With around half a million pounds between the top three in the 2021 British Flat Trainers' Championship, and £4million of prize money up for grabs at Ascot this weekend, a huge amount obviously hinges on QIPCO British Champions Day.
So who are the key players for title-seeking trainers Charlie Appleby, Andrew Balding and John & Thady Gosden, and where will this year's championship - which doesn't actually conclude until December 31 - effectively be won and lost on Saturday?
Beyond Alcohol Free, Andrew Balding’s team looks a touch short on fire-power in relation to the others (Happy Power and Foxes Tales – both on BHA marks of 111 – being the next highest-rated behind his QEII-bound filly), and it’s fascinating to see teams Gosden and Appleby effectively playing their aces in the same race.
Represented in the Champion Stakes by Mishriff and Adayar respectively, this has all the makings of a bruising title decider.
The three-year-old Adayar came out on top when they first met over a mile and a half in the King George here in July, Godolphin’s latest Derby winner – in receipt of 11lb on the day – staying on strongly to ultimately win going away by a length and three-quarters.
They’ve gone separate ways since, Mishriff slamming an unusually modest field back over this weekend’s trip in the Juddmonte International, and Adayar running a fair fourth in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe having had to make most of his own running.
The way Adayar ran at ParisLongchamp – pretty aggressively and with the choke out for the first half-mile – strongly suggests he’ll handle a return to 10 furlongs, and, on the face of it at least, it wasn’t the kind of performance that hinted he’d had enough for the year.
Mishriff was deadly at York. He stalked and pounced before tearing six lengths clear of a one-paced Alenquer to record a performance Timeform ranked right alongside his high-profile international scores back in February and March.
Each has their merits here, that much is clear, but the weight-for-age is now down to 4lb which strictly leaves Adayar with another couple of lengths to find on his older rival, the pair of them currently both officially rated 127.
Providing Manobo and Stradivarius come unstuck behind the rock-solid Trueshan in the Long Distance Cup, and Creative Flare doesn't hit bullseye in the Champions Sprint, the first really meaningful blows in this fascinating mini-battle could well be struck in the Fillies & Mares, where Free Wind and Invite will no doubt be popular.
The Gosden-trained Free Wind looks highly likely to be favourite come raceday and it’s not hard to see why on the back of her seven-length victory in the Group Two Park Stakes. That came over a mile and three-quarters but her earlier progress was made in races at 10 and 12 furlongs, so dropping back here doesn’t look a huge problem - indeed the question being posed heading to Doncaster was 'will she stay?'
She can quicken sharply which will stand her in good stead on her first spin around Ascot, while the reasonable weather forecast looks in her favour too as she’s yet to race on anything slower than good, according to Timeform (official description when she won a minor event at Doncaster in June was good to soft).
While Free Wind’s arc of improvement is clear and perfectly traceable, Invite’s career has been rather more truncated and there’s a chance we’re only just scratching the surface.
Having started out with Sylvester Kirk and won her novice first time out at Lingfield last October, the daughter of The Gurkha was bought by Team Valor and sent to Marco Botti, for whom she won a Doncaster handicap over 10 furlongs in mid-May.
She was then sent off 5/4 favourite for the Italian Oaks but jockey John Egan later reported she had become wound up as he had to remove the hood for the parade. That clearly wasn’t enough of an excuse to satisfy connections as the filly was immediately switched to Balding, and her debut at Chester – following almost 100 days away – could hardly have been more striking.
Tackling a mile and a half for the first time, Invite settled beautifully for Egan near the back of the field before picking off rivals and ultimately mowing down Alounak to win by a widening two lengths.
Granted, she was getting almost a stone from the boys at Chester, but she’s evidently a strong traveller with a turn of foot to match Free Wind, and though still 10lb shy of that rival on what we’ve seen so far, it’s hard to believe this classy mover has maxed out just yet.
(Video courtesy of QIPCO British Champions Series)
The freshness angle with Fillies & Mares hope Invite is arguably her most alluring attribute, especially when compared to Balding stablemate Alcohol Free, who will be having her seven start of the year in the QEII.
Not only that, it will also be Alcohol Free’s toughest test of her life as despite seeing off 2000 Guineas winner Poetic Flare when first facing the colts in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, taking on Palace Pier and Baaeed is another matter altogether.
Trainers’ championship aside, this could be one of the races of the day but the Gosdens have every right to be confident going into QEII battle. Palace Pier, rated 125 and performing to that kind of level in six of his last seven public appearances, has had just about the perfect campaign to this point.
After reportedly suffering an interrupted preparation ahead of the Jacques le Marois, he did remarkably well to keep the winning sequence going when edging out Poetic Flare in Deauville, and the noises from the camp since then have been positive.
He was pretty well stuffed when 8/11 here last year though there were mitigating circumstances - namely the poached ground, an awkward start and spreading a plate mid-race. It’s the only defeat he’s ever suffered and while Baaeed’s dancecard remains flawless, he’ll need to engage new gears to dethrone the current king miler.
As for Appleby, the markets indicate Adayar is shortest, but perhaps Creative Force is the one to get the boys in blue rolling this weekend.
They’ll be praying for rain for him as he’s looked best with cut but two Newmarket wins at the start of 2021 came on good to firm, and he’s not looked out of place in top six-furlong company since a sparkling turn of foot landed him the Jersey Stakes.
He slipped and nodded on leaving the stalls en route to finishing sixth in the Sprint Cup on quick ground at Haydock last time and has the tools to at least run a very solid race this weekend.
With a winners' pot just north of £100,000, the closing Balmoral Handicap is hardly inconsequential and nothing can come close to the team assembled by the Gosdens, who could by this point be in pole position and ready to administer the knockout punch.
There's only room for 20 and Sunray Major (22) is obviously teetering on the brink of missing the cut ahead of Thursday's decs, but whether he makes it or not don't ignore King Leonidas, who looks cut from a similar cloth.
He found himself too far back with too much to do on handicap debut over 10 furlongs at Newbury last month but presumably that first run since last June was needed and dropping back in distance to a mile looks the killer move.
The son of Kingman went off 9/4 favourite for last year's Jersey so any presumption that a mark of 103 is beyond him looks a particularly dangerous game to play.
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