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By Anil Mukhi | 19 Oct 2018 |

Anil Mukhi

Sponsored by QIPCO and run annually at Ascot in the second half of October, British Champions Day is a season-end racing programme that will take place for the eighth time this year. With the "Arc" meeting in Paris in France at the start of October and the Breeders' Cup “World Championships” in the USA in early November, this is the only time slot available and even though the going is often heavy midway through Autumn excellent sporting action is on offer.

Although on occasion the weather gods have smiled, 2018 has seen Ascot receiving over 40 mm of rain during the week and although no more precipitation is expected, the going is officially heavy on the round course and soft on the straight mile. This has already had its implications, as detailed below, even if it has not affected the turnout of the expected stars, who are out in force.

The card commences at 1:25 p.m. local (5:55 p.m. in India) on the afternoon of Saturday, October 20th with the Gr.2 Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup over 2 miles. Formerly known as the Jockey Club Cup, the event has drawn just 7 starters. However, they do include the champion stayer of the year in John Gosden’s Stradivarius(by Sea The Stars), whose unbeaten season includes victory in the Gr.1 Ascot Gold Cup in June (in that respect he has emulated Pardallo, fully 50 years ago). By his sterling efforts, the mount of Frankie Dettori became the first Thoroughbred ever to win the £1,000,000 stayers bonus instituted by Weatherbys to encourage the production of stayers. On ground softer than he has ever won on, he faces a serious challenge from Aidan O’Brien’s Gr.1 Irish St. Leger hero Flag Of Honour (by Galileo), more so as Ryan Moore’s mount will receive 8 lbs by virtue of being a three-year-old.

Thirty-five minutes later, the £632,500 Gr.1 Qipco British Champions Sprint Stakes (6 fur.) – formerly the Diadem Stakes – has 14 declared to run, which include most of the usual suspects in a top sprint this season. James Fanshawe’s The Tin Man (by Equiano) is favoured to repeat his Haydock Sprint Cup victory under Oisin Murphy. Trying to deny him are, amongst others, Harry Angel (by Dark Angel), who has never actually won at Ascot from 5 attempts, and last year’s hero of this race, Librisa Breeze (by Mount Nelson), who has been winless since. Brando (by Pivotal) has frequently been placed since his Abernant Stakes triumph in the spring and gains a new rider in Jamie Spencer, replacing Tom Eaves. After some stinkers earlier this season, Limato(by Tagula) has bounced back with a hat trick, and is attractively priced at 16 to 1. Tasleet (by Showcasing), Sir Dancealot (by Sir Prancealot), Sands Of Mali (by Panis), Projection (by Acclamation), Dream Of Dreams (by Dream Ahead), etc., are all in the mix in what promises to be an ineluctable spectacle.

The third race, due off at 2:40 p.m. local, is for the females of the species, with one short of a dozen fillies and mares clashing in the Gr.1 Qipco British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes (12 fur.). A quartet of four-year-olds faces off against almost twice as many younger rivals. It’s fair to say that John Gosden holds the whip hand, even though Aidan O’Brien fields thrice as many runners! The former sends out La Ti Dar(by Dubawi), whose spotless record was mildly discoloured when she failed to peg back Kew Gardens in the Gr.1 William Hill St. Leger last month. Dettori should be able to get her home here to round off a splendid season. The filly is accompanied by stablemate Coronet, a year-older grey by the same sire, with Olivier Peslier at the controls.

Irish hopes rest with Hydrangea (by Galileo), last year’s winner, and Magical (by Galileo), neither of which has done anything of great import in 2018 but both cannot be ignored due to their antecedents. In fact, a couple of others are probably more realistic chances here, namely Andre Fabre’s Gr.1 Prix Vermeille heroine for Godolphin, Kitesurf (also by Dubawi), from France and Roger Varian’s Pilaster (by Nathaniel), who is attempting to show that her sire has more arrows to his bow than just Enable (though that is a mighty arrow indeed!).

As many as 15 high-class milers clash for the £1,156,250 Gr.1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (8 fur.) sponsored by Qipco at 3:15 p.m. local, one of which is the season’s star 10 furlong runner, Roaring Lion (by Kitten’s Joy), yet another inmate of Gosden’s Clarehaven Stables in Newmarket. Connections have elected to skip his alternate engagement over his preferred trip in favour of a drop back to a mile because the mile event is contested on the straight track which is merely soft – as opposed to heavy on the round course used for the longer race, which does not suit him.

Speaking of his ward’s tepid start to the season and subsequent progress, Gosden offered this view: "For Roaring Lion, it was a cold and miserable winter and we had no spring and he just wasn't with us - he's an American boy and wasn't expecting this kind of boring weather. I've never had a horse get bigger and stronger like he has………...he came good with racing and training - it's got him disciplined and professional." His owner’s retained rider, Oisin Murphy, continues his fruitful partnership with the grey.

Ranged in formation against him on the greensward of Ascot is a formidable pack, headed by the French emissary, Recoletos (by Whipper), making his third foray to the Berkshire track for trainer Carlos Laffon-Parias and jockey Olivier Peslier. Also in attendance is the supplemented (at a cost of £70,000) Karl Burke-trainee, Laurens (by Siyouni), re-united with rider P.J. McDonald who is returning from injury, as well as Addeybb (by Pivotal) who has spent the season vainly searching for his preferred soft ground and hence has not been seen for 154 days! The lengthy absence should not inconvenience the student of the William Haggas academy, who will be kept to his task by James Doyle.  

On many such championship afternoons, the authorities “save the best for last”, and hence the final Pattern Race – and the piece de resistance – is the £1,300,000 Gr.1 Qipco Champion Stakes (10 fur.) at 3:50 p.m.local. A compact field of 8 runners will present itself to the starter. If one goes by the betting, five of those might as well have stayed at home. As we all know, anything can happen in a race run on heavy ground, so it’s not as cut and dried as it may appear! 

Heading the field on ratings is the enigmatic Cracksman (by Frankel),not seen out since Royal Ascot in June largely because of ground conditions in the Summer – he needs some cut in the ground to put forward his best. Yet another from the Gosden yard, he will be equipped for the first time with blinkers. This is a big deal, considering that the experienced trainer rarely employs headgear in Group Races.

His trainer was quite candid about his prospects: "Cracksman hasn't had an ideal year and, of course, we've had the hottest, driest summer since 1976 which isn't exactly his ground. He's in top order. At Royal Ascot, he wasn't quite mentally with us; he got very interested in the girls coming back from the Windsor Forest and obviously caught a little whiff of them and was rather keener to get over the hedge and say hello to them.”

As usual, Frankie Dettori will be tasked with unlocking the winning combination and no doubt he will try and keep him away from the only female in the line-up during the preliminaries! Punters will have to determine whether last year’s version of Cracksman shows up – the one that trounced Poet’s Dream by seven lengths – or whether it’s the milder persona that conceded tamely to the same horse in June this year. 

Stablemate of Poet’s Dream, and about his equal in ability, Crystal Ocean (by Sea The Stars) was last seen in futile chase of Enable, but that is probably good enough to be in serious contention here. William Buick is back in the saddle on the ultra-consistent runner from Michael Stoute’s Freemason Lodge in Newmarket. Irish challenger Rhododendron (by Galileo) has been anonymous since her Gr.1 Lockinge Stakes win back in May, but her compatriot Capri (by Galileo) is coming off an excellent effort in the Gr.1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe 13 days earlier. Lightly raced this term, he should strip fitter after his last essay but the shorter trip may not quite suit Aidan O’Brien’s St. Leger winner of 2017.

Worldwide, public choices oblige only about once every three occasions and so some upsets could be on the cards. Nevertheless, one expects Cracksman and Roaring Lion to be too good for their opponents in the two biggest events of the card.