Sport Horse Racing

Tuesday 16 January 2018


Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

A year ago, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) revealed plans for a Champions Series that would culminate in a Breeders' Cup-style finale at Ascot today.

The long-term concept was to build a climax to the British season to match the bonanza of a Group One extravaganza that Longchamp boasts on Arc day.

Crucially, such a lofty objective would be achieved only if the quality of horse contesting this afternoon's supporting Group Two and Three races eventually demanded as much.

The other supposed selling point was a series format that comprised of 30 races between the Guineas meeting at Newmarket and the fireworks at Ascot.

There were no points to be accumulated and there would be no champions crowned at the end of term, but it was, the BHA told us, "marketing material for a broader base".

In a barefaced effort to address the anomaly this week, it was announced that the most successful trainer and jockey during the series would be recognised with cash prizes for the charities of their choice.

However, on the afternoon that the original Champions Day vision is realised, the fact is that the series element is completely redundant.

When the Order Of Merit existed over jumps, there was a real and distinct objective to the schedule. It had an end-goal that earned the connections of the successful horse a £100,000 prize, which ensured that many of the better campaigners were kept busy.

It also provided greenhorn race fans with a tangible leaderboard. Not everyone was gone on it, but it had a purpose. This new Flat incarnation doesn't.

That apart, you have to credit Ascot with the turnout for its inaugural Champions Day. Frankel, one of the most exciting Flat horses to ever set foot on a racecourse, graces the QE II, and So You Think, despite his Arc defeat, carries a somewhat less invincible aura into the Champion Stakes.

Needless to say, the organisers are blessed to have a horse with Frankel's freakish ability and box office appeal at their disposal. Regardless of anything else on the programme, everyone wants to see what Henry Cecil's equine freight train does next.

Indeed, that he is here at all is vindication for the switching of the QE II from its traditional September slot. Frankel began his campaign in April and is pencilled in to remain in training in 2012, so connections had a valid excuse to opt out.

They never threatened to do so, and there is plenty of other evidence on the card to suggest that the British trainers are intent on supporting the initiative as best they can. The likes of Deacon Blues, Excelebration, Dick Turpin, Snow Fairy and Nathaniel might all have been found easier or more suitable targets, while Moonlight Cloud, Cirrus Des Aigles and Immortal Verse head a fine French deputation.

So You Think leads the Irish challenge, one that is in keeping with what has been a mixed season for our best Flat horses.

Neither he nor his stable-mate Fame And Glory, which tackles the stayers' race, have fully delivered on the promise of earlier, yet you'd still fancy Aidan O'Brien to have them ripe to redeem themselves. For, if there is one thing that O'Brien has reminded us of this year, it is that he has few peers at making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

From a poor crop -- by Ballydoyle's standards -- of three-year-olds, he sent out Roderic O'Connor and Treasure Beach to win two Classics, and the latter then added another Grade One in Arlington.

O'Brien's new-found penchant for exploiting substandard international Grade Ones also resulted in Cape Blanco, a horse limited at the same level here, knocking up a hat-trick in America.

Then, in recent weeks, he coaxed remarkable improvement out of Reply and Crusade to secure major juvenile honours at fancy odds of 20/1 and 25/1.

We all know about the Ballydoyle handler's resources, but he remains one of the game's finest practitioners at getting the most out of what he has, a trait he shares with his mentor Jim Bolger.

No other trainer of Bolger's vintage has shown the capacity or desire to re-invent themselves in the manner that he did in the last decade and his rejuvenation was re-ignited by Parish Hall's 20/1 upset in the Dewhurst.

Today, Bolger relies on Banimpire in the fillies and mares' race. True to Coolcullen type, Banimpire has thrived on a busy campaign, her famous Ribblesdale triumph at Royal Ascot coming just four days after she won a Group Three at Cork.

Like so many of our three-year-olds this year, she has been exposed in the best company, but no one could have squeezed more out of her than Bolger has. And it's been that kind of year for our flag-bearers in general, with numerous meritable performances despite the absence of any outstanding individual.

So, with a bit of luck, there are grounds for believing that our handful of representatives at Ascot can leave some sort of mark on a day that might already be on the verge of justifying its existence. With a decent array of quality scattered across the non-Group Ones, in time Champions Day should work.

As for the suggestion that a similar day in Ireland might also work -- it wouldn't. Unlike across the water, Flat racing here doesn't have the support to justify it, and you would simply be robbing Peter to pay Paul on two fronts.

Firstly, while there is no evidence to suggest that rearranging the English fixture list has adversely affected other Pattern races at this time of year, for us to ape what they have done would.

It could ultimately mean that, alongside Ascot, Longchamp and the Breeders' Cup, you would be shoehorning a fourth day of multiple championship races into the calendar, spreading options far too thinly for everyone.

Secondly, if you were to take a bunch of our best late summer/autumn Group Ones and put them all on a single day at, say, Leopardstown, the potential reward would not outweigh the cost.

An optimistic estimate might predict a gate of 20,000 -- still below many of the big jump days -- and the fixtures that you take from would be deserted.

As if anyone needs reminding, we have far too many days like that already.

Irish Independent

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