Was it really nine years ago that the traditionalists scoffed at QIPCO British Champions Day and Christophe Soumillon was fined £55,000 for breaking newly introduced whip rules after winning the Champion Stakes aboard Cirrus Des Aigles. My, it seems like only yesterday.
Champions Day must have won over even its sternest critics since that dramatic inaugural day and the tenth renewal of the meeting on Saturday promises thrills at every turn with 22 Group One winners among a star cast.
Soumillon will not be in action, but not because he is still seething over his loss of earnings. He got most of his cash back when it dawned on racing’s rulers that their new regulations might need tinkering. He originally incurred their wrath by encouraging Cirrus Des Aigles six times in the final furlong – about £9,000 a tap.
Who Am I? Watch leading jockeys Oisin Murphy and Cieren Fallon get competitive as they quiz each other
That was then, this is now. Jockeys seem tidier and more proficient than they have ever been, which is a good job because they are going to need their wits about them this weekend on ground that seems sure to be deep and testing.
Here’s a race-by-race guide with a tip for each contest.
This revolves around Stradivarius and, with the opposition lacking depth, you are braver than me if you want to oppose him.
I guess there will be some eager to take him on at Evens after he failed to make an impact in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on heavy going only 13 days ago.
But this year’s Arc was something of a nonsense, developing into a dash after Pierre-Charles Boudot, riding a doubtful stayer, was allowed to dictate at a dawdle. The winning time was the slowest since 1976 and almost 15 seconds slower than Danedream achieved in 2011.
So Stradivarius was not exposed to a brutal end-to-end gallop where he had to dig deep into his reserves of courage. He probably took more out of himself in the paddock beforehand, when, as has become something of a habit, he was intent on showing everyone what he will have to offer in the breeding sheds when the time presents itself.
When he was similarly excited earlier in the year, John Gosden suggested it might have been that his aftershave was to blame. However, he wasn’t in Paris, so something else must have got his blood pumping. Anyway, I digress.
For my money, Stradivarius had a tougher race in the Coronation Cup at Newmarket in June, when he gave vain pursuit to Ghaiyyath, who won in a record time, when apparently short of peak fitness. Thirteen days later he came out and bolted up by ten lengths in the Gold Cup (his third successive win in the race) at Royal Ascot on rain-softened ground.
That shows he can handle races in quick succession, even allowing for the fact that the Coronation Cup was run ten minutes away from his quarters.
Watch snap analysis after Stardivarius won a record fourth Goodwood Cup this summer
He’s not had an exhausting season and has been beaten only twice in 13 races over two miles or further – when a close third to Order Of St George in the Long Distance Cup as a three-year-old in 2017 and when beaten a whisker by Kew Gardens in last year’s renewal.
Stradivarius faces nothing of their calibre here and should win again, even if someone has to give him a cold shower beforehand.
Search For A Song will have her supporters after winning a second Irish St Leger at The Curragh last month, but she’s not always looked the most straightforward and I fancy she was trained to the minute for that contest.
In any case, her ability to stay the trip on a testing surface is not guaranteed – she’s unraced beyond 1m 6f - and her best form has been on good ground or faster.
Fujaira Prince chased home Search For A Song at The Curragh, when he didn’t look like he was crying out for an extra two furlongs at the finish. He’d previously won the Ebor in battling style off a rating of 108 but Stradivarius has a mark of 125 and meets him on level weights.
Dawn Patrol is apparently Aidan O’Brien’s principal hope after his win over 2m at The Curragh last time but his form is several notches below what Stradivarius has achieved, while his stablemates Broome and Sovereign arrive with plenty to prove.
The softer the ground the better for mud monster Morando, but the seven-year-old is another not sure to get home. If Andrew Balding really viewed him as a stayer, why has he waited this long to run him over the trip?
Balding also runs Doncaster Cup winner Spanish Mission, but he was well-held when bumping into Stradivarius in the Goodwood Cup and had been a non-runner in the Gold Cup the previous month because of soft ground.
CHAMPION STAT: Since the race was first run in 2011, five winners had run in that year’s Gold Cup at the Royal Meeting, finishing 13321. Four of the six Irish-trained winners ran in that year’s Irish St Leger, finishing 4512.
Watch a full replay of the July Cup
The runners are likely to converge on the far side, but don’t be fooled into thinking those drawn low will be at a big advantage. Donjuan Triumphant sprung a 33-1 surprise from stall 4 last year, when the going was also soft, but he flew home down the outside to cut down One Master, who initially had some trouble getting out, in the closing stages.
One Master attempts to go one better, having since made history by becoming the first triple winner of the Prix de la Foret at Longchamp. She’s an admirable mare with conditions in her favour, but her hold-up style will again make her a hostage to fortune and she had to dig pretty deep to get the job done 13 days ago.
Dream Of Dreams, twice beaten a head in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at the Royal Meeting, was brilliant when running away with the Hungerford Stakes at Newbury in August and looked in control of the Sprint Cup from some way out at Haydock last time, when Glen Shiel (second), Art Power (fourth), The Tin Man (sixth), Lope Y Fernandez (seventh) and Brando (ninth) were all behind.
However, he has bombed badly on Champions Day for the past two years and for that reason odds of about 6-4 make minimal appeal.
I would not be surprised if Art Power, a superb winner on softish terrain at Royal Ascot in June, proved best of the Sprint Cup runners but the one to beat could be Oxted, who missed Haydock because of an untimely dirty scope.
The Roger Teal-trained four-year-old had previously been an emphatic winner of the July Cup at Newmarket and, having had only nine runners, remains open to improvement. Betfred offer 15-2.
Teal says he is anxious about the soft ground but his horse is a different model to the one who ran on easy going earlier in his career. His sire and dam were both mudlarks, so that offers encouragement. He's also had a wind op since his latest run.
At bigger prices, Cape Byron’s record at the track and ability to go well fresh make him interesting. Rite Of Passage had been off 510 days before landing the Long Distance Cup a few years back, and Roger Varian has had this in mind for him for a while.
CHAMPION STAT: Only one of the past eight winners, Muharaar in 2015, had landed its previous race. Librisa Breeze (2017) and Donjuan Triumphant (2019) had been beaten in all their races that year, while Sands Of Mali (2018) had lost his previous four starts and Gordon Lord Byron (2014) was on a seven-race losing streak. Maarek (2012) had been beaten just six days before.
Beckett told Lydia Hislop more about Antonio De Vega in a revealing interview after her win at Newmarket last month
At the start of the week some of us were dreaming of Enable bowing out a in a blaze of glory in this, but instead she will be in her box at Clarehaven probably keeping an ear out for how the progeny of Kingman perform. Pity.
In her absence, this is definitely the weak link among the Group One races on the card, with only two of the field being winners at the highest level – Even So and Wonderful Tonight – and none of them boasting an official rating of more than 114.
Let’s start with that pair. Even So was a convincing winner of the Irish Oaks and that form puts her firmly in the picture, but you have to forgive her a fairly tame effort in the Prix Vermeille last time. Wonderful Tonight was better than ever when scoring over 1m6f at the Arc meeting and I’d love to see her win for David Menuisier, who has never had an Ascot winner of any description and must have been crushed by the death of Thundering Blue last month.
However, I fancy the one they will all have to beat is Antonio De Vega, who seems in her element on soft ground and looked in fine fettle when mastering Alpinista, the Yorkshire Oaks runner-up, at Newmarket last time.
Some felt the runner-up would have won another day, but Antonio De Vega was having her first run for more than three months and I fancy she was using that race to add an edge for this assignment.
She ran well when a staying-on sixth in last year’s renewal, when not beaten far having not had an ideal preparation after having a problem behind.
The other on my shortlist was Dame Malliot, a really solid filly who had Wonderful Tonight, Laburnum and Even So behind when third behind Tarnawa and Raabihah in the Prix Vermeille. That form has something of a glow and emotions will run high if she happened to oblige, given her trainer, Ed Vaughan, who has never had a Group One winner, is soon to quit the sport. Oh, and she will be ridden by the force that is Hollie Doyle.
CHAMPION STAT: Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden have between them landed the past four renewals but their domination goes further. Last year they were responsible for the 1-2 (separated by a short head) and 12 months before that the 1-2-3. And in 2017 they were responsible for the first four home among the British and Irish-trained runners.
TIP: ANTONIO DE VEGA
This mile showpiece was won by the unbeaten Frankel when Qipco British Champions Day was launched in 2011 and another colt with an unblemished record, Palace Pier, will seek to emulate him on Saturday.
Five runs have yielded five wins for the three-year-old Kingman colt, who announced himself on the big stage by landing the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot in June before following up in the Prix Jacques Le Marois at Deauville in mid-August.
Gosden has deliberately not run him since but Palace Pier, a best-priced 4-6, completed his preparation with a gallop on the Rowley Mile at Newmarket before racing on Saturday and will no doubt be spot-on. His draw in stall 5 also looks perfect.
In the absence of Kameko, who was announced a non-runner on Wednesday, he is going to take some stopping, even if his trainer is probably itching to get him on some better ground. He has all the attributes of a champ, possessing a good cruising speed, turn of foot and, it seems, a decent temperament.
Gosden has another ace up his sleeve in Nazeef, flawless over a mile against her own sex this campaign. She’s had quite a tough campaign, though, and this looks like a free roll of dice before possible retirement, whereas Palace Pier has had a light campaign and been specifically readied for this test.
French challenger The Revenant was apparently only 80 per cent for his belated comeback win at Longchamp a fortnight ago, which is a good job as he was not overly impressive. Whether he can find the other 20 per cent in two weeks is debatable and, in any case, I imagine Palace Pier will be an even tougher opponent than King Of Change, who he could not live with last year.
Circus Maximus is a tenacious two-time Group One winner at Royal Ascot, winning each time at the expense of Gosden runners. We know his limitations and I don’t fancy his chances of completing the hat-trick, not least because Palace Pier left him trailing at Deauville last time.
Lord Glitters ran poorly in this last year but, in common with stablemate Escobar, has a good overall record at the track. I imagine both will be ridden to try and pick up some pieces late in the scene. The latter, winner of the Balmoral last year after being second in it the year before, could be an each-way play even if the official ratings and recent efforts suggest he has got no chance.
Century Dream, third to Roaring Lion two years ago, has conditions to his liking but his window has surely passed. Dark Vision, Molatham and Sir Busker each won at Royal Ascot in June but will need some of the principals to fluff their lines to make an impact.
Incidentally, six horses who won at Royal Ascot this summer lock horns here. That cannot have happened before, can it?
CHAMPION STAT: Six of the nine winners of the race at Ascot have been three-year-olds and the last three renewals at Newmarket were also won by a member of the Classic generation. Since 2002, only two four-year-olds have prevailed.
TIP: PALACE PIER
Watch how Magical won the Champion Stakes last year
This race would be worth the admission fee alone on Saturday, if any of us were allowed to pay the admission fee in the first place.
Addeybb, Desert Encounter, Japan, Lord North, Magical, Mishriff and Serpentine are all Group One winners (16 races at the highest level between them) and then you’ve also got the prolific Skalleti and under-rated Pyledriver to ponder.
That said, it’s still hard to get away from Magical, who has been there, done that and got the T-shirt at least a couple of times. You really cannot knock a horse who has accumulated seven Group One wins and been runner-up in five more.
She’s been winning at the highest level since she was a two-year-old and a couple of bruising encounters with Enable, where she came off second best, have not dimmed her powers. Far from it, in fact, to judge by the way she outmuscled the world’s highest-rated horse, Ghaiyyath, to win her second Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown last time, with Sottsass, the subsequent Arc winner, back in fourth.
Apart from all that, she’s won on Champions Day for the past two years – landing this race 12 months ago despite looking to finish weary in the Arc just 13 days before. She’s one tough lady and, for good measure, her connections have let her come up for air since Leopardstown this time. Her draw in six is ideal, so good luck to any horse eyeballing her in the final furlong or opposing her at 2-1.
Addeybb chased her home last year and, for all his virtues, it’s hard to see him turning the tables. The formbook also points to Lord North, the Prince of Wales’s winner, having some ground to find with her, while her stablemates, Japan and Serpentine, don’t have the same credentials. The latter, runaway winner of a freakish Derby, does add a fascinating dimension.
Mishriff was favourite at the start of the week but I cannot understand why. He puts his head down and has an admirably willing nature but his French Derby form has some holes in it, and he beat the same horses last time. I’d say he has been something of a bonus package for Gosden this year as he was chasing big money in Saudi Arabia in February and not considered for the Derby or, in fact, any of the big prizes at home until this one.
Skalleti’s prolific nature makes him worthy of a second look and, for all he’s untested at the top table, he took the scalp of Sottsass earlier in the year. Be aware, though, that he rather lives on the edge (his trainer has described him as “hot”) and that he usually has his races spaced out. This time, he’s running just a fortnight after the Arc meeting and, in an ideal world, he would probably want the ground to be borderline unraceable.
I fancy Pyledriver might be the each-way alternative to Magical. He was a fluent winner at the Royal Meeting and looked every inch a top-notcher when taking apart the Great Voltigeur field. He also ran well when third in the St Leger when, as his trainer has noted, the trip bunted his primary weapon, which looks speed.
CHAMPION STAT: The favourite has won for the past four years. And overall, since the race was moved to Ascot in 2011, the record of the market leader has read 212531111.
For the past three years, the winner of this always fiercely competitive mile handicap has swept through from a long way off the pace. But before restricting your shortlist to hold-up horses, keep in mind that Musaddas made all in 2015.
As in the Sprint, it seems likely the runners will end up crowding on the far rail so a low draw may be of some benefit but don’t be too despondent if your fancy is among those with a high gate. Conditions were testing last year and Escobar (drawn 21) and Lord North (20) filled the first two spots.
David O’Meara has saddled the winner twice plus had two places in the past four years, so his two runners - Orbaan and Hortzadar - demand a second look. However, I’m not sure his pair have any secrets from the handicapper.
The same cannot be said for Raeeq, a three-year-old Kingman colt held in high esteem by Brian Meehan. He was having only his fifth start when romping home in a 7f handicap at the start of the month and, raised 11lb, is clearly well-in here running under a 6lb penalty.
I like his claims, but I’ve had a good look at past renewals and don’t like the stats that come with him. Twenty three-year-olds (including some good ones like Lord North last year) have run in the race and none have won. And a dozen horses have run in the race under a penalty, with several (including a future Group One winner in Zabeel Prince) were similarly ahead of the handicapper but, again, none have won.
There has to be a chance Raeeq will buck the trends and confirm himself an exciting talent but he’s priced accordingly and so I’d rather throw a couple of darts at bigger prices.
One who seems certain to be involved is Njord, trained by Jessica Harrington. He put up one of the most striking handicap performances of the year when coming from well off the pace to win easily at The Curragh in midsummer and has continued to run well in good company, including when a close fifth in the Irish Cambridgeshire.
You can put a line through his latest effort in a Listed contest as it wasn’t run to suit. He will be much happier here, in a race run at an end-to-end gallop over a straight mile, and I’ll be surprised if does not make the frame under Tom Marquand. He's a general 11-1 and look out for those firms offering extra places.
I’ll also be backing Alternative Fact, who has sneaked into the field and will be partnered by Frankie Dettori. He was third to well-handicapped Sir Busker in the Silver Royal Hunt Cup in June and was a big eye-catcher when keeping on from a hopeless position at York last week. The 20-1 on offer appeals.
Graignes is a big price for a horse who has some good Group One form to his name but didn’t look like he fancied it last time, having previously run well on the all-weather in France. Bell Rock and Tempus can be given claims plus they ran well in the Cambridgeshire last time. Three of the past six Balmoral winners ran in that contest en route.
CHAMPION STAT: Twenty three-year-olds have run in the Balmoral and none have won. In addition, a dozen horses have run carrying a penalty – four of them starting at 6-1 or shorter - and the closest any of them have finished is third.
TIPS: NJORD and ALTERNATIVE FACT
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