Ben Linfoot answers the key questions ahead of QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday on what looks a high-class renewal of the meeting.
Take your pick. It has to be between the two crown jewels – the Champion Stakes and the QEII – as it so often is. But this year both are set up to be season-defining belters with a mega healthy mix of returning champions, crackerjack older horses and seductive three-year-olds.
The Champion Stakes has potentially been given a huge boost by the slightly surprising possibility of Adayar rocking up for the test 13 days after his Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe fourth, his rivalry with Mishriff set to be reignited following on from their King George set to.
Throw in a very strong hand from William Haggas including last year’s champion, Addeybb, and you have a very good renewal indeed.
But the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes stands out as the race of the day, perhaps the race of the season. Here too we have the returning champ, The Revenant, along with triple-Group One winner Alcohol Free and a strong Godolphin duo in Benbatl and Master Of The Seas.
Yet that quartet look a sideshow here compared to the Palace Pier v Baaeed head-to-head, with the leading duo boasting 14 wins from 15 starts between them. Palace Pier’s only defeat came in this race last year but he has bounced back this season in style, while Baaeed has carved out a 5 from 5 career in four months culminating in G1 glory in the Prix du Moulin last time out.
Haggas indicated on the Nick Luck Daily Podcast this week that he had a hard time getting Baaeed to Longchamp in top working order and that he’s had a much more seamless passage in preparing him for Champions Day which provides serious food for thought.
In my mind there’s no doubt he has the potential to get to Palace Pier’s level. And that tantalising prospect of a real arm wrestle makes the QEII the most mouth-watering prospect on a day jam-packed with highly-anticipated clashes.
Whoever you fancy in the Champion Stakes, you have to consider the possibility that if the real Adayar turns up he might well do a Cracksman and power his way to a convincing victory like the aforementioned hard-galloping fellow son of Frankel did before him.
The ground will be fine for him, we know he loves the track following his King George win and dropping to 10 furlongs could negate his growing tendency to be keen early on, while a distinct lack of pace pressure on paper could hand him an easy enough lead, as well.
When the bell rings on the turn for home it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him grinding away a couple of lengths clear, with Mishriff and Addeybb waiting to pounce just off the speed if everything has gone well for them.
But while Cracksman was aimed at Champions Day from a long way out and went into his victories off 41 and 122-day breaks, it does seem to have been an afterthought with Adayar. Just 13 days separate his tired Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe fourth and Saturday’s Ascot test and he takes on two paint-fresh rivals in Mishriff and Addeybb who come into this off 59 and 105-day absences, respectively.
Preparation could be a key factor. Longchamp may well have taken the edge off Adayar. But if he has taken it well there’s just a chance he might run away with this like that other monster-like son of Frankel did at successive Champion Days a few years ago.
Palace Pier or Baaeed? A question that looks likely to split Flat racing fans right up until the big duo bang heads at 3.10 on Saturday afternoon.
In the silver corner we have Palace Pier, five-time Group One winner, nine wins from 10 starts, weighing in with an official rating of 125 and strong claims of being the best miler of his generation.
In the blue and white corner we have Baaeed, five from five, with all the allure of an unbeaten run, maiden winner to Group One hero in the space of just 90 days, punching an OR of 121 with the promise of even more to come.
It looks a straight choice between been there and done it versus potential, a lofty standard against a horse who could reach the same level but hasn’t – quite – yet. In these circumstances the market can go either way and could be susceptible to the day’s events - like Frankie Dettori multiples rolling up onto Palace Pier, for example.
And Palace Pier deserves to be favourite. He’s posted at least three performances in his career at a level that Baaeed has yet to reach.
It’s simply a case of how much more there is to come from Baaeed. Which brings me onto that telling William Haggas quote from the NLDP mentioned at the top of this piece.
“[There will be] no excuses this time. We didn’t have a straightforward passage into France and if he carries on the way he is at the moment there’ll be no excuses.”
You have to read between the lines, but it seems Baaeed’s trainer is expecting an improved version of the horse that ‘only’ beat Order Of Australia a length and a quarter at Longchamp.
Palace Pier might be the likely and worthwhile favourite, but he could have a fight on his hands – both in the betting and on the racetrack.
Well, he could be couldn’t he?
He won this race by seven-and-a-half lengths last year with Saturday’s joint third-favourite, Search For A Song, in second.
Last time out he beat former staying king Stradivarius by four-and-a-half lengths in the Prix du Cadran on just his fourth start of the season, so he goes into Saturday on the back of a relatively light campaign.
He even beat fly in the ointment Hamish at Newbury a couple of years ago and is much improved since, so he really does look to have a hold on those at the top of the market.
But – and you knew there was a but coming – he might be unlucky in that the heavy morning dews are the only thing stopping the ground from drying out quicker and with no rain around conditions look to be turning against him.
With some portion of ‘good’ ground set to be in the going description on the round course he could well be vulnerable to a stayer with mile-and-a-half gears and that brings all of the aforementioned rivals and the improving Manobo into play.
On really testing ground I couldn’t possibly oppose him. But, looking at how conditions could end up, Trueshan looks beatable in the Champions Day opener.
In the last three British Champion Sprints we’ve had winners at 28/1, 33/1 and 16/1 and with Starman retired there’s no standout six-furlong sprinter amongst the entries for this year’s renewal.
On the face of it that’s the perfect situation for another blowout, but with the straight course likely to be riding good to soft this has a different look to the slug-fests on previous Champion Days and the market leaders have plenty in their favour.
Art Power over six on good to soft at Ascot is pretty much his optimum conditions and he comes into the race on the back of a power-packed win at the Curragh last time out.
Dragon Symbol steps back up to six furlongs for the first time since his July Cup second and could be potent on this sort of ground having raced on extremes for most of the season including in that Commonwealth Cup.
And Rohaan returns to the scene of his greatest triumph given he won the Wokingham here off a mark of 112 back in June and he ran an encouraging race in the Flying Five at the Curragh last time out with this test in mind.
Creative Force could’ve done with softer ground over this trip, but Minzaal is edging towards market leader status following a very nice comeback effort behind Tis Marvellous, so the handful of horses at the top of the betting have plenty going for them.
Gustavus Weston, who had subsequent Prix de l’Abbaye winner A Case Of You behind when convincingly winning over six furlongs at the Curragh in August, is an outsider with an interesting chance and Happy Power enters the conversation on his Diamond Jubilee fourth, but the more I look at this race the more the market leaders appeal.
After Sands Of Mali, Donjuan Triumphant and Glen Shiel at big prices, perhaps the shocks stop in the Champions Sprint this year.
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It has been a relatively quiet autumn on the Group One front for Aidan O’Brien, in comparison to recent years at least.
In 2017, for example, he had an incredible 10 G1 wins in the UK and Ireland in September and October, while in 2018 that number was six and in 2019 it was four.
But over the last six weeks he’s had just two top-level winners in St Mark’s Basilica and Tenebrism from 21 G1 darts and he’s set to field his smallest Champions Day team in five years this weekend.
The last time he fielded a single-figure team at Ascot was in 2016, but he’s got just nine individual horses entered up at the six-day stage and plenty will depend on if he unleashes Love and/or Snowfall on Champions Day with the Fillies & Mares looking the best winning opportunity for both - although both are in the Champion Stakes, as well.
Both would have a strong form chance in the fillies race, even against the improving daughter of Galileo, Free Wind, from the Gosden yard.
But it looks the Fillies & Mares or nothing for the master of Ballydoyle, unless something remarkable happens, as he bids to avoid back-to-back blanks on the last big day of the UK turf season.
If the Ascot and British Champion team can’t push through a top-class juvenile contest onto the card in the next few years as the desire for a seventh heaven increases, the Balmoral could soon be joined by a second handicap at the meeting.
Judging by the entries for the only handicap currently on the agenda a Silver Balmoral could be comfortably squeezed in – which John & Thady Gosden might be fully supportive of if rapid improver Sunray Major misses the cut this weekend.
The half-brother to Kingman has clearly been a slow burner but the four-year-old is two from two this season on what were just the third and fourth starts of his career, and he looks every inch a Group horse in the making.
If he gets in he’ll be a very short price to prevail but there are some interesting each-way shouts against him including Montatham who was second in the 2020 Hunt Cup.
He’s had a break since the summer and was too keen in his last handicap assignment at Sandown, but a big-field Ascot cavalry charge clearly suits and he’d be interesting if red-hot claimer Adam Farragher was on board again.
I wouldn’t rule out a big run from previous winner Escobar, either. He’s only 1lb higher than when he hosed up in this race two years ago and he’s been running well in defeat recently, most notably when second at Goodwood and Sandown in August and September.
In the famous Withernsea Thoroughbred dart board colours, considering David O’Meara’s record in this race, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if he hit the Balmoral bullseye for a second time, even if he is on a losing run of 23.
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