Donn's Articles » Champions’ Day at Ascot

Champions’ Day at Ascot

The weather dominated the preamble. The weather and the ground and the absentees. In truth, there was as much talk during the week about the horses who weren’t going to run at Ascot on Qipco British Champions Day yesterday as there was about the horses who were. Yesterday it was the ones who were here who did the talking.

It rains in Britain in mid-October and the ground gets soft. That’s just the way it is. Four months ago at Royal Ascot in the middle of June the sun shone and the fast-ground horses dominated. Yesterday’s terrain was different. Fair is fair.

Forgotten Rules is one of those horses who likes to get his hoof into the ground a little. Unusually for a Champions’ Day winner, Forgotten Rules made his racecourse debut in a bumper at Punchestown last April, and he won it by 13 lengths, and he followed up by winning a flat race at Galway in August by eight. That was the last time we saw the Moyglare Stud gelding in public before yesterday.

We could have seen him in the Irish St Leger at The Curragh last month had he been trained by a man who is slightly less patient than Dermot Weld. The ground was just too fast for him at The Curragh on Irish Leger day, the trainer decreed. He bided his time, a sniper in the grass, waited on the weather and the ground, then squeezed the trigger gently and, bam. Bullseye.

Pat Smullen was superb on the son of Nayef. Insulated by the confidence that he had in his horse, buoyed by the notion that the four-year-old could progress to be a top class stayer, Ireland’s champion jockey elect held his horse up out the back in the early stages of the race. He made his ground stealthily before delivering him with a withering if slightly wayward run down the outside in the home straight to nab the leader Pallasator at the furlong pole before surging forward to win by the best part of two lengths.

“I knew that the ground would not be a problem for him,” said Weld. “I thought that his inexperience would be the only danger, but he knuckled down well.”

It is only two years since Weld won this race with Rite Of Passage, who had, like Forgotten Rules, started off his racing career by winning a bumper. The difference between the two horses is that Rite Of Passage had won an Ascot Gold Cup in the interim. Perhaps Forgotten Rules can construct his CV in reverse.

“I love training these stayers,” said Weld. “Hopefully he can be another Rite Of Passage. His target will be the Gold Cup next year, as long as there is a bit of ease in the ground.”

Gordon Lord Byron is another who appreciates a bit of ease in the ground. He goes on good ground too, and trainer Tom Hogan is adamant that he does not want it too soft, but he proved once again that soft conditions hold no fear for him when he landed the British Champion Sprint Stakes.

The Byron gelding was actually the horse that nobody wanted. Bought for two thousand euro by owner Morgan Cahalan’s daughter Jessica as a foal, he was unsold as a yearling, and he was unsold as a two-year-old. It was only because nobody wanted to buy him that he ended up in Hogan’s yard just outside Nenagh. Lucky Project Pinhook did not work.

Adversity followed anonymity. He broke his pelvis on his racecourse debut and he stood in his box for three months, the trainer patient enough to allow him the time that he needed to recuperate completely.

That patience had been well rewarded before yesterday. It was rewarded when he won the Sprint Cup at Haydock and when he won the Prix de la Foret at Longchamp and when he won the George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill in Australia last March. He had never got it right at Ascot before, however. In four runs there, he had never finished better than fourth. Yesterday, that record was set right.

Rider Wayne Lordan – who also landed this race last year on Slade Power – was patient too. Faced with a wall of horses in front of him a furlong out, he waited for the gap to appear between Tropics and Jack Dexter, and it was only when it did that he asked his horse to go forward. Gordon Lord Byron’s response was impressive, he burst through the gap willingly and went on to win by over a length. Cosy in the end. Patience rewarded.

It was British Champions’ Day, but it was also a good day for Irish-trained horses. Two winners on the six-race card, and the Aidan O’Brien-trained Chicquita did really well to finish third in the Fillies’ & Mares’ Stakes, while Free Eagle ran a cracker to finish third in the Champion Stakes on ground that was probably too soft for him. The Dermot Weld-trained colt remains a horse with enormous potential. All things being equal, that potential will no doubt be realised in time.

“Patience always pays dividends,” said Weld. “But you must know that the ability is there to start off with, otherwise it is a waste of time.”

© The Sunday Times, 19th October 2014