The stage is set for another thrilling Champions Day
The stage is set for another thrilling Champions Day

The Cunningham File: Stars align as Champions Day marks tenth anniversary

Graham Cunningham tackles the most challenging posers for punters heading into a British Champions Day which promises so much.

The baby that came bouncing into the racing world with a blend of gripe water and golden promises turns ten this weekend.

Newmarket stalwarts were filthy about having several old gems stolen from under their noses, while Racing For Change (soon to become Great British Racing) assured us that dusting those jewels down and displaying them in a shiny Ascot showcase would help end the Flat season with a bang rather than a whimper.

In truth, you would have to be a tough audience to argue that Qipco British Champions Day hasn’t delivered appreciable benefits. The threat of deep ground has receded for the 2021 edition - which features 21 different G1 winners if I’ve counted right - but a host of key questions remain to turn Champions Day into a profitable day.

How deep is this year’s card?

Baaeed skips clear of El Drama
Baaeed skips clear of El Drama

Few racing showpieces attract every big hitter and this one has lost several heavyweights with the retirement of top sprinter Starman and leading miler Poetic Flare and another late Love defection.

But we do have round three of Trueshan v Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup, round two of Mishriff v Adayar in the Champion and a first clash between crack milers Palace Pier and Baaeed in the QEII.

The Fillies & Mares race lacks depth after a few late surprises, while genuine current G1 performers are thin on the ground in the Sprint, but it looks a strong enough betting card even before you throw in a high-class handicap to finish.

What will conditions be like?

A fair bit less demanding than several recent Champions Day cards. They started on soft and finished on heavy at Ascot two weeks ago but there hasn’t been much rain since and good to soft looks favourite with little or no rain likely between now and the weekend.

Will Adayar be back on his A Game in the Champion?

It’s great to see him backing up after his Arc run and Charlie Appleby hasn’t made many false steps all year. Add in the fact that Pride and Magical won the Champion two weeks after tough Arc workouts and fans of the Derby and King George hero have reasons to be cheerful.

But this year’s Arc replay sounds an alarm. It came as no surprise to see Adayar race freely at Longchamp and his initial kick for home was impressive. But the powerful Frankel colt lost his power late. Correction, Adayar looked jiggered as the principals forged on. The market says that doesn’t bother most people. But it bothers me.

So this is Mishriff’s Champion to win or lose, then?

Mishriff versus Adayar in numbers

Granted, John Gosden’s colt flopped in this race last year on a day when stablemates Palace Pier and Stradivarius were also eclipsed but his overall record is seductive and he should be ready to peak again after a runaway Juddmonte International success at York.

That peak is well up to the standard usually required to win the Champion Stakes. And, whichever way you approach this year’s race, it’s hard to envisage a finish without Mishriff in a leading role.

Is there a party crasher?

Rugged globetrotter Addeybb has been on the dance floor in the last two renewals, chasing home Magical then beating Skalleti, but if Addeybb is in the mix again then why has William Haggas encouraged Mohamed Obaida to shake out the biscuit tin for Dubai Honour’s £75,000 supplementary entry?

Because he feels he has a highly progressive three-year-old on his hands is the short answer, and Dubai Honour looks one of the more appealing big-priced options on the card. Dubai Honour has taken a notable step forward with every start this year, charging from the rear to land two French G2 contests with real authority.

There is no reading of the form book that makes him equal to a peak-form Mishriff and Adayar – he has 9lb and 10lb to find with that pair on Timeform numbers - but his hungry galloping style really catches the eye and Torquator Tasso’s Arc success hinted that the middle-distance bar may not be set quite so high as is commonly believed.

Palace Pier or Baaeed for the QEII?

Palace Pier - rated 131 after St James's Palace Stakes win
Palace Pier is the one they all have to beat

You probably know the ins and outs of this debate off by heart already. Palace Pier’s sole blip came in this race last year but his overall record is tremendous, while Baaeed is a perfect five from five but didn’t convince everybody in making a successful G1 debut in a Prix du Moulin that isn’t working out at all well.

The Revenant is probably the same horse who has finished second and first in the last two renewals but he will probably have to better his best Timeform mark (125) to score again and that seems a fair task given the ground won’t be as testing as last year.

No, the two at the top of the market look the pair to nose on here. Palace Pier is hardly the bargain of the season at skinny odds but he’s the best horse in the race by some way at his peak and that makes him very hard to oppose indeed.

What price Alcohol Free to help Oisin seal another title?

This is what winning the Sussex Stakes meant on Alcohol Free
Oisin Murphy and Alcohol Free after winning the Sussex

The irony would be uncanny given the champion jockey’s recent failed breathalyser and Andrew Balding’s filly is back to her best trip after a brief middle-distance dalliance behind Mishriff at York.

Bookmakers look to have her pegged about right at 9/1 but it’s worth noting that Balding’s strike rate has dipped of late. And, without wishing to dwell on negatives, it’s also worth asking just how often Murphy has been breathalysed in recent years?

Testing just over the limit twice from two tests is very different from doing twice from a large sample spread over several years.

Some will say such info is for the BHA and Murphy alone. Still, it’s useful to have the full facts before raining down judgement.

Are we in for another Champions Sprint boilover?

Art Power storms ahead of his rivals at Ascot
Art Power's big day at Royal Ascot as a three-year-old

Anything’s possible but I wouldn’t read much into the fact that the last four winners have been returned at 16/1, 33/1 and 28/1 and 10/1 as testing ground clearly played a significant role.

Starman’s absence leaves the door ajar for any reliable G1 sprinter who gets it all right on the day and Art Power fits the bill. Tim Easterby’s colt has a strong Ascot record and looked in prime form when bolting up in G3 company at the Curragh last month. A high cruising speed is Art Power’s main asset – so the dry forecast looks a bonus – and this looks his best chance yet to nail a big one provided stall 20 isn’t a hindrance.

What should we make of the Snowfall switch?

Snowfall is away and clear at York
Snowfall is away and clear at York

The late switch from the Champion to the Fillies & Mares wouldn’t have shocked overnight exchange watchers and wider betting markets are now reacting to news that a triple Oaks winner will be staying at her best trip against a field with zero G1 successes between them.

Key form threats Free Wind and La Petite Coco have both dropped out at the 48-hour stage and, with Love also missing, this now looks a simple case of whether Snowfall is still at anything like the same level she showed to storm through those three summer showpieces.

Aidan O’Brien’s filly failed to spark in her trial for the Arc but she was far from discredited when sixth in the big race itself. Invite is a potential improver and Eshaada still has potential if she learns to settle but none of this field have come close to matching Snowfall’s peak Timeform mark of 124 and, with less demanding ground likely to suit, she really ought to be winning this with authority.

Is Trueshan a good thing for the Long Distance Cup?

Trueshan - too good for Stradivarius
Trueshan goes for Alan King and Hollie Doyle

Is any horse a banker when turned out just two weeks after grinding it out over two and a half miles in deep ground at Longchamp?

Trueshan bolted up in this race twelve months ago and has fully confirmed that promise this year with dominant wins at Goodwood and Longchamp but he’s as short as to see off one of the strongest fields ever assembled for this race.

Stradivarius can’t be written off provided Frankie reverts to stalk and pounce tactics, while Hamish is a dangerous new shooter in the two mile division and Gold Cup runner-up Princess Zoe can’t be discounted. Trueshan can clearly subdue them if still at his peak but this might be less simple than the market suggests.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before...

Morrissey made an interesting point when he trilled that “we hate it when our friends become successful.”

It’s a little-known fact that the former Smiths frontman also penned a B-side called “we loathe it when our colleagues find an angle we wanted ourselves” but that was the tune in my head when Adam Houghton reacted to Inspiral’s Fillies’ Mile win last Friday.

Adam’s thoughts are worth revisiting here in a well-researched piece that used Rainbow View – whose flawless 2008 campaign bears a striking resemblance to Inspiral’s juvenile season - as a cautionary tale.

Rainbow View failed to deliver when sent off at 8/11 for the 1000 Guineas in 2009 and Gosden has trained two other Fillies’ Mile winners – namely Crystal Music and Nannina – who failed to place when fancied for the Classic.

Gosden does have one Guineas to his credit thanks to 14/1 shot Lahan in 2000 but his overall record – which also includes star colts like Raven’s Pass, Kingman and Roaring Lion - suggests his best three-year-olds prosper as the season goes on. Food for thought for those who have backed Inspiral down to for next year’s 1000.

Trevor’s tale cut from classic northern Cloth

Trevor Hemmings, one of jump racing's greatest supporters and the owner of three Grand National winners, has died at the age of 86.

Trevor Hemmings was never a hard man to root for and I occupied a privileged position for each of his three Grand National wins.

Down on the rails with pals when Hedgehunter came up the Aintree run-in like a steam train in 2005; stifling cheers with my teenage son in Stewart Machin’s lofty commentary box when Ballabriggs helped Donald emulate Ginger in 2011; and tucked away in the C4 studio with Lucky and Jimbo as Many Clouds battled home in 2015.

And yet my most vivid memories of Trevor are of grizzled old Wiganers telling bar tales of how they laid bricks with him half a century ago and of bold chasers like The Last Fling and Young Kenny carrying his silks once he moved from building sites to boardrooms.

Preston North End have reduced admission prices to £5 for Saturday’s Championship clash, all receipts to go to charities supported by the club’s hugely popular former owner. Aintree will pay its own tribute next week but what price the aptly named Cloth Cap putting his owner back in the news in the 2022 National?

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