It was a Champion weekend, in every sense of the phrase. Not only was it actually British Champions Day at Ascot, but there were also some Cheltenham champs limbering up for bigger pots later in the season, and it was my birthday. Champion!
Friday was the start of it all. A forty-second anniversary and quiet reflection on what has been the best year of my life on a personal level, with the joyful development of young Leonardo. Of course, it's also a time to contemplate the state of the business and, on that front, it's also been a year of development. More on that anon.
More importantly for everyone else, Friday saw the opening pages drafted in the latest edition of the jump racing almanac. Cheltenham's Showcase meeting might be one of their quieter gatherings, but it has deep symbolic resonance as the start of the National Hunt season proper. Whether you enjoy Summer jumps - as I do - or you think the more hardy elements of the thoroughbred herd should take their turn only hibernally, the chill and the rain - and the accompanying mud and frosted breath of so many stoutly-conceived equines - will have been a pleasurable portent of what is to come.
In terms of potential Festival winners in the midst (it is an unwritten rule that, like a massive whodunnit, every character in this vast play is thought of as a potential Cheltenham prospect when the final act is played out on the same stage in March), there was little to get excited about.
Twirling Magnet was impressive, and fair bounded away from a group that had mainly been outclassing summer rivals. And Trackmate has shown his hand in such a way as to ensure that he's well known to the handicapper come the Spring. Nevertheless, these were both taking performances in their own right, and both horses should be winning again before 2013 is through.
Friday evening was a rare night out, as Mrs Matt - Carole - indulged me in wine and beef at one of Angel's more established eateries. Consequently, Saturday morning was a touch on the fuzzy-headed side. But no time to wallow for this was British Champions Day.
Much has been written of Champions Day, before and since the day itself, and I'll only briefly chip in with my tuppence. Firstly, I think the talk of whether mid-October is the 'right' slot for it misses the point somewhat. By definition a Champions Day must fall at the end of the season, to allow horses to previously identify themselves as champions, either potential or actual.
British Champions Day has an issue that such as the Cheltenham Festival will never have: that of international competition. While British jump racing rules as a dictatorship only occasionally threatened by an Irish uprising, the flat game is exponentially more global. And, as a new day, it has to find a place in the calendar not already established for existing championship events. Specifically, it has to fall between Arc weekend - always the first Sunday in October - and the Breeders Cup jamboree, which seems to have settled in California in the first weekend of November.
Logically, then, mid-October is its spot. Earlier than the Arc, and it risks becoming a warm up for that peerless event; later and it... well, it cannot be later for all sorts of reasons (weather, overseas international events, jump racing).
So let's move on from that, and accept that the weather may be miserable and that some of the horses that don't act on what might be a soft surface may not turn up. You can't have everything. Not even if you're Rod Street!
The action itself more than vindicated the position in the calendar. While it was undoubtedly tough to find winners - as anyone who followed me in with my preview will know, most of that motley crew still searching for the furlong pole - the sport was treated to close finishes, story horses, and a resurgence of 'British' (and Irish) champions on British Champions Day after a battering in France a fortnight previously.
Royal Diamond was a Group 1 winner running in the Group 3 Long Distance Cup. That he won at 20/1 owed a lot to a) his dismal show in the Irish Leger last time, and b) a typically excellent big race ride from his trainer, Johnny Murtagh. A legitimate champion in the staying division, if only with hindsight.
In the sprint, Maarek left his mojo on the Paris turf, as he lolloped out of the gate and failed to register a blow. In Slade Power, a horse I pooh-poohed as not good enough, there was mud in my eye as that fellow showed real tenacity to withstand a sustained challenge from divot-loving Jack Dexter. That one now has a first blot on his soft ground copybook, which subsequently reads 1111112.
Still, he lost no quarter in a neck defeat, and with more than three lengths back to the third, both ran with great credit. Slade Power was second in a Group 1 last time out, behind the QE II-bound Gordon Lord Byron, so he was hardly a shock winner. At least to many other people he wasn't. To me, he was one that if I was a bookmaker I would have been trying to 'get'. Just as well I'm not a bookmaker.
It was back to the shocks in the Fillies and Mares race, upgraded to Group 1 status for the first time. Of the prior Group 1 winners, Dalkala could only finish fourth, and Talent only third, behind improvers Seal Of Approval and Belle de Crecy. There was no fluke about Seal Of Approval's win, as she showed abundant stamina to motor clear of a well-matched set of rivals in the final eighth of a mile, and win as she liked by four long lengths.
Johnny Murtagh trained and rode the second, Belle de Crecy, and had a good winner in Ireland as well for what was perhaps his finest hour in a career of many such precious moments.
If Seal Of Approval was a shock to many - and as the 16/1 outsider of the field, she was a shock to many - glorious hindsight revealed to us that, while she may not have had the form in the book, and while she may have been returning after that ugly incident in the Park Hill Stakes that ultimately robbed Hayley Turner of Group 1 glory this day, she was unbeaten since her debut in completed starts.
Unbeaten and progressive in a field that otherwise looked beatable, as I'd implied in my preview ramblings. Yep, quite easy with hindsight.
Next up the established championship events. First the mile Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, where Dawn Approach was bidding to repair his slipping reputation as top of the miler class. He'd looked a little 'over the top' in France last time, and so it proved as he jogged home in fourth, six lengths behind Toronado's stunt double, Olympic Glory.
The Glory himself had something to prove after a real thumping from Maxios last time, and I sided with the French-trained monsieur here. He finished tailed off, as Olympic Glory waltzed away from his field, leaving story horses Top Notch Tonto and Kingsbarns to pick up the place pieces.
Top Notch Tonto was bought at Tattersalls Ireland in September 2011 for €3,000 - or £2,536.13 at this morning's exchange rate. He won almost a hundred times that amount for finishing second here, and got a raucous cheer from the underdog-loving crowd.
In third was last year's Racing Post Trophy winner, and one of this year's major absentees, showing his appreciation for cut in the ground and offering plenty of winter warmth for - granted, fairly comfortable - connections. He'll be a miler for the Premier League next season if keeping off the treatment table.
In fourth and fifth were Dawn Approach and Elusive Kate, both of which have seemed below their previous best in recent starts. They gave the form a most solid look to it, with the likes of Maxios and Soft Falling Rain - poorly named as it turns out - vying for the lantern rouge with pacemaker, Burwaaz.
The Glory was a gettable winner - though, on this day when I'd have missed if I'd tried to pick my nose, not of course for me, or for those of you who followed me. We'll have plenty of better days and, naturally after five reversals, not many worse. Mercifully.
No time for self-pity, though, as it was time for Cirrus Des Aigles to do his thing in the Champion Stakes. Winner of the inaugural Ascot version two years ago, and bested only by the Frankel unit last term, he came here off the back of an authoritative Prix Dollar success in Paris two weeks ago.
But, like all of the other beasts that tried to take in both events, he had left his winning chance on the Dover-Calais Sealink. Unlike almost all of the other beasts that tried to take in both events, however, he was only just denied and by a very good horse.
Yes, it was a case of so near, so Farhh, as the Godolphin sick note showed his Darren Anderton-esque class when actually making it to the track, by cruising through the race and then quickening and battling well to withstand the duel challengers of Cirrus and Ruler Of The World.
Both the placed horses had run at Longchamp two weeks ago, and both performed with great credit here. It was a redemption of sorts for the Derby form, as Ruler Of The World played a blinder and, like stablemate Kingsbarns - and indeed Eye Of The Storm in the staying division - hinted at plenty more next season.
Battered and bloodied from a day of errant wagering (the words 'banjo' and 'cow's arse' spring to mind), I somehow fluked my way in front with a score each way on Breton Rock in the ridiculous apprentice handicap that closes the card. I've always liked that race... 😉
Elsewhere, and Cheltenham hosted its own Saturday meet, where the star of the show was Balthazar King, doing what he does best and leading from tape to lollipop. The King fair bounded up the Cheltenham hill and must be a gimme on good ground for the Cross Country in March.
Both Balthazar and Breton were nominated on The Shortlist on Saturday, at 13/2 and 14/1 respectively, before returning 7/2 and 12/1.
It was a fine day all round for the free geegeez tips, as Chris was in standout form, highlighting a 17/1 double on Double Dutch, and a 9/1 second each way for Stat of the Day.
With the Premier League tips coming out in front too, it was only my Ascot preview that let the side down. Hmm...
Sunday had its own headline-makers, with a match at Kempton between 2012 Champion Hurdler, Rock On Ruby, and 2013 Neptune winner, The New One. The latter was a decisive winner and, while I wouldn't necessarily want to back Rock On Ruby for 2014 Champion success, do keep in mind that plenty of these early skirmishes will be ripe for form reversals five months hence.
In fact, there's talk of a possible tilt at the World Hurdle for Ruby, and that might be an interesting alternative, though he has to prove his stamina for an extra mile. The winner was impressive by any measure, and he's the favourite or joint favourite in almost all lists at around 5/1. That's hardly value so far from the big event, as he's unlikely to be shorter than 3/1 on the day, irrespective of what happens between now and then.
And yesterday, Our Conor had a spin on the flat where he finished a promising fourth in a big field. He found a little bit of trouble in running and his jockey was easy enough on him too. This run was actually on a par with his best on the level, and will have put him right for his first timber-topping engagement in the Morgiana.
Despite the seasonal returns of some big names this weekend, the flat has yet to yield its primary grasp on my attentions. Next weekend sees the Racing Post Trophy, a contest which has probably the most impressive roll of honour of any juvenile race in recent times: Kingsbarns won it last year, following in the hoof prints of Camelot, St Nicholas Abbey, Authorized, Motivator, and High Chapparal since the turn of the century.
With Toormore and War Command still engaged as I write, it looks like it could be another champion-maker.
More exciting for many - this scribe definitely included - is the upcoming Breeders Cup championship in California. I'll be there, reporting for geegeez, and I'll also have an array of statistical ammunition for you between now and then to help you understand what it takes to win these end-of-season scraps, and which of the US nags to fear the most.
We're entering sales season now. The major yearling sales are underway currently, and will be followed next week by the biggest auction of them all, the Autumn Horses in Training sale at Newmarket's Tattersalls ring.
I'm sorely tempted to form another geegeez syndicate, and here's what I'm thinking...
The loose plan is to buy a three-year-old off the flat, that is bred to stay two miles and improve a fair bit. Clearly, the level of competition at the sales (the yearling sale broke all sorts of records) means that we'd be unlikely to get a Cheltenham runner for the sort of money I'm proposing. But you never know. Top Notch Tonto almost won the Group 1 Champion Stakes and he was virtually given away.
If that's unlikely then what is a near certainty is that we'll have some fun, and hopefully win some races. After that, we'll see.
So, I'm thinking of a group of 16 to 20, buying a horse for up to £20k. With transport, sale fees, registration and insurance, we'd be looking at £1,500 up front and then £100 to £125 a month thereafter. Leave a comment please if this might be of interest.
If there's enough interest, we'll do it. If there isn't, we won't. Simple as that! 🙂
That's all for today. Happy Monday, and let me know about the nag!