It scarcely seems credible that more than six months have passed since it all began. Since THE LAST LION bolted up in the Betway Brocklesby. Since SECRET BRIEF ploughed his way through the Doncaster mud in the Betway Lincoln.
But here we are, one richly entertaining campaign later, on the brink of the 2016 Flat season’s climax, courtesy of Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot this Saturday.
Considering the event is still only in its infancy, the impact it has made on British racing has been little short of sensational. Four Group Ones, a Group Two and a fiercely competitive 1m handicap add up to a card oozing appeal, not to mention £4.26 million in prize money, and one that has already yielded a roll call of winners that wouldn’t be out of place in any equine who’s who directory, from Frankel and Cirrus Des Aigles to Solow and Muhaarar
Lurking in some dark corner of the corridors of racing medialand are dinosaurs, their National Hunt leanings protruding like the sorest of thumbs, who continue to question the viability of the project. And they do so, unashamedly, on the basis that, because we’re in the middle of October, it might rain. But if we applied that sort of logic, we’d have needed to move the dates of most of this year’s major Flat meetings, given how they have been blighted by downpours.
The fact is that, despite plenty of dig in the ground for four of the five Champions Days staged so far, the quality of the racing has not been diminished. And the spectacular nature of the event, expertly overseen by Rod Street and his devoted enthusiasts at Great British Racing, has created a feelgood finale that, much like the Cheltenham Festival in March, makes you proud racing is your chosen sport.
The weather forecast looks so encouraging that the ground could ride on the Good side. Here is my potted race-by-race guide based on the five-day declarations.
1.25 LONG DISTANCE CUP 2M
A race that features the last two winners of the Ascot Gold Cup, most notably ORDER OF ST GEORGE, who will be a short-priced favourite after his excellent third in the Arc over an inadequate trip. QUEST FOR MORE arrives in the form of his life, while FORGOTTEN RULES has been laid out by trainer Dermot Weld to repeat his success two years ago. But the chief threat to Aidan O’Brien’s standout could be last year’s St Leger heroine, SIMPLE VERSE, if she’s allowed to take her chance and tackle this 2m distance for the first time.
2.00 SPRINT 6F
A potentially vintage renewal could feature a mouthwatering clash of the three sprinters to have lit up the season, MECCA’S ANGEL, LIMATO and QUIET REFLECTION. All have been breathtaking winners of Group One contests, and yet all could well be trumped if John Gosden’s SHALAA is still as smart as he looked as a crack two-year-old. Injury intervened, but he made a successful comeback on this track two weeks ago. Not to be discounted are the likes of Royal Ascot winner TWILIGHT SON and THE TIN MAN, who were on the heels of the mighty Muhaarar in last year’s race, and French raider SIGNS OF BLESSING.
2.35 FILLIES AND MARES 12F
With a battalion of fillies that includes Arc heroine FOUND, dual Classic winner MINDING and rapid improver SEVENTH HEAVEN at his disposal, Aidan O’Brien holds most of the aces here. Last year’s winner SIMPLE VERSE appears to need further now, while Arc Day victor SPEEDY BOARDING is probably best over shorter. But the wily Dermot Weld saddles a serious danger in ZHUKOVA, and neither QUEEN’S TRUST nor ARCHITECTURE would be winning out of turn after consistent efforts at the top table all year. John Gosden’s JOURNEY has been primed to go one better than 12 months ago, while Godolphin’s ENDLESS TIME has an each/way squeak.
3.10 QE II STAKES 1M
Trends suggest that only horses of the highest class and fancied need apply for this, so it might be best to concentrate on yet another clash featuring Guineas winners GALILEO GOLD and AWTAAD, and a rival who might well be improving past them both, Richard Fahey’s RIBCHESTER, victory for whom would crown Godolphin as champion owners for the season. In the absence of injury victim THE GURKHA, who has beaten all three, Aidan O’Brien could rely on ALICE SPRINGS, but not since 1987 has the prize gone to a filly.
3.45 CHAMPION STAKES 10F
Astonishingly, this is a race that Aidan O’Brien has yet to crack, so it might be the one he chucks the aforementioned FOUND or MINDING at. The most likely winner, however, is ALMANZOR, French flagbearer of a prolific season for Jean-Claude Rouget and winner of the highest-quality Flat race seen anywhere in the world this term, the Irish Champion Stakes, where he beat the two Ballydoyle fillies. Last year’s winner and beaten favourite, FASCINATING ROCK and JACK HOBBS, add spice, as would O’Brien’s Derby runner-up, US ARMY RANGER.
4.25 BALMORAL HANDICAP 1M
Likely candidates are topped by David O’Meara’s consistent FIRMAMENT, while DONNCHA is long overdue a race of this type and Roger Varian’s progressive MORANDO is considered Group class. John Gosden, who has hit the bar in two previous runnings, has booked Ryan Moore for top weight GM HOPKINS and is also responsible for one of two talented 3yos hoping to squeeze in at the foot of the weights, CASTLE HARBOUR. The other is Godolphin’s VERY TALENTED, who was third in the Cambridgeshire.
Living up to the name of Future Champions?
As a tasty aperitif for the main course at Ascot, Newmarket staged its two-day Future Champions Festival last weekend. The concept was heavily derided when first launched, but is bedding in nicely now and threw up two stonkingly good cards for the 2016 renewal. It also yielded a couple of performances that lived up to the meeting’s name as CHURCHILL and RHODODENDRON powered to victory in the Group One juvenile events and maintained the remarkably rich vein of form of trainer Aidan O’Brien. Both go into winter quarters as favourites fror the first two Classics of next season and both, it must be said, look the real deal. Most impressive was the way they handled the rolling undulations of the Rowley Mile, which can often expose the limitations of talented two-year-olds.