Rouget’s Champion Stakes triumph capped a prolific, unprecedented season for the 63-year-old, who cut his training teeth in this country under the likes of Ian Balding and Paul Cole. And it underlined how skills and expertise, whether they be in the stables or in the saddle, are so key to glory on the most significant racedays.
The kind of skills and expertise shown by the master, O’Brien, in overseeing the wonderful versatility of Minding, who not only became the first filly to land the QE II since 1987 but also matched the mighty Miesque’s record number of Group One victories (seven) achieved by a filly by the end of her 3yo campaign. Minding provided O’Brien with the first of his own 21 Group Ones this term when taking the Qipco 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket way back on May 1. Since then, the Ballydoyle handler has not only succeeded in keeping her on the go at the highest level, but also in sending her up in trip to take the Investec Oaks over 12f, down to 10f to win the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood and then all the way back to 1m again for Saturday’s win. O’Brien quite rightly says it takes a special filly to be able to cope with that. It also takes a special trainer to oversee that.
Special training talents also manifested themselves in the sparkling turn of foot shown by the aforementioned Journey and the pleasing return to the track by Jack Hobbs in the Champion. Both courtesy of the impeccable John Gosden. The hooded 4yo filly is not easy, but Gosden laid her out for the Ascot contest with supreme precision. The only surprise about her win was that so many so-called experts seemed surprised by it. Did they not see the similarly explosive manner in which she bolted up at Newmarket last term, just weeks before she was touched off only by a Classic winner in this same race?
Jack Hobbs ran as deplorably as is equinely possible for an Irish Derby winner when opening his 4yo campaign at Headquarters on 2,000 Guineas Day. Indeed he was pulled up to earn the rarest of dubious distinctions for a Flat horse of a P in his form figures. The magnitude of Gosden’s efforts in nursing him back, 168 days later, were plain for all to see both in the paddock where he looked a picture and in the race itself where he ran on strongly to be beaten only by two superstars.
Of course, the likes of Gosden, O’Brien and Rouget are aided and abetted enormously by their chosen pilots. Dettori and Moore have already been lauded, but it is worth blowing the trumpet of Almanzor’s rider, Christophe Soumillon, too. Too often, the 35-year-old Belgian is the subject of lazy, pigeon-holed criticism in this country, based purely on the fact that he likes to portray his confidence. But his sharp, slick manoeuvre he deployed from the gates to ensure Almanzor was not trapped in rear on the rail from his low draw on Saturday was that of a world-class performer. It was worthy of similar praise to that of Moore in shifting Minding between Ribchester and his chief rival’s pacemaker in the early stages of the QE II, unnerving Richard Fahey’s colt to such an extent that he couldn’t be properly restrained for a couple of furlongs, expanding race-costing energy. Both small examples of the kind of tactical awareness rarely appreciated in the stands.
Such awareness wasn’t always apparent. For example, backers of the fancied FIRMAMENT in the concluding handicap had every right to feel peeved. But I thought Queally deserved rich praise for getting The Tin Man’s nose in front. Here is another tricky customer who needs to be held up, covered up and produced late to be seen to best effect. Yet Queally had to overcome inconvenient isolation towards the far side where only two rivals preceded him.
Of course, for every terrific performance, there were disappointments, most notably Ascot Gold Cup winner ORDER OF ST GEORGE, who got very warm before the Long Distance Cup, Yorkshire Oaks winner SEVENTH HEAVEN, who needs a lot of stoking up before hitting top gear and wasn’t suited by the short Ascot straight, Guineas winner GALILEO GOLD, who was too keen, and sprint aces QUIET REFLECTION, whose yard has been hit by bouts of coughing, and SHALAA, who bounced. But it was impossible to detract from a card so marvellous that even hacks on the ‘Racing Post’ broke out in cold sweats of positivity.
As so often happens with those who jump on the bandwagon far too late, some of the praise was over the top, and I still feel there are areas where the day can be improved. On the track, the biggest gripe was the division of the home straight, which forced a restriction to a maximum field of 20 in the Balmoral Handicap, thus denying several in-form, progressive horses a run. The official explanation to protect the ground does not wash at the end of a season. It is unsatisfactory that a track as expansive as Ascot cannot utilise the whole of its straight, and the decision undoubtedly triggered the traffic problems that blighted the last race. Let’s hope the real reason wasn’t to accommodate huge ground-level advertising for sponsors and organisers.
Away from the racing, it was pleasing to note that the attendance figure was up from last year -- and higher than the oft-proclaimed Shergar Cup Day on the same course at the height of summer. Proof, if ever we needed it, that top racing will always knock fluff and floss into the long grass. It was also pleasing to note a 17% rise in the number of Channel 4 viewers -- a praiseworthy feat at a time when the influence of terrestrial television is declining faster than UKIP. It’s a fair bet that the percentage share of C4’s total audience for Saturday afternoon was higher than the BBC’s was for the initial Champions Day broadcast in 2011.
For those who left the comfort of their armchairs, not all was totally rosy on the spectator front, however. It’s high time, for instance, that the gaps between races were increased to at least 40 minutes. Racegoers need more time to digest the high-octane action that has just passed and that about to come, while the need for high-profile presentations is putting too much strain on the day’s schedule. Too many times on Saturday, the pre-race parades had to rushed, changed or scrapped altogether, and there was an unforgivable moment before the biggest of the big races when arguably the meeting’s star act, Found, arrived in the paddock when most of his rivals were leaving, simply because O’Brien had not been able, between races, to saddle her in time.
It’s also high time, and I really do mean this, that the Queen was informed how much annoying chaos she causes if arriving at or leaving the course during, rather than before or after, racing. Large swathes of the area behind the stands are cordoned off for up to half an hour to accommodate the route of her car and cavalcade. On Saturday, this happened between the first and second races and from just before the fifth, creating no-go zones for racegoers and leading to congestion and confusion that is not reflected in the hefty admission price for such a prestigious day.
May it please Your Majesty, but not even you should be allowed to interrupt our enjoyment of such a magnificent day’s racing. (Off with his head! -- Editor)