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Watch QIPCO Champions Day at Ascot live on Channel 4
QIPCO Champions Day at Ascot is the richest raceday on the British Flat racing calendar, featuring three Group 1 contests, namely the Champion Stakes, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the British Champion Fillies & Mares Stakes.
However, there is a problem with Champions Day this year: there are no real equine champions competing. Trainers, jockeys, yes. But horses, no. High-class animals, yes. But true champions, no.
Perhaps it’s the forecast heavy ground that is to blame? Or perhaps we’ve simply been spoilt in the past, with the best racehorse of all time, Frankel, featuring on Champions Day twice since its inauguration in 2011?
There are different ways of looking at it but, whichever way you look at it, it’s disappointing. Australia and Kingman, the two leading three-year-old colts in Europe this season, were both being aimed at Champions Day but have now been retired to stud.
Meanwhile, The Great Gatsby, who was engaged in the Champions Stakes, will be absent; leading older miler Toronado bypasses the QEII in favour of next month’s Breeders’ Cup Mile.
To be fair to Ascot as a racecourse there’s not much they could have done to prevent the recent, disproportionate levels rain or several big-name absentees. Champions Day is under two weeks after the Arc and not long before the Breeders’ Cup so it’s sandwiched between two huge international race meetings.
They do a fine job in terms of marketing the event and no one can quibble with the prize-money on offer – even the concluding Balmoral Handicap is worth £250,000. But, alas, it’s still disappointing, particularly the fillies & mares’ race which is nothing more than a glorified Group 3 race.
Anyway, it’s time to focus on those that will be running rather than those that won’t. And there is at least a British Classic winner on show, with 2,000 Guineas hero Night of Thunder renewing rivalry with top-class French miler Charm Spirit in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
Freddie Head’s charge had Night of Thunder half-a-length adrift in third when prevailing in the Moulin at Longchamp last month, but the latter was caught further back than ideal in that Group 1 contest and, under the circumstances, did mighty well to finish as close as he did.
Consequently, it’s no surprise that bookmakers have installed Night of Thunder, who will be joined in the race by stablemate Toormore, as the market leader ahead of the Gallic challenger. However, if you think that the QEII is a two-horse race, think again.
Step forward CUSTOM CUT, who has excelled in the hands of the brilliant David O’Meara this year. The five-year-old landed his fifth consecutive race – and produced a career-best in the process – when landing the Group 2 Joel Stakes at Newmarket last time.
He will need to take another step forward if he’s to see off the likes of Night of Thunder and Charm Spirit, along with dual Group One-winning filly Integral, but the manner of his victory on the Rowley Mile suggested to me that he’s still progressing.
At 9/1 with Paddy Power, Custom Cut rates a terrific value bet in my opinion. The testing conditions won’t be a problem and, if Daniel Tudhope opts to once again adopt the front-running tactics which worked so well in the Joel, I reckon he will take plenty of stopping.
Cirrus Des Aigles has won six Group 1 races during his career, the first of which was in the Champion Stakes in 2011. He’s subsequently finished second to the mighty Frankel and Farhh in 2012 and ’13 respectively, and is a worthy favourite for this year’s renewal.
However, at a top-priced 11/8 he’s plenty short enough for my liking, and the prospect of a strongly-run race on deep ground points to a big run from RULER OF THE WORLD, who was a close third behind Farhh and Cirrus Des Aigles in this race 12 months ago.
Aidan O’Brien’s charge, who can be backed at 7/1 with bet365, wasn’t disgraced when mid-field in the Arc 13 days ago. Prior to that, the 2013 Epsom Derby hero looked as good as ever when bagging the Prix Foy at Longchamp and his proven stamina will be an asset at Ascot on Saturday.
The potential fly in the ointment is undoubtedly Dermot Weld’s Free Eagle. He’s only been beaten once following three starts – by none other than Australia on his final start as a juvenile – and he was a thoroughly impressive winner on his belated reappearance in a Group 3 contest at Leopardstown last month.
The son of High Chaparral possesses plenty of potential, but he’s only raced on good ground or faster so far, and his trainer has stated that he will work the course prior to deciding whether the exciting colt will take his chance. Any further rain would, in all probability, prompt Weld to withdraw Free Eagle.
In contrast to Free Eagle, the prospect of heavy ground will hold no terrors for his stablemate FORGOTTEN RULES (4/1 with most firms at the time of writing) in the QIPCO British Champions Long Distance Cup.
The four-year-old has only been seen out twice, landing a bumper on debut and subsequently a Galway maiden on his first Flat start in August. However, the son of Nayef was deeply impressive on each occasion and is taken to leap to the top of the stayers’ tree by outpointing Leading Light and Estimate in this Group 2 event.
Underfoot conditions are a concern where ante-post favourite G Force is concerned in the QIPCO British Champions Sprint Stakes, but Jack Dexter and Irish raiders Gordon Lord Byron, Maarek and VIZTORIA will all relish the easy surface. The vote goes to the last-named, who was impressive at The Curragh last time.
The big fillies & mares’ contest looks ripe for CUBANITA, who has her ground and the booking of Ryan Moore is a big plus, while a recommend splitting stakes and backing both LEVITATE and RUSSIAN REALM in the finale, the Balmoral Handicap.
Saturday racing tips:
1.45 Forgotten Rules
3.30 Custom Cut
4.05 Ruler of The World
4.45 Levitate/Russian Realm