Britain's richest race day, British Champions Day, features four Group 1 heats book-ended by a high class Group 2 and a fiendish-looking handicap in a sextet of scorchers this Saturday at Ascot. A host of equine talent will compete for in excess of four-and-a-quarter million pounds' worth of prizes, with stalls opening for the first - the Long Distance Cup - at the early time of 12.45pm.
12.45 Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup (Group 2, 2m)
A baker's dozen entered for the two-miler, the only Group race on Champions Day not to hold G1 status.
Last year's winner, Forgotten Rules, heads the field and vies for favouritism in the betting, but he's not been in quite the same form this term. The going was heavy when he won in 2014 and it is possible that he is less effective on quicker, despite winning at Group 3 level and in a Punchestown bumper. On last year's form he's the most likely winner but, as things stand, he's quite hard to back at around 6/1, with his Irish St Leger effort offering zero encouragement last time out.
A couple of lengths in front of Dermot Weld's horse there, but still a mile behind the preposterously easy winner, was Brian Meehan's Agent Murphy. Four years old and with just seven runs to his name, he's still very much on an upward curve and may be ready for this. His easy Group 3 victory two starts back, coupled with his 'best of the rest' effort behind Order Of St George in the Irish Leger, puts him close to pole position and he's more attractive to me than last year's winner.
Clever Cookie may just have a bit to prove at this level: whilst he had no real chance in the King George, he was expected to do much better in the Lonsdale Cup at Doncaster the last day, but flunked. The fact remains that he has failed to run well in both flat starts beyond a mile and three quarters and, though both attempts were on Donny's Town Moor, he may not quite have the legs of some of these on the level.
Wullie wuns three here - Clondaw Warrior, Simenon, and Wicklow Brave - and it's the last named that may take most support. A neck behind Agent Murphy, and one and a half lengths in front of Forgotten Rules in the Irish Leger, he was previously that distance behind Litigant in the Ebor.
But he is essentially eleven pounds worse off with Joseph Tuite's runner here - his rider claiming seven the last day - and even with the switch to Ryan Moore it looks too much of a turn around to effect.
Clondaw Warrior has catapulted up the weights - he was off 89 when winning the Ascot Stakes in June and is now rated 108 - and he looks up against it, despite the interesting booking of French ace, Van-sonn Shem-ee-no.
Of the trio, I prefer Simenon, even as the outsider of the field. He had no chance from the back off a funereal pace in the Cadran last time, and may have lacked a gear change in the Doncaster Cup the time before. His two runs prior to that were disappointing - but again they may both have placed too much emphasis on speed rather than stamina.
If that sounds like a lot of excuses, well, it's because it is! But the case for the defence goes like this... He loves Ascot (wins in the Ascot Stakes and Queen Alexandra Stakes at the same Royal Ascot meeting in 2012, second and fourth twice in the last three runnings of the Group 1 Ascot Gold Cup). Moreover, he looks sure to get his ground. Good to soft is plum for this chap, and his record at Ascot on that turf is 311.
Those runs were a while back but even the pick of his more recent efforts elsewhere has come on good to soft. He's a 33/1 shot because he's run down the field in his last four races, but it's no stretch of the imagination to see him stepping up a notch under close to optimal conditions. At the price, he's worth a tiny each way tickle.
Litigant is a very hard horse to make out. Rising eight, he has just seven career starts to his name, and has been a tricky lad to keep sound, his trainer, Joseph Tuite, describing him as "delicate". Nevertheless, one cannot crab the progression which has seen him win his last four and six of his last seven. The last in that series was a clear-cut win in the Ebor Handicap so, with that race coming off a protracted layoff, the break since August is of no consequence. Still, this is a big step up in class, and he might just want the ground a touch quicker ideally. No surprise if he wins, but he won't be encumbered by my cash.
Pallasator is not a horse that wins two in a row very often these days, becoming somewhat hard to predict. He did, though, win the G2 Doncaster Cup last time at the longer eighteen furlong trip. Of more interest is Flying Officer, for Frankie (Dettori) and Johnny (G). He had a horror trip on heavy ground in this race last year - still only beaten seven lengths - and he's won both starts since. Like a number of others, he's lightly raced and could eke out a few pounds of further improvement, something he'll need to do to prevail. A possible but with a price tag that reflects his chance well enough.
5/1 the field confirms it's a trappy race, and the only one tempting hand to wallet is the thoroughly exposed old boy, Simenon. Back at his beloved Ascot and on good to soft turf, he could roll back at least some of the years and maybe hit the board. 33/1 each way won't be the worst bet I've ever struck.
1.20 Qipco British Champions Sprint (Group 1, 6f)
A full field of fast fellows (and a couple of fillies, or mares if you must). Twenty are scheduled to go to post in a race which pits top class established form with some rising stars in the sprinting ranks.
At the head of the heap, and deservedly so after his demolition job over course and distance in the inaugural Commonwealth Cup in June, is Muhaarar. Trip and track clearly hold no fears, but the turf might be a couple of ticks on the slow side for him. Allied to that is a suspicion that the speed of the speed may be drawn low, meaning a berthing in twelve could be less than ideal.
In truth, though, he's run some awesome races this season at six furlongs, and the form of those runs is impeccable. He could scorch the hooves of all and sundry, though not at a value hunter's price. I hope he wins because he has looked different gear through the summer.
That said, I'm not in the habit of backing 2/1 shots in twenty runner Group 1's, so I'll don my valu-focals in search of something a bit juicier to play. Twilight Son is 250% of the price of Muhaarar, or 5/1 if you prefer, and comes from the Henry Candy stable. The press and social media have made much of Fergus Sweeney being jocked off in favour of Ryan Moore, but the clinical punter will consider this worth a pound or two for all that Sweeney has done nothing wrong.
Moore and his Son have the far rail to guide them, but they don't look to have much in the way of pace to bring them into the contest, and that's a big worry. Further, Candy's man had nothing in hand of both Strath Burn and Magical Memories when winning the Haydock Sprint Cup, a Group 1 on good to soft, last time.
Although Lancelot du Lac is drawn in ten - a shaft of pace light for the jolly - there looks to be a seam of searing speed against the stands rail. Eastern Impact in trap one is a confirmed pace pusher, as is Coulsty in box four. That could play to the strengths of Strath Burn who, at double the odds of Twilight Son, looks over-priced. Like his last day vanquisher, and the favourite, Strath Burn is a progressive three year old, but unlike them, he doesn't appear to have been given full credit for his efforts.
The front two in that Haydock G1 were three and a half lengths and more too good for all bar Magical Memories, with Strath Burn having to make his run in isolation due to a less favourable draw. Sent off at 33/1, he was himself seeking a hat-trick after wins at maiden and Group 3 level. The 11/1 with Coral is too big to my eye, as he'd have notched that three-peat in another stride, suggesting the stiffer Ascot finish is in his favour.
The Tin Man is yet another progressive three year old in the field, and he too may be well drawn low, but this first try at Group company, still more Group 1 company, is a huge class rise even for such an impressive handicap winner last time. 8/1 overstates his chance for me.
I'm struggling to make much of a case for any of the older horses in a race which has the look of a 'changing of the guard' in the sprint ranks. Muhaarar is the clear form pick and still retains plenty of upside potential. Similar comments apply, albeit to a lesser degree, to Twilight Son, Strath Burn and The Tin Man.
At the prices, preference is for Strath Burn at 11/1, each way and without the favourite (no prices at time of writing). He doesn't deserve to be more than double the odds of a horse he very nearly beat when arguably disadvantaged in the run.
1.55 Qipco British Champions Filly & Mares Stakes (Group 1, 1m4f)
The best renewal of this race yet, in what has been a vintage year for the sophomore ladies. Not that older girls are excluded. There should be plenty of dash with Arabian Queen stretching out to twelve furlongs for the first time and likely to cross swords with Journey and Covert Love, based on recent evidence.
That suggests this will be a truly run affair, something it's not always been (remember Johnny Murtagh's front-running master class aboard Dancing Rain in 2011?), and that stamina as well as class will be required.
The perceived combination of contended early pace and a mile and a half may just find out Covert Love, especially after a long season which included a thrilling win in the Prix de l'Opera in France just two week ago. She was also mugged over this trip at York and the feeling persists that she's slightly better when racing a quarter mile shorter.
Also in action over Arc weekend was the Aga Khan's Candarliya, who won the Group 2 Prix de Royallieu. Her only defeat over this trip or beyond was when second to Treve (Sea Calisi, re-opposes, in third) in the Group 1 Prix Vermeille two starts back, and she hardly had a race a fortnight ago. She comes here in peak form, has won on all going, is guaranteed to stay, and the race looks like setting up perfectly for her. 6/1 is tempting.
Sea Calisi has only a half length to find on the Vermeille form, but was level - perhaps a head in front - a furlong out there, before yielding to Candarliya's superior stamina. In a true run race, it is hard for me to envisage the form being reversed, though there is again unlikely to be too much between them.
Another with abundant stamina, as she showed when becoming (I think) the first filly since User Friendly in 1992 to win the St Leger, is Simple Verse. She stayed all the way at Doncaster to beat Bondi Beach, but this field would have a material class edge on that one in my view.
If an older filly can land this, it will surely be last year's Yorkshire Oaks winner, Tapestry. She was second on her belated seasonal debut at the Curragh on Irish Champions Weekend, and followed that up with a lacklustre display in the Arc. Not given a hard time when beaten there, she comes to this dance fresher than most. But it remains to be seen whether she can reproduce her best 2014 form which, coupled with the seven pounds she concedes to the three-year-olds, makes a top priced 8/1 no better than ordinary.
It's a cracking race, and I think Alain de Royer-Dupre's Candarliya will continue her upward trajectory with the tactical setup in her favour. I'm playing at 6's.
2.30 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Group 1, 1m)
If all nine stand their ground, we will be treated to a battle between Solow, the top miler of the year so far, and Gleneagles, the top three-year-old miler of the year so far. That mouth-watering possibility must remain an 'if' sadly, as Gleneagles has failed to attend on multiple occasions since his St James's Palace Stakes victory on the round course here back in June. Fingers crossed they all line up.
If they do, Solow is likely to have a serious challenge to his hitherto unbroken run of four Group 1 mile scores in three different countries. He's looked some kind of galloping metronome this term in grinding out results against the very best of all ages in 2015, starting with a decisive win in the Dubai Turf and taking in the Prix d'Ispahan, Queen Anne, and Sussex Stakes.
Rested since Goodwood, he comes here off an 80 day break but has accommodated longer holidays with victory on his return. The ground will be fine for him and he's very likely to run his race.
Solow's chance is improved by the presence of Kodi Bear and possibly also Elm Park. The former is a habitual front-runner and the latter has adopted that tactic recently. If they both go forward, the pace should be fast, allowing Freddy Head's five year old every chance to grind out another Group 1.
Should Gleneagles run, and assuming he's in the same form as when rattling off that quick fire early season hat-trick, he will be the main threat to the French raid. A brilliant juvenile, Gleneagles has been first past the post in all eight starts since his debut fourth. His Newmarket Guineas win was impressive but we've seen very little of him since.
It is possible that he's actually improved since June. Possible, but unlikely in my opinion.
On Newmarket form, Territories could be an interesting each way play. He gifted the winner first run there coming from far back to take second; and subsequently beat Dutch Connection in the Group 1 Prix Jean Prat, run over a mile. Beaten a length and a half by Esoterique on what may have been unsuitably soft ground in the Jacques le Marois, that form is nevertheless very good. Territories comes here a fresh horse and his trainer, Andre Fabre, has few peers globally.
10/1 with Paddy is playable each way, and he's another I'd be interested in 'without the favourite', often a great bet in lop-sided Group 1 markets.
Kodi Bear has improved nine pounds this season, and has pummelled his rivals into submission with brutally bullying front-running tactics. This is his toughest challenge to date, however, and he was whacked by Territories earlier in the year. That one's turn of foot is expected to outlast him again this time around, even though in the early running, they'll surely all have to 'follow the bear' (anyone else remember that?!)
Elm Park and Integral are both interesting floaters and either could reward each way support. The former won the Racing Post Trophy this time last year, and was considered a very live contender for the Derby before losing his way a little. If bouncing all the way back to his best he'd make the frame.
Similar comments apply to Integral, Sir Michael Stoute's filly having won a pair of mile Group 1's last year against her own sex. She ran much more encouragingly behind Esoterique in the G1 Sun Chariot on her most recent start, form that gives her place prospects on a going day.
It's a fascinating renewal but ultimately one that depends very much on the participation of Gleneagles. With or without him, I think Solow will win. But with or without him, I'd rather back Territories each way and in the 'without' market.
3.05 Qipco Champion Stakes (Group 1, 1m2f)
The highlight of the day is ostensibly the mile and a quarter Champion Stakes, though in truth it lacks real superstar quality.
Jack Hobbs, the 5/4 favourite, has done little wrong in running second to stable mate, Golden Horn, in the Derby before winning the Irish equivalent. Since that late June Classic, the horse named after an early 20th century cricketer and not an early 21st century footballer has run just once, winning a Group 3 on the all weather at Kempton in the manner his odds suggested he should.
Even allowing for the presence of Golden Horn in some of the top late season races - that one won the Irish Champion and the Arc lest you forgot - it is reasonable to contend that Jack Hobbs has been campaigned sparingly and without entrepreneurial flair, almost as though it is acknowledged he's not quite tip top class.
Here, he faces his toughest crowd since Derby day - arguably in his career - and he does so from a potentially compromising draw (12 of 13). Much has been made of the draw, but running styles suggest that both he and the outside drawn Maverick Wave (for the same owner/trainer connections) will break alertly and tack across in a field otherwise lacking much early go.
Thus, whilst it is not the advantage it could have been were he drawn in, say, trap three and Maverick Wave in one or two, a ride akin to the one that his jockey, William Buick, gave Space Age to win the King George V Stakes at Royal Ascot would mitigate the starting position readily.
No, the real questions centre on the substance of the form. Jack was the best horse in this field in early June, that much is probably accepted. But, since then, he's not achieved a huge amount. The Irish Derby is probably the most winnable of the English, Irish and French Classics; and beating up a field rated all of two stone inferior to him last time was arguably less than he should have done.
He can obviously win, but in a season finale Group 1 I find his overall profile somewhat underwhelming.
So what of the opposition? The filly, Found, is second choice in most lists, at around 9/2. She was another O'Brien lass to be heavily eased having run no sort of race in the Arc, and a line is easily put through that effort. Prior to the French flop, she had been extremely consistent even if mainly in defeat.
Seconds to Pleascach, Ervedya and Golden Horn - and close seconds in each case - is very solid form. But her only win in 2015 was in a similar race to that which JH had his prep. It is as easy to make a case for her to make the frame as it is to see at least one passing the lollipop ahead of her, and her price is probably right.
Who knows what to make of the Fabre runner, Vadamos, in the context of a race like this? He's quietly progressive, notching a first Group 2 score on his most recent start. Though that was by five lengths it was over a mile and in Germany, neither of which are optimal for this big day out. Still, M. Fabre is, as I've already said, one of the very best and if he thinks Vadamos deserves to be here, he probably deserves to be here. That is not to say that I'm happy to bet he can win at 6/1.
It's 12's and 14's bar but finding something with which to take on the jolly is a struggle. One who could outrun a general 16/1 quote is Dermot Weld's Fascinating Rock. Weld has had a pretty moderate season by his standards - as alluded to by Tony Keenan in this fine piece - but he has pulled rabbits out of hats countless times before.
This chap has plenty of talent: he's rated 120, the clear second best in the field, and a mark which gives him just three pounds to find with Jack Hobbs. His neck second to Al Kazeem in the Tattersalls Gold Cup puts him in the picture for this, Al K himself having been a neck behind Noble Mission in the Champion Stakes last year.
He's forgiven a moderate run at Windsor two back when very (very!) strongly fancied, and showed that to be all wrong when lashing home by six lengths in a Group 3 on Irish Champions Weekend. There, he beat a solid 111 horse (Panama Hat), the form standing closer scrutiny than that of Jack's or Found's recent wins.
Of course, he's obliged to spot the Classic generation five pounds, and the Classic filly, Found, another three on top. In spite of that, he looks a smidge of value in a race that the bookies seemingly have by the short and curlies.
If there's a surprise, it could conceivably be Racing History, a rapidly improving three-year-old. In three runs this season, he's gone from a Class 5 maiden win to a convincing Group 3 success, via a Class 3 handicap, beating the sub-par Fascinating Rock the last day. Saeed bin Suroor remains in his permanent state of good form making 14/1 moderately attractive.
Ultimately, with a favourite I'm not especially mad about, and some sub-Group 1 animals in opposition, this is a race to watch rather than wager for me. But I'll not be able to resist a little tickle on Fascinating Rock in the usual markets, each way and 'without the fav'. I think he can run well. Racing History is another at a price that can step forward sufficiently to trouble the judge for minor placings.
3.45 Balmoral Handicap (Class 2, 1m)
A staggeringly valuable handicap over seven furlongs so it's hardly a shocker that it's drawn such a strong and deep cast. Top weight Chil The Kite is rated 113, meaning he wouldn't have looked out of place in the QE II Stakes, and the bottom weight is 96, good enough to win plenty of Group 3's.
A big field spread across the track means we ought to be looking for a horse with big field form that is well drawn (that is, close to the pace). Let's start with where the pace might be. Interestingly, perhaps, there actually isn't a lot of pace, with just Empire Storm - drawn 16 - perennially forward in his recent starts.
If there is any pace bias, and it can only be moderate at best, it might be with the middle, centring (literally) around the like of Rene Mathis, Man Of Harlech, Master The World and Fiftyshadesofgrey. But, honestly, there is little to choose between all sections of the track as far as I can tell.
Empire Storm is actually quite interesting. Third in the race last year when three pounds better off, he's held his form well and was also third in a big field heritage handicap here over seven furlongs a fortnight ago. He's almost certain to have an unimpeded trip, a comment that will not apply universally, and - with first run likely - could make a bold bid to fend off the closing hordes. It's worth holding out on the general 20/1 quotes in search of bigger nearer the day for an unfashionable trainer and an exposed older handicapper.
The two vying for favouritism, Buckstay and Sacrifical, are different degrees of appealing. The former won the seven furlong contest in which Empire Storm was third two weeks ago, but therein lies his issue, I think: he seems to be a good bit better over seven than a mile. Even allowing for the prospect of this not being an all guns blazing war of attrition, it is difficult (for me, at least) to see him beating more established milers.
Sacrificial, on the other hand, has much in his corner. First, his trainer, Ger Lyons is something of a wizz with this kind of handicap assignment, and remains in good form. Second, the horse had a Royal Ascot sighter over course and distance 'winning' the 17 runner race on his side of the track, but only finishing third overall. Third, he's always run well in big fields. Fourth, his form at a mile reads 5113313. Fifth, the soft side of good might be perfect for him.
A top price 7/1 is hardly a life-changing proposition, but he looks sure to run a big race, and is worth a bet especially if you can find a generous bookie type offering five places.
Of the rest, there are many, many chances as you'd expect. Gm Hopkins, Man Of Harlech and Master The World are just three of them.
For small money, I'll be backing Sacrificial, and for very small money, I'll be backing Empire Storm, both each way and both with five places if I can get them. (As at time of writing, Thursday night, I can't get them!)
Good luck with whatever you fancy - let's hope for some great sport, and that they all get back safe and well.