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Although there are a few more biggish races left in the British flat racing calendar for 2012, nothing compares to QIPCO British Champions Day (as Prince/Sinead O'Connor might have warbled had they been race fans).
Five of the six races comprise proper Group 1 fields, despite not all yet acquiring Group 1 status.
We start with the stayers 'championship', the...
1.45 QIPCO BRITISH CHAMPIONS LONG DISTANCE CUP (GROUP 3)
Nine runners contest this Group 3 staying race over two miles. Given that all bar Electrolyser and the progressive Ile de Re have won at Group 2 level or higher, it won't be long before this heat is elevated in status.
[Side note, it used to be run at Newmarket as the Jockey Club Cup when it attracted Group 3 class horses. Since moving to Ascot and receiving a significant prize money hump, it's a much more illustrious affair.]
No matter, for that is by the by where finding the winner is concerned. So let's set our co-ordinates firmly in that direction, and start by thinking about the 'shape' of the race. The who what?! Yes, the shape. That is, how will the race be run?
Well, interestingly for a staying race, there is a raft of horses which like to race prominently. Electrolyser is a confirmed front runner, and will probably get an uncontested lead. His problem is that, unlike Ile de Re, he's not progressive, and unlike the rest of the field, he's not good enough to win this (no win above Listed class).
Behind Electrolyser, there is a quintet of tracking types: Aiken, Colur Vision, Fame and Glory, Rite of Passage, and perhaps Ile de Re.
Opinion Poll is likely to sit just in behind (most of) these, with Askar Tau and Saddler's Rock vying for lanterne rouge rights.
What that suggests is that this could be run at a fairly strong gallop, and that it may well set up for a horse covered up in the early part of the contest. Unfortunately for me, this leads me to one of the few horses about which I've struggled to maintain impartiality on the flat this season: Saddler's Rock.
I won money on him early in the year, and have since lost far more. I have a conviction that he might be the best stayer in training, but equally it seems he needs things to be run just so in order to demonstrate his true colours.
Well, 'just so' for Saddler's Rock is a true run race, over two miles. I do have a suspicion that he might prefer a bit less cut, but he finished well enough over an extra half mile in the Prix du Cadran last time on heavy.
Actually, this is a good time to discuss the state of the ground. Ascot is a curious course in that the round course tends to ride a fair bit deeper than the straight course. In a race like this, the runners will encounter both parts of the track, and a horse which can handle both is likely to prevail.
Many shrewdies are suggesting the course is heavy on the round course at time of writing and, with a decent gallop predicted (by me at least), this could be a real stamina sapping test.
Saddler's Rock, a dual Group 2 winner (Goodwood and Doncaster Cups) definitely makes my shortlist at around 8/1.
Opinion Poll heads the market, at 3/1, and he may well have the race run to suit too, with Barzalona able to sit off the early speed and close entering the home run. He's ultra-consistent, having been paced seventeen times from nineteen starts in Stakes company, winning seven of them.
But... he's not won above Listed class on slower than good ground and I have a reservation about whether, in this rarefied company, he can slog and scrap to victory. He was third in the Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak over two soft miles in Paris back in 2010, but that was in a race that was slowly run, which this may well not be.
On balance, and at the price, Opinion Poll is not for me, though he could win (of course).
Next in is Fame and Glory, last year's winner, and a horse who I very much doubt will win this year. Let me explain...
Last year, Jamie Spencer - a jockey who gets plenty of grief about his riding style (some of it justified) - rode an absolutely brilliant race and nicked it. After noting that Chiberta King was dawdling on an easy lead, Spencer decided to take it up a mile and a half out.
He quickened the pace, getting some of the lazy lollopers in behind off the bridle, and then kicked for home. His three length advantage at the turn was a quickly vanishing length and a bit at the line, and he'd burgled a lucrative Group 3.
It was a similar story when he won the Ascot Gold Cup last Summer, though he made his move much later that time.
The thing is, he's unlikely to get his way this time, and even if he does, he's not really in any kind of form. Again, whilst his course record is interesting and Jamie Spencer clearly has an affinity with him, he's too short for my tastes at around 9/2.
So we move on to the third choice in the market, Colour Vision. The Godolphin 'second string' (a phrase which often misleads punters into backing the wrong horse, hence my use of the 's) actually won this season's Gold Cup here on good to soft ground.
It's fair to say that Mikael Barzalona's performance in the saddle that day was better than his televised stewards' enquiry debut, where he appeared to be struck mute by Frankie's polished plea after Dettori had beaten up both horse (Opinion Poll) and rider (Barzalona) in the final furlong to get his Roman nose in front.
On that showing, there's nothing between them. However, that was a half mile further, and it was on slightly less deep ground. On this going, I think that two miles will ride like two and a quarter (or more) and, with Frankie desperate for some QIPCO glory in what might be his last season riding for Godolphin, he might usurp Opinion Poll and Barzalona once more.
He will need to be settled though in a part of the field where there could be some scrimmaging.
Aiken comes next, and this young man is stepping up in trip by a quarter mile for the second time in two runs. In a well contested mile and a half Group 2 here at the Royal meeting, he was beaten fair and square by some good horses, and was subsequently run out of it in one of the weakest Group 1's of the season so far, the Irish St Leger (Fame and Glory behind).
I'm not even remotely interested in his chance, and doubt he can make the frame against proven Cup horses.
We're now getting to the thin end of the wedge, as far as the market is concerned at least, and a price of around 8/1 brings in Ile de Re, Rite of Passage and Saddler's Rock.
This trio is where the value lies for me. I've already discussed my view on Saddler's Rock, but Rite of Passage has a right to be shorter in the betting. He's as game as they come, having been out of the first three only once in eleven starts (when fourth), and his CV includes an Ascot Gold Cup (Group 1 flat) win; a third in the NIM Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1 jumps); and a third in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper (Grade 1 National Hunt Flat).
The big imponderable with Rite Of Passage is that he's not raced since May last year. That will put a lot of people off but why would Dermot Weld bring him over if he didn't feel he could run his race?
Two of the eight runners Weld has brought to UK to contest flat Group races in the last three years won (including RoP in the aforementioned Ascot Gold Cup), recording a level stakes profit of 22.5 units at SP.
He's a chance, on the assumption that he's fit.
Ile de Re comes from the respected Donald McCain yard, and is taking a huge leap in class. Last seen when winning the Class 2 Northumberland Plate at Newcastle in June, McCain's latest dual purpose machine had already bagged the Chester Cup and a nice staying handicap here on Shergar Cup day 2011.
But all those wins were in Class 2 and, in a race where he's unlikely to get it all his own way up front, this represents a very stiff grade elevation. On that basis, as they say on Dragon's Den, I'm out (though he will go in the ground).
The rags, Electrolyser and Askar Tau, would need a softer lead and faster ground respectively to even be considered as lively outsiders. No chance to my eye.
Selection: Saddler's Rock
Respected: Colour Vision, Rite Of Passage
2.20 QIPCO BRITISH CHAMPIONS SPRINT STAKES (GROUP 2)
Race 2 is the sprint, a Group 2 again with plenty of Group 1 class horses. Fifteen go to post, and those with soft ground form, and drawn close to the pace, should be given preference from a wagering perspective.
So, where is the pace? Good question, and the answer is I'm not sure. It does seem that those drawn high mainly prefer to be held up (with the exception of The Cheka), and that there is some early pace in stalls three to five, which ought to bring those drawn one to seven or eight into the reckoning.
It seems then - although far from unequivocally - that low to middle might hold sway here. But then, it might be that the low drawn fast starters choose to tack across to the near rail (where the high drawn horses are), and wind up giving them a tow into the race. Hmm...
Let's move onto factual terra firma and look at some of the past performances for clues.
Society Rock is favourite, and rightly so. He's a dual Group 1 winner at six furlongs, one of them over course, going and distance; and he's in bouncing form at present.
Soc Rock's not without his quirks mind, as he can fluff the start, a manoeuvre from which is would be very difficult to recover in this esteemed company. However, his ability to act in the ground, and his proven class give him a strong hand to play in the race, foibles or no.
He also represents the second part of an each way double I took a while back, with Mayson (13/2, nutted on the line in the Prix de l'Abbaye) and himself at 5/1. So a place will see me get something back for my mug punter travails. (Alas, the 44/1 win part has already winged west).
His main market rival and perhaps biggest obstacle to victory (aside from his own propensity to have a kip in the starting gate) is Wizz Kid, the nag who snagged my swag grab wager when besting Mayson last time.
That was over five furlongs, and she needed every yard of it to get on top. Her six furlong form however is less than tip top. Indeed, all four of her wins have been at the minimum, and although she was second in this last year on much quicker ground, she's been beaten 2L, 6L, 6.75L, 1.5L, 5L, and 4.75L when racing beyond five.
At that minimum trip, her form figures are a much more sexy 11555101. Beyond, they are 428226, with those respectful margins in some fairly shallow contests. Non merci.
The joy from a betting angle in this race is that it's 8/1 bar two and, given that I don't especially like the chance of the Wizz Kid, there are at least two places to aim at with a decent priced horse.
The next two in the market are the Irish raiding pair, Slade Power and Maarek. The former shouldn't be confused with Sole Power - owned, trained and ridden by the same connections - and is a progressive three year old, the type who have done well in this contest in the past (formerly the Diadem Stakes).
From his six runs to date, Slade Power has a record of 211211, and a six furlong record of 21111. He's won on fast and soft turf, and on the all weather at Dundalk, so no worries about the ground. He's drawn out wide in two, but with pace around he ought to get a tow into the race.
This is a big step up in class of race, but perhaps not such a huge leap in terms of performance. He was a comfortable enough half length winner when last seen in the Listed Belgrave Stakes, and had Gordon Lord Byron two lengths back that day and held. That fellow has since won a Listed race at York, and a (n admittedly very soft) Group 1 over seven furlongs at Longchamp.
In between, he was second to Society Rock in a Group 1 at Haydock. It has to be said that in all likelihood, Gordon Lord Byron has improved by around half a stone since seen off by Slade Power, and his own presence in this contest would have represented a sterner challenge to the favourite.
But Slade Power, freshened by a break, is clearly still improving, and might go close.
Maarek on the other hand is much more exposed. He's a brilliantly consistent horse, and loves deep ground. But I do have reservations about whether he's quite up to this grade, with 'only' a pair of weak looking Group 3 sprint wins at the top of his CV. Not this day for this scribbler.
We then move into the realms of the double digit brigade and there's one in here which I like. Say bonjour to Restiadargent.
The other French raiding filly in the race, this lass is clearly best at six furlongs on soft ground, as her two Group race wins have been (the other was also six furlongs but good ground).
She won a Group 2 on very soft around this time last year by five lengths (!), and her form this season is a lot better than it looks. To wit, in her last three races, she's run third to Black Caviar in that race at Royal Ascot, a Group 1; fifth in the Group 1 Prix Maurice de Gheest over a trip too far (seven furlongs); and then was beaten four lengths in a Group 2 on good ground.
That ground on that last run might have been too quick, or she might have disappointed a little. At the prices, I'm prepared to overlook it, and nominate her as an each way chance. She's drawn in three and likes to race fairly prominently, and I think everything looks right for a strong effort. 12/1 is perfectly tempting.
Most of the rest seem to want quicker ground, though Elusivity might outrun his odds in a race that could set up for him and on ground he'll enjoy. 50/1 offers throwaway ticket value.
Selection each way: Restiadargent 12/1
Obvious danger: Society Rock 3/1
Each way throwaway: Elusivity 50/1
2.55 QIPCO BRITISH CHAMPIONS FILLIES´ AND MARES´ STAKES (GROUP 2)
Race three and it's the ladies turn to shine (if they haven't already in the Sprint). This is a mile and a half contest, formerly run at Newmarket and known as the Pride Stakes.
Again, it looks an interesting race from a pace perspective, with enough of these girls keen to get on with it. Specifically, Dancing Rain (last year's winner, off an easy lead), Sapphire, Testosterone, Great Heavens, and Was, all like to lead or race prominently.
That's half the field, and there's a reasonable chance they'll go very quick here. Alternatively, Dancing Rain may try to force her way to the front after nearly a year off the track.
In either case, I'm going to be looking for a midfield runner here, as I suspect it will take a lot of getting home off a frenetic early gallop. The good news for me, then, is that my pace pressers include the first four in the betting, so siding against them means I'll at least get a decent price.
The bad news of course, is that might well throw the winning baby out with the pace pressing bath water... C'est la guerre, as they say!
OK, so, where are we? Such dangerous pace-based eliminations leave us looking at the loveable loser, Shirocco Star, and the French apple of love, La Pomme d'Amour, as well as the rags.
Shirocco Star is one of those horses which 'deserves' a win. Unfortunately, as the bloke from 'not the Nationwide' used to say, 'It doesn't work like that'. In a career spanning eight races to date, Shirocco Star has been the bridesmaid five times. And she's never been out of the first four in a career record of 21223242.
The latest 2 on her card was a short neck second in the Prix de Royallieu, a Group 2 on the Saturday of Arc weekend. That was just a fortnight ago and it was a fairly tough race. Allied to that is the fact that she never really looked like she'd overhaul the winner, despite the narrowness of the verdict at the baton de confiture (OK, so jam stick probably doesn't translate very well, and certainly not literally!).
Shirocco Star has had a long season and, whilst she could win - and fair play to her if she does - I will not be backing her.
I do however like Andre Fabre's Gallic galloper, La Pomme d'Amour. Yes, she was tonked last time out in the Group 1 Prix Vermeille, but she was probably out of her depth that day, and it may not have been run to suit.
The form of the race couldn't have worked out better, with the third horse being a certain Solemia, the Arc winner!
Prior to that, the love apple had comfortably won a Deauville Group 2 over a mile and five furlongs, and should have won the time before when Mademoiselle Amelie Foulon mistimed her run and failed by half a length over what might have been an inadequate ten furlongs.
La Pomme d'Amour has soft ground form, distance form, class form, and is trained by the French maestro, Andre Fabre. That's enough for me at around the 10/1 mark, in a race won by the French back in 2009.
Great Heavens can win this. Of course she can. But she had a hard race in the Arc, and that might take its toll here. Too much of a chance to take on a horse at about 2/1.
Sapphire, as a Weld raider, is respected but, again, short enough at 7/2.
One of the rags which might not be without a chance is the Ed Dunlop-trained, Testosterone. Terribly named for a filly, she was very smart in France last year, when - amongst other things - she was second in the Group 1 Prix Vermeille on very soft ground.
Obviously having had a niggle or two this term, she's only been seen twice, and may have an Autumn globe-trotting campaign in mind. On the second of those two starts, in the Lancashire Oaks (Group 2, soft ground, a mile and a half) she acquitted herself well enough, albeit no match for the winner, Great Heavens.
I don't believe she'll win this, but if they go quick as I suspect they will, she'll be staying on, will love the ground, and has a piece of form the equal of pretty much anything else in the race. 20/1 is worthy of 25p each way.
Each way selection against top of the market: La Pomme d'Amour 10/1
Throwaway long shot tickle: Testosterone
3.30 QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES SPONSORED BY QIPCO (BRITISH CHAMPIONS MILE) (GROUP 1)
And so we reach the big two. The QEII Stakes, worth nearly six hundred grand, was won by Frankel last year. This time, he's going for the biggie, the Champion Stakes, but a fair field of eight assemble here.
They are headed by a horse which knows what Frankel's tail looks like more than even Bullet Train, Excelebration.
This chap, a real top notcher in his own right, was second to Frankel four times, and third to him once. Despite that, he's won a million in prizes (as Iggy Pop might say), and most recently gobbled up a high class Prix Jacques le Marois.
That was a Group 1 which attracted a deep field, mainly because Frankel wasn't running in it, and he had Cityscape, Elusive Kate, Indomito and Most Improved behind that day... all of them re-opposing here.
Let me be clear about one thing here and now. I cannot entertain a three year old beating the older horses here. They simply have an abominable record in that context this term.
The table below shows how three year olds have fared in all age Group 1 races in UK over the last few years.
As you can see, just one horse has managed to win, from 28 trying, this year. That was the filly, The Fugue, in a fairly poor renewal of the Nassau Stakes.
It's interesting - and probably instructive - to note that only nine colts have even bothered to line up against their elders in UK Group 1's this season, and none has even made the frame!!!
(Compare that with five wins from seventeen last year; two from 23 in 2010; and five from thirty in both 2009 and 2008).
Clearly, you'd need to be certified to back Most Improved or Sovereign Debt here. The girls have a better record, but in mixed sex all age Group 1 races, a three year old filly hasn't prevailed since 2008 (Criquette Head's African Rose in the Ladbrokes Sprint Cup!), and they're nought from twelve in the last four years.
So I'm only interested in the older horses. This is a pretty weak race for the money, and Excelebration stands apart on form, despite an official rating just a pound higher than Cityscape.
Apart from a crap ride when he was third in the St James Palace Stakes in 2011, the only horse to have beaten him since his debut is Frankel. That's a pretty impressive record and, in another era, he might have been virtually unbeaten himself.
With plenty of form on the ground, he looks a solid bet even at a shade of odds on.
I've been a fan of Cityscape for a while, and he might come out second here. But I won't be betting him so to do. I'm looking for a bit more meat on my exacta bone, and my search goes deeper down the morning line lists.
Carlton House may be more a miler than a middle distance horse, despite his Dante win and Derby proximity, but this son of Street Cry will surely be inconvenienced by the ground here. I suspect he's running only because HRH will be present. Easily overlooked, by me at least.
Elusive Kate might be the one. She ran a blinder after fumbling the start last time in a Group 1, and before that was only a length and half behind Excelebration in the French race. She finished second in a soft ground Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket in July, so there will be no worries regarding the state of the turf.
In receipt of six pounds worth of age and sex allowance, she's the most likely to follow Excelebration home.
Third place is seriously up for grabs, and if you've read this far, you'll know I won't be rolling with Most Improved, despite his win in what must be the worst St James Palace Stakes of all time back in the Summer (one subsequent winner, Gregorian in a Class 3 conditions stakes at Hamilton!!!, from 31 horses to run).
Side Glance plugs on well enough, including when just a neck behind Excelebration here, when both were eleven lengths behind Frankel. The second was ridden to try and beat Frankel that day, and nearly paid the price. He'll be ridden differently here and will have a greater margin over Side Glance, but Andrew Balding's horse might run well if he handles the ground. That's a fair sized 'if' based on his track record, where he's never tried soft or slower.
There are a lot of horses in here trying to bag very good place prize money, and Indomito is another. He's a rare breed indeed: a German horse that doesn't like soft ground and, as such, I couldn't countenance him on any of my tickets.
That leaves Sovereign Debt, who at least loves soft ground. Form on that surface reads 211. Alas, that was in Class 2 and 3 company, and he's been rumbled in higher grade. Still, in such a shallow contest, he could snaffle third place and make the trifecta ticket pay a couple of quid.
Exacta pick: Elusive Kate
Trifecta roundout: Sovereign Debt
4.05 QIPCO CHAMPION STAKES (BRITISH CHAMPIONS MIDDLE DISTANCE) (GROUP 1)
And then it was time for the big'un, and the biggest gun of them all, Frankel.
There is surely very little space for further gilt to be emblazoned onto Frankel's cloak of invincibility, and I'll not spend too much time eulogising in this piece which is, after all, pre-occupied with a search for winners.
However... Frankel's thirteen win career streak has never seen him encounter ground as soft as this, and nor has he taken on a horse with such class and ability to roll through testing ground.
Cirrus des Aigles is the potential fly in the 'retired unbeaten' ointment, and he's some fly. Think Jeff Goldblum, circa 1986. 😉
He won this last year and whipped up a storm of controversy in so doing (pun intended), and he's better on heavy ground than the good stuff he encountered then. Indeed, his record on soft, very soft or heavy since his three year old days reads 131211111.
That streak culminates in an eight length win in Group 1 company and a nine length win in Group 2 company in the last pair of runs. Frankel-esque destruction in conditions which Frankel has yet to face.
The thing with very soft ground is that it suits relentless gallopers as opposed to quicker ground which tends to favour horses with a turn of foot: a change of gear.
I'm not saying that Frankel isn't a relentless galloper, nor that Cirrus des Aigles doesn't have a turn of foot. But what I am saying is that Frankel's super power is his turn of foot, and Cirrus des Aigles's super power is his interminable gallop.
If ever there was a no bet race, this is it. Anyone with an ounce of passion for the sport away from the wagering windows will wail and wish for a Frankel win. Equally, those most wedded to the sport must surely demand that he is given a fierce test by the reigning Champion Stakes champ.
I believe he'll get that.
The rest? Forget them.
Nathaniel, in a nice turn of symmetry, was the horse Frankel beat into second on his début and still the only horse to get within half a length of him. The trip is fine for Nat but he's just not good enough, is he?
As for those trumpeting Pastorius. Now listen, I love a German mudlark as much as - and more than - the next man, assuming the next man isn't the diving Teutonic hero, Klinsmann, whose slides were accentuated after a drop or ten of the soggy stuff.
And true, he has recorded some big margin soft ground wins. But this fellow, German Derby champ and all, is at least a stone beneath even Nathaniel.
The other two don't count.
Selection: No bet. I will be cheering Frankel to win by a length or less from Cirrus des Aigles, with a furlong back to the third. (I don't actually believe that will happen, but I'd love it to).
4.45 QIPCO FUTURE STARS APPRENTICE HANDICAP (CLASS 2)
Imagine, if you will, five delicious courses in a banquet, each of them topping the one which preceded, and each pleasantly sating your hunger still further. Somewhat greedily, you feel the urge for one more slice of this sumptuous smorgasbord: a spot of pudding, or fine cheese and water biscuits, perhaps.
As the waiter, dapper in dickie bow and tails, removes the silver dish on your last course, he reveals...
...a 29 runner apprentice handicap?!!! Are you sure?!
I felt certain they'd have done away with this after last year, but no, it seems it's becoming a permanent fixture.
You don't surely expect me to try to nominate a winner in here, do you? Huh? You do?! Well more bloody fool you, then. But here goes nothing...
Highland Colori / Redvers
Have a great weekend - I'll be at the track cheering the action with 'Councillor Jim', and am extremely excited! 😀
p.s. who do you fancy, especially in the last? Leave a comment and let us get on it with you!
p.p.s. Don't forget to add your final selections to the QIPCO Fantasy Racing competition. Geegeez League is currently second in the League of Leagues, so with your help we might win. Here's the link: http://fantasyracing.telegraph.co.uk/