Long live the Champion Stakes!
Lydia Hislop ponders the future of QIPCO British Champions Day and previews Saturday's card.
- Related Content
NEWS IN BRIEF. October 2012: the Arc is dead; long live the Champion Stakes. October 2013: vive L'Arc, le Prix Du Champion (Angleterre) est mort.
I bet you know someone who said last year's Arc weekend felt flat, especially when compared to the unfettered joy of British Champions Day a fortnight later. I'd also bet you know someone who returned from Paris this month, giddy with the delights Longchamp served up. Perhaps the same person. Perhaps you are that guy or gal.
There is no doubt Ascot had got the goods in 2012. If you wish to be picky, while this Saturday's edition will still be top-class sport, it might shine neither as brightly as that unforgettable day nor with this year's lustre of its European cousin. We shouldn't get too hung up about it. We might endeavour to reduce its frequency, but it will happen again, whatever.
This is, you may recall, only the third year that the British Champions Series has existed. Let's put aside the debate on whether the 'series' element works and concentrate on the day itself. After all, given the races were mostly already there, the 'series' hasn't changed, uprooted or disemboweled anything. Champions Day itself is, of course, another matter. Its creation has caused all sorts of upheaval, the repercussions of (and reproaches for) which are still ongoing.
And yet the day itself is a good idea, even if it doesn't ever quite achieve its own full ambitions. It is a rousing end to the domestic campaign of the international-facing older European-trained horse. It is a top-class day's racing conducted in an atmosphere that conveys importance but also celebration. It is exciting. It is fun.
"The first two editions of Champions' Day were blessed not only with the phenomenon of Frankel, the best racehorse I've ever seen - perhaps the best ever - but also by the lucky fact he was trained by Sir Henry Cecil."
What it is not and will never be is the only option for every horse you'd ideally like to run there. Horses with an edge at a mile-and-a-half will naturally be trained for the Arc. Owners and breeders with ambitions to crack the American bloodstock market will (in the medium term at least) look to the Breeders' Cup. The real money in this sport is in breeding, now matter how much you chuck at a day's racing.
The first two editions of Champions' Day were blessed not only with the phenomenon of Frankel, the best racehorse I've ever seen - perhaps the best ever - but also by the lucky fact he was trained by Sir Henry Cecil. He was rarely tempted by what America had to offer and certainly did not deem the Breeders' Cup an appropriate target for the horse he knew so minutely.
Which is not to say either Champions Days to date were only about one horse, even if they were overwhelmingly about him. Cirrus Des Aigles, Excelebration, Nathaniel, Immortal Verse, So You Think and Snow Fairy made for a couple of stellar casts. If you have Fame And Glory, Deacon Blues, Dancing Rain and Rite Of Passage in small print on the promotional poster, you know it's special.
Clearly, its position in the calendar is a high-risk affair. Coming after the big weekends in Ireland and France (as it will more explicitly in future) might lend finality or crescendo. Yet, as Cheltenham will point out with regard to Aintree and Punchestown, that logic doesn't necessarily follow.
What it undoubtedly does risk is bad weather affecting play. It threatened to with soft ground last year, but we - and Frankel - got away with it. This year, we haven't been so lucky: Declaration Of War, Toronado, Sky Lantern, Trading Leather and The Fugue were all ruled out of Champions Day due to the prevailing weather. If you site the day in mid-October, that's going to happen.
So move it. Not so simple, if we want to stay on good terms with the rest of Europe or, more accurately, with France and Ireland. Every change to a Group race - date, distance, venue - has to meet the approval of the European Pattern Committee, which attempts to balance the desires of its constituent countries to make their united calendar work to the objective benefit of the European-trained horse.
"This year, we haven't been so lucky: Declaration Of War, Toronado, Sky Lantern, Trading Leather and The Fugue were all ruled out of Champions Day due to the prevailing weather. If you site the day in mid-October, that's going to happen."
Sit down, Nigel Farage. Your work here is done. It's as trendy as talk of a referendum to propose leaving the European Pattern. For example, John Gosden has spoken about it. "It is nearly 40 years old and I rather think it belongs to a bygone era. It's probably got a bit overblown," he said.
Let's stop and think about what this would actually mean. We could put Champions Day where we like; mid-September, perhaps. We could instantly make the Sprint and Long Distance Cup Group Ones. In fact, we could rip up the entire British Pattern and re-fashion it how and where we liked. (Obviously, we'd all agree on the details, wouldn't we?)
But there would also be nothing to stop Ireland placing (or, rather, keeping) the Irish Champion Stakes on or adjacent to the same weekend. Or France routinely clashing its best races with our own. So be it, you say. May the best race win. In every case, for every Group race in the calendar, may the best race in Europe win. Good luck with that, everyone. Good luck with that, Epsom. Good luck, Sandown. Good luck, Newbury and Doncaster. Among others.
It might in practice mostly mean may the race with the most money win, which is fine while you're minted. (We're all feeling financially flush at the moment, after all...)
Yet it would be arrogant to assume a sponsor will stick around forever. It's all very well that we've grown a foot taller with the engaging, long-term and munificent backing of QIPCO, but is it wise to be instantly throwing our weight around in the playground? What happens if (when) the others catch up? Or we fall?
Also, can anyone plausibly argue the arms-race that a unilateral approach to the Pattern would inspire is an objectively good thing for the horse? If different countries try to out-muscle each other from the prime calendar spots with similar races, how will the racehorse benefit? One or two might win a bit more prize money in one race, but they will lack structure to their seasons.
Furthermore, calling a race a Group One would not make it a Group One even if the prize money justifies it. It needs Group One horses to be running in it; otherwise it's a sham. The European Pattern currently exerts checks and balances that should make every Group race earn its billing.
Granted, these rules could be enforced more rigorously but the net result of removing them entirely and permitting individual countries - even, more terrifyingly, individual racecourses - to run their own Group races is likely to make the Pattern more, not less, "overblown".
"Ruler Of The World should run well, with testing conditions bringing his strong stamina more into play. But Mukhadram has posted consistently the best 2013 form in the field and is interesting at 8/1, as is Morandi at twice that price."
Breaking from the European Pattern would also undermine the consensus achieved on matters of handicapping and weight-for-age. Again, you might argue some short-term advantages, but the reality would be an anarchic, impractical and confusing tug-of-war.
Given it is the participation of horses trained in Ireland and France (and, perhaps increasingly in the future, Germany) on which British Champions Day greatly relies, any move that divides the attention of those key horses, their owners and breeders - as well as Britain's own - is surely self-defeating?
In requiring conversation and a degree of consensus to make changes, the European Pattern makes itself and its individual components more robust. Even if it is annoying and restricting to be forced to discuss and negotiate, its endgame is more lasting and constructive for this worldwide sport.
Which brings me back to Saturday and what remains a day of internationally compelling, top-class racing. Timeform has pointed out that, of the eight horses it rates at 130+, five of them will be running on Champions Day. (It helps that three absentees we might lament are fillies, of course.)
There's not much between the field for the QIPCO Long Distance Cup. Estimate is lightly raced, handles soft ground, is capable fresh and open to further improvement, but 2/1 doesn't excite.
Instead, a slightly speculative each-way bet at 14/1 on Aiken appeals. He was second in this race last year, will love the ground and reserves his best form for Ascot. He needs to put behind him a disinterested run at Longchamp last time. The first-time cheekpieces may lend that edge.
Maarek is rightly favourite to retain his title in the British Champions Sprint Stakes, following his first Group One success in the Prix de l'Abbaye. But, like Estimate, he's mighty short at 5/2. His chief rivals hail from just two stables: those of Jim Goldie and Edward Lynam.
"Talent supplemented her Epsom success with an excellent second in the St Leger and might have got closer to Leading Light bar for being hampered. She handles some cut and the extra accent conditions will place on stamina should suit. She's hard to oppose."
Despite having July Cup third Slade Power as a stable companion, Viztoria appeals most of the Lynam trio. She won a decent renewal of the Park Stakes and ran as well as any of this field would have done in the Foret. She likes testing ground.
Goldie saddled Hawkeyethenoo to be second in this race last year and that horse will surely run well again, but he might have to give best to his thriving stablemate, Jack Dexter. He was fourth on unsuitably quick ground here in the Kings's Stand Stakes and his last three efforts represent improved form. He'll love the conditions.
The QIPCO British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes will be run at Group One level for the first time this year and boasts four previous winners at that standard in Dalkala, Igugu, Nymphea and Talent. The last of those, our Oaks winner, is a worthy favourite.
Talent supplemented her Epsom success with an excellent second in the St Leger and might have got closer to Leading Light bar for being hampered. She handles some cut and the extra accent conditions will place on stamina should suit. She's hard to oppose and 7/2 is a fair price.
Fresh from her Opera success, Dalkala will be no pushover. Belle De Crecy is a potent lurker, upped to a trip that should suit. The ground is a big doubt for her, however.
The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes is a good opportunity for Dawn Approach to end his career on a high. With the ground a major concern for Soft Falling Rain, the 9/4 about Jim Bolger's runner is more than fair.
If you're looking for over-priced horses, step forward Gregorian and the boldly supplemented Top Notch Tonto. But they're both marginal betting opportunities given their case is predicated solely on their betters handling the ground less well.
In the QIPCO Champion Stakes, reluctantly, it's worth taking on Cirrus Des Aigles on the basis that, even though his latest Dollar success was more encouraging, he's priced up on last year's form.
Ruler Of The World should run well, with testing conditions bringing his strong stamina more into play. But Mukhadram has posted consistently the best 2013 form in the field and is interesting at 8/1, as is Morandi at twice that price. He's proven in conditions and must improve, but I suspect he might.