Things We Learned » Champions’ Day lived up to billing

Champions’ Day lived up to billing

Qipco British Champions’ Day lived up to its billing.  Stradivarius won the Long Distance Cup and Roaring Lion won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Cracksman won the Champion Stakes, and champion trainer John Gosden trained them all.  And Frankie Dettori was doing champion dismounts all over the place.

It was some day for Gosden.  He had big chances in four of the five Group races, and he delivered.  He had the winner of three of them, and he had the second and third in the other.

All three winners had questions of varying degrees of severity to answer too.  Stradivarius was not at his best on the previous occasion on which we had seen him, when he had won the Lonsdale Cup at York and netted the £1 million stayers’ bonus.  He looked then like a horse who was in need of a break.

He got his break though.  The Lonsdale Cup was at the end of August, eight weeks before Champions’ Day.  And that was long enough for Gosden to have the Sea The Stars colt zinging again.

Cracksman had run below himself in his previous two runs.  He was wholly unimpressive in winning the Coronation Cup at Epsom in June, and he was well beaten by Poet’s Word in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot.

There was reported mitigation: he banged his head on the stalls at Epsom, and there were fillies hanging around at Ascot to take his mind off the job of racing.  Also, the ground was faster than ideal that day, and the combination of ground and distance was sharper than ideal.  Even so, he had plenty to prove on Saturday.

But Ascot on soft ground in the middle of October is very different to Ascot on flying ground in the middle of June, even if The Queen is present at both.  The middle of October is Cracksman time.  Fitted with a set of half-blinkers, the Frankel colt put up a performance that was up there with the performance that he put up last year at the same time, in the same place, in the same race.  And he was devastating last year.

But the questions that Roaring Lion had to answer were probably the most severe.  Not that he didn’t go into the QEII on the crest of a wave.  On the contrary, the Qatar Racing colt has had a momentum-fuelled campaign.  But all his greatest hits had been over 10 furlongs on fast ground.  Eclipse, Juddmonte International, Irish Champion Stakes.   Even his Dante win in May was gained on fast ground over 10 furlongs.

So the one mile of the QEII was probably sharper than ideal, and the soft ground was definitely softer than ideal.  And a straight mile too.  He hadn’t raced over a straight track since he had finished fifth in the Guineas in May.  That was the last time he had run over a mile too.

He wasn’t overly impressive in winning on Saturday.  He didn’t zing like he did at York or Sandown or Leopardstown.  But he got the job done when conditions were a fair way away from optimal for him.  That’s what the classy ones do. 

Hobson’s choice

There was never a chance that Thomas Hobson was going to get the Long Distance Cup in the stewards’ room.  He didn’t even get the chance to have his case heard in the stewards’ room.  The winning distance, after all, was a length and a half, not the proverbial cigarette-paper-width.

But if Stradivarius had run straight to the line, and if Willie Mullins’ horse had had a clear run at him, he might have run him close.

When Thomas Hobson was asked for his effort by Oisin Murphy a furlong and a half out, Stradivarius was fully three horse-widths off the inside rail.  By the time they got to the half-furlong marker, however, Stradivarius had closed the gap between himself and the rail.

So Frankie Dettori had his whip in his right hand.  Don’t think for a second that a world class rider like Dettori cannot get his horse to move to his right even if he has his whip in his right hand.

Dettori’s ride was top notch.  He rode all the way to the rules, which is what the top riders do.  He rode his horse in such a way that would maximise his horse’s chance of winning (and keeping) the race, under the rules as they stand.  And a three-day ban for careless riding was neither here nor there. 

We have been here a hundred times before.  The problem with the rules is that they favour the horse who has passes the winning post in front.  Invariably the perpetrator.  That is topsy-turvy.  Common sense dictates that the benefit of doubt should go with the victim, the one who has suffered the interference, not to the one who has caused it.

Champions’ Day changes 

So what do you change?  How do you make it better?

Get Group 1 status for the Long Distance Cup for starters.  It should be a Group 1.  Ideally, there would be five Group 1 races, not four Group 1s and a Group 2.  It’s a Group 1 in all but name anyway: a Group 2 race in which the Group 1 winners don’t have to carry a penalty.  And it’s Group 1 prize money.  And the average rating of the first four home on Saturday is now 114. 

You would love to see a top two-year-old race on the card too.  It’s difficult, because of all the changes that Newmarket made in order to allow the cornerstones be put in place for Champions’ Day at Ascot.  In return, they got Future Champions’ Day, which, in itself, is a success.  So it might be difficult to parachute a juveniles’ race into Champions’ Day at Ascot.

The most logical possible is the Royal Lodge Stakes.  A Group 2 race that used to be run at Ascot anyway.  Frankel won the last renewal run at Ascot.

And why not use the inside track?  The National Hunt track?  Surely you want to try to provide the best ground that you can provide for top class flat racehorses in the middle of October.  There is reportedly a contingency plan in place to move to the inside track if the flat track gets very soft, but why not prepare for it as Plan A?

And if you’re going to end the jockeys’ championship on Champions’ Day, shouldn’t you really end the trainers’ championship there too?  You can argue the merits of finishing the championships on Champions’ Day, and you can argue the merits of running them on to the true end of the turf flat season.  But it is difficult to see the rationale behind ending the jockeys’ championship earlier than the trainers’ championship. 

Try explaining it to someone who is trying to increase his or her interest in the sport.

As it happened, John Gosden had gone so far clear on Saturday that he could be crowned 2018 champion, but it would make much more sense to have all the champions’ winning lines on the same day.

Classic encounter

With Mendelssohn and Roaring Lion gearing up for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, there is an air of 2008 about it.  Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden taking on America’s best in America’s back yard with three-year-old colts. 

Raven’s Pass (Gosden) won the Classic in 2008 and Henrythenavigator (O’Brien) finished second.  But in 2008 at Santa Anita, the race was run on Pro-Ride, not on the dirt that they will encounter next Saturday night.  And there has been no European-trained winner of the Classic since. 

It’s a massive ask.  It would be some achievement if either succeeded.

Quiz time

Question: What do the following countries have in common?

France, Venezuela, Japan, The United States, Kenya, Australia, Norway.

(Clue: Two of them were entered in today’s Vertem Futurity Trophy.)

© The Irish Field, 27th October 2018