Ed Chamberlin reflects on QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot and looks ahead to Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy's on-screen dynamic ahead of the jumps season proper.
At the start of last week it looked like QIPCO British Champions Day might be a complete damp squib – or worse still abandoned. Even if it got the green light the worry was so many of the big players might not even turn up.
However, it was a total contrast to that doomsday scenario.
It offered proof that if you opt to put the prize-money in, the star names will turn up and racing fans owe a huge debut of gratitude to Chris Stickells and his Ascot groundstaff for preparing the course so well.
Also to the powers that be for making the quick – and sensible – decision early in the week to switch to the inside track.
Great British Racing put on another good show and although QIPCO British Champions Day hasn’t yet won everyone over, one thing that cannot be denied was on Saturday it attracted a young, vibrant crowd.
It was an inspired decision to allow students in at a discounted rate and from what I saw on Saturday, the track was full of young families enjoying the stacks of entertainment laid on both before, during and after racing.
It’s no wonder given it would have cost a family of four £68 to go into the Queen Anne Enclosure on Saturday and £240 to drive up the road and enjoy a day at Legoland. It’s good value for money and a great day out.
So can Champions Day be improved? Well, as always the answer is yes.
Sir Anthony McCoy again suggested the new need for a top two-year-old race to be added to the card and there still remains some confusion over when certain championships end.
I liked the razzmatazz that accompanied the crowning of Oisin Murphy and Cieren Fallon as champion jockey and conditional, but my one wish is they could have delayed it a little so it could be shown live on ITV rather than do it before the action began.
The challenge they have is the Flat season already has so many highs with the likes of Royal Ascot, the Qatar Goodwood Festival and York's Ebor Festival. It makes it nigh on impossible to build up a crescendo at one event a la the Cheltenham Festival.
I don’t think there’ll ever be a time when all the champions are crowned on the track on an individual day but Champions Day is a great celebration and finale (almost) to the season.
On the track on Saturday the QIPCO Champion Stakes never looked like it was going to be a vintage renewal but in Magical it had a ridiculously tough winner. I loved the line from Aidan O’Brien afterwards when he said: “If you asked Magical whether she wants to run in the Breeders’ Cup now – she’d definitely say yes."
The performances of the day came from Star Catcher who provided Frankie Dettori with a 250th Group One winner in the Filly And Mares and of course that epic battle between Kew Gardens and Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup.
Afterwards, Jason Weaver was fascinating on ITV talking about the tactics of the race and what might have been going through Frankie’s mind through those final two furlongs.
One thing the race did do is set up a potentially box office rematch in the Gold Cup back here in June.
Most satisfying for everyone involved with our show was the enormous viewing figures that race attracted – well over one million viewers watching the duel down the straight. Hopefully, it will be the hook to keep them watching our great sport. This peak was up from 798,000 in 2018, a 26% increase – and the evidence is people stayed with us.
The 2018 peak (798,000) was for last year’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and this year, the same race, was watched by 969,000.
Our audience share was up 20% from 6.4% to 7.7% – and the average for main channel coverage from 507,000 in 2018 to 703,000 in 2019 (38%), although the comparison is not exact as in 2018 the whole show was on the main channel.
These numbers were clearly helped enormously by the promotion of Champions Day during the Rugby World Cup matches and England football games and it’s so pleasing to continue to buck television trends.
We’ll be releasing our full set of figures for the Flat season soon but we’re set to have an increase of around 20% on last year which is very encouraging.
One aspect of the coverage I thought really worked on Saturday was the interviews in the weighing room both before and after the races. A huge thank you goes out to the jockeys who helped out.
The season itself was a slow burner but took off with Frankie’s fab four-and-three-quarter winners on Gold Cup day at Royal Ascot.
Enable then arrived on the scene and the drama grew from there with great races and stories galore. The fact she stays in training next year, with Pinatubo looking a potential superstar among the juveniles, and the likes of Logician waiting in the wings, means there’s so much to look forward to.
Thank you to everyone who has watched and supported us over the last few months.
The bucking of television trends was one of my main questions to new BHA chair Annamaria Phelps in her first TV interview on Saturday.
I also asked why you often see the sport on the back foot both inside and outside of parliament given it employs thousands of people, creates so much revenue and provides enjoyment to millions.
She’s arrived in the role form outside the sport and strikes me as being a cool head and steady hand at the helm of the governing body, full of experience and common sense.
She has a bulging inbox of challenges but I do sense she has the skill-set to get racing’s numerous factions talking – and then hopefully liaising.
The joy of my job is every week is completely different – and this weekend we head to Cheltenham for the Showcase Meeting.
Variety is the spice of life and I was delighted to unveil Ruby Walsh as our new signing for the jumps season before we get to Prestbury Park.
On Saturday Sir Anthony pointed out we now have an in-house expert on hand if a horse falls at the final fence – suggesting he and Ruby could have a similar dynamic to a pair of former footballers, one form Manchester United, the other Liverpool, who I worked closely with in a previous professional life.