Thursday, 13 October 2011

British Champions Day

There’s a new climax to the flat season on Saturday. Racing fo Change has been slowly trying to regenerate racing and broaden its appeal for the last couple of years. One of its initiatives is this: a showstopping card of premium racing in the style of the Breeders Cup, with new race names that offer more than a doff of the cap in that direction too. RfC has recognised that the sport lacks compelling hooks for the population at large and needs to create a series of premier events to entice them in. Cramming a card with quality races has never been done here quite like this. Most of our landmark features are spread across three, four or five days at Festivals that eek out the quality with handicap quantity, marshalled by a TV schedule allowing time for only three or at best four races.  

So here we have a grandstanding fixture that has involved behind the scenes negotiations to secure live terrestrial TV coverage for five of the six races that total over £3m in prize money. It is the richest fixture ever staged in this country.

Pulling it together has meant dismembering the previous Champions Stakes card run at Newmarket and grafting on some reworked standards.  

The old Champions Day card had a lovely balance about it. It was a meeting I always fancied going to, but never made it. No chance now. The bewildering Cesarewitch and the big juvenile races have been pushed forward in the racing calendar and were run for the first time last week as part of the ‘Future Champions’ meeting at Newmarket.

But I’m no sourpuss here. I really like the look and shape of this new fixture.  Looks like the owners and trainers have got behind it, and I’m supporting it too.

British Champions Long Distance Cup
We get underway with a Group 3 two-mile stayers’ event known in previous years as The Jockey Club Cup and run at Newmarket. Opinion Poll sets the standard here. Consistent all season, his good  - rather than great - level of form means that Frankie Dettori rates him his best chance of victory on the card. Frankie also said, in Sky TVs interesting Armchair Jockey preview that Opinion Poll is a lazy horse and the new whip rules may count against him. More of a worry is the likely good or better going at Ascot with no further rain predicted this week. Fame And Glory will be challenging the Godolphin first string at the head of the market. On bare form, there is a case that his season is in decline. As evidence I submit his surprising defeat in the Irish St Leger prep and his bigger beating in the real thing too. My fancy for this race is Times Up. Old master John Dunlop has given him a sensible campaign and he easily won his first try at this trip in the listed Jockey Club Rose Bowl last month.  He needs to find a bit on form with proven group 1 campaigners, but Time’s Up is going the right way and will love the ground. Meeznah will be a very lively outsider in this or in the Fillies and Mares if she’s pointed that way instead.  

British Champions Sprints Stakes
A 6f sprint previously known as the Diadem Stakes. A week ago, this was shaping up to be a stunning race. The defections of Hoof It (dodgy hoof) and Bated Breath (Canadian appointment) take some of the gloss off. The James Fanshawe pair Deacon Blues and Society Rock figure prominently here. Bones, surely the thinnest trainer in racing, has been saying all week that Deacon Blues does the best work at home, but he doesn’t want the going too quick. Blues is four wins from five outings at around the Group 3 mark this term, two of which were on good.  No such ground worries for Society Rock who loves it round Ascot, and has proven Group 1 form having landed the Golden Jubilee at the Royal meeting. That one is held though, on a strict reading of form, by Moonlight Cloud. Her Deauville Group 1 was over 7f on very soft going. Freddie Head’s classy filly is stepping back to 6f for the first time in her eight-race career. Those slight concerns tempts me to plump for Deacon Blues. I’ll also have a small place on Hooray, one of my flat list horses, at a big price.

British Champions Fillies and Mares
Renamed from the Pride Stakes and switched from Newmarket, this will only be the fourth running of the race. Sir Michael Stoute’s Crystal Capella lines up again having won two of the previous three. This renewal is fascinating. She has a live chance here again, though the balance of her form this season suggests something to find against the likes of Dancing Rain and Vita Nova. The former is enigmatic, having nicked The Oaks from the front and then not having the race run to suit in the Irish equivalent. From that we can assume that she’ll be running handily on Saturday and sure to be much closer than at the Curragh. Vita Nova would have won the Lancashire Oaks but for a slipping saddle and was then subsequently beaten less than a length by Blue Bunting. Elsewhere, Ferdoos from the impressive Roger Varian in his debut season is a lightly raced sort and has been targeted for this race since her Haydock win, beating Vita Nova, in May. These are good form lines. I’m looking to another lightly raced type from John Gosden’s yard. Gertrude Bell has taken time to come right after a setback last season. She was the beneficiary of that Vita Nova saddle-slip in July, but has since been kept fresh for this race and at a good double figure price is my fancy.

QEII Stakes
The afternoon’s first Group 1 sees the return of Frankel following a lay-off since July. Frankel is obviously the horse of the season and probably of many other seasons as well. I loved being there at Goodwood to see him demolish Canford Cliffs. Imperious stuff. And here he will be unbackably short. But it is arguably the horse’s toughest assignment all season. He will have to be at his best to win. I simply have to oppose. I backed Immortal Verse at Deauville in August when she beat legendary miler Goldikova with a bit in hand. That win came on the back of landing an admittedly weak Coronation Stakes where she nevertheless showed the most devastating turn of foot I have seen this season. She’ll need that all day to get near Frankel here. But at 9-1 I’m happy to take my chances on the best miling filly in Europe. Excelebration is improving too and can expect to be closer to Frankel than when they met at this track in the St James’s Palace Stakes.

Champions Stakes
Saving the best til last, this is a good line-up with plenty of strength in depth for the day’s premier event. So You Think has the class to win this over possibly his best trip. Top drawer all season, his eclipse in the Arc has been blamed by connections on the draw. My only concern is the quick reappearance after a hard race at Longchamp two weeks ago. But he could be tough enough and its been done before, though this would be his 6th outing. Nathaniel is next best in the betting and another favourite of mine after I backed him in the King George. John Gosden wants an inside drawer for him and quickish ground.  He skipped the Arc for this and Gosden is a master of preparation for the big ones. The horse he has a compelling profile and I’ll side with him again. Dig deeper and it’s still more fascinating. Twice Over has won this twice before and seems to be coming here perfectly primed after two class performances. Stablemate and all round admirable filly Midday brings enviable Group 1 credibility, though she has been on the wrong end of a few too many close finishes this season. Green Destiny takes another step up after progressing through handicaps to win a couple of recent Group 3s. But this is surely a step too far. Cirrus Des Aigles has racked up bone-hard Group 2 & 3 consistency in French middle distance races, having run every few weeks since April. Respect. But I’m just not convinced. Snow Fairy would be interesting if lining up. The same argument about quickly reappearing after the Arc applies to her too. But she’s had a lighter season and seems to be getting better as the year winds on. If she turns up I’ll be looking for some good each-way value about this lovely filly.

This will be a good day and I wish the sport well with its new venture. And that, pretty much, will be that for the flat. There’s a little matter of the Breeders Cup in a few weeks, of course. But I’m already casting my eye over a few interesting novice chasers and hurdlers, some of whom may just divert my attention momentarily from this juicy action when they appear at Jumps HQ on Saturday….

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