Mike Vince on the history of Champions Day including Pat Smullen on Fascinating Rock

Pat Smullen - A Champion gone too soon

Mike Vince looks ahead to British Champions Day with a tinge of sadness as he recalls one of Pat Smullen's star rides on the big day at Ascot.

So will it really be 10 years on Saturday since Jamie Spencer, on Fame and Glory, narrowly saw off Opinion Poll and Colour Vision to land the first running of the Group 3, as it was then, QUIPCO Long Distance Cup – the opening race of the annual October bonanza?

So much has happened and so many the memories - Frankel, not once but twice as the ultimate champion took his final curtain call, Cirrus Des Aigles, Gordon Lord Byron, Cracksman, Minding - I could go on.

But there will be a double touch of sadness on Saturday. First, that the Ascot stands will be quiet and no crowds will be watching, and secondly because this was a stage where Pat Smullen always excelled.

Think back to Sapphire and Rite Of Passage in 2012 and Forgotten Rules in 2014 - all Smullen masterclasses, but for me his QIPCO Champion Stakes winning ride on Fascinating Rock was one of the best. The Dermot Weld-trained three year old was in Britain for the third time having finished down the field in Australia’s Derby the year before and a few weeks before Ascot had appeared just up the A308 when a beaten favourite in the Winter Hill Stakes at Windsor.

Smullen got his tactics spot on, stormed past Jack Hobbs and came home ahead of Found, Jack Hobbs and the likes of Racing History and Air Pilot - it still sticks in the memory.

But Champions Day has always thrown up more than its share of shocks, and just a couple of years ago we got one that also put the winning rider in the ‘biggest smile in the Champions Day winners enclosure’ competition.

It was the sprint. The horse was Sands Of Mali, second in the Commonwealth Cup over course and distance at the Royal Meeting four months previously, and sent off at 28/1 in a star-studded field with old favourite The Tin Man starting as favourite.

It was ‘friends reunited’ as Paul Hanagan was back on board for old mentor Richard Fahey - it looked like he was a sitting duck as Harry Angel moved up a furlong out but the big northern hope found more and Hanagan looked like a man whose beloved Liverpool had just won the treble!

Sands Of Mali roars to victory at Ascot

Yes, we have come a long way from 2011. The late and much-missed Alistair Haggis, who was one of the key players behind the scenes in the inaugural years, asked me to do the racecourse commentary for the first Champions Day, which in those days ended with a 29-runner, maximum-field Apprentice Handicap over seven furlongs.

I have been lucky enough to call World Cups and Olympic Games, but this was something like no other - as in derigging the BBC took all my monitors out (they were restored seconds before the off). But never before or since will you have heard on a racecourse: ‘All my screens are down up here but having counted feet I think there are four to load’. Talk about a man-making experience!

Not surprising I remember to this day Edinburgh Knight under Matthew Davies winning - and the bookies loving the concept of that race as the day's only handicap.

So we’re set for 2020. There’ll be a surprise somewhere for sure, but once again this is Britain’s richest raceday and those that emerge with the Champion title on Saturday night will most certainly have earned it.

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