It’s primed to be as good a Champions Day as any before, with numerous plots and subplots at play, set to engage and enthral the expectant Flat racing masses.
Ascot has practically sold-out, and it’s no wonder with the talent on display. Even the late withdrawal of Ulysses (anticipated in yesterday’s piece) cannot dampen the spirits for what is set to be a high-class end of season extravaganza. Stoute’s outstanding four-year-old heads to America for a tilt at the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but in his absence, there remains a glut of exceptional thoroughbreds battling for supremacy on the richest day of British racing.
News also came yesterday that Churchill will contest the QEII, rather than take on Cracksman and Barney Roy in the Champion Stakes. The dual-Guineas winner has disappointed since his success in the Irish Guineas at the Curragh, but it is hoped that a drop back to a mile will spark a revival in fortunes for O’Brien’s high-class colt. He and Caravaggio remain the most likely of the Ballydoyle team to deliver the Group One success needed to match Bobby Frankel’s record.
Though I am not focusing on the QEII for today’s preview, I fancy that Ribchester will prove an unsurmountable obstacle, though a reinvigorated Churchill is a huge danger to Godolphin’s talented miler.
It’s the showpiece event that I have chosen to look at today. The Champion Stakes is the most valuable event, and arguably along with the QEII, the most coveted. It’s fair to say that the roll of honour lacks a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, though does carry the names of Brigadier Gerard, Frankel and last year’s exceptional French colt Almanzor.
Despite Ulysses resting-up prior to an American excursion, the remaining field of 10 still pack a high-class punch.
It’s quite amazing that neither Frankie Dettori or John Gosden have yet managed to capture this prestigious event. They look to put that record straight with tomorrow’s race favourite Cracksman. Winner of the Great Voltigeur and the Prix Niel in his last two starts, this son of the mighty Frankel (himself the winner in 2012) out of a Pivotal mare has been campaigned at a mile and a half throughout the summer, and this drop to 10 furlongs could prove an issue. The forecast rain due to hit Berkshire should aid his chances, along with a forceful ride from Dettori as he looks to make his mounts stamina a telling factor.
Fellow three-year-old Barney Roy appears the main danger to the favourite. Connections will have been thrilled to hear the news on Ulysses, having finished behind Stoute’s fella in the Eclipse and the Juddmonte. You could argue that Hannon’s contender would appreciate a sounder surface, though he coped admirably at York following an apocalyptic morning’s downpour prior to that Juddmonte race. Barney won the St James’s Palace Stakes on his last visit to the track, and is likely to have a little more ‘zip’ than Cracksman. Nevertheless, the favourite will likely take some passing, and that may well prove the thrilling aspect of this race.
The French challenge is a two-pronged assault, and although Jean-Claude Rouget’s Brametot has star appeal, his compatriot Recoletos should not be underestimated, especially if the ground turns soft or heavy.
Brametot won the French Guineas and followed up by taking the Prix du Jockey Club. He was a creditable fifth in the Arc when incurring traffic problems, but this 10-furlong trip appears his optimum. Rouget’s Almanzor took this race 12 months ago, and though this challenger is not as good, none of the contenders are. I believe that he’s a leading player and is likely to be delivered late and fast, as he was in the French Derby.
Recoletos was just behind him that day having looked a likely winner inside the final furlong. The softer the ground the better for this three-year-old, and odds of 25/1 are more than generous. Though his season started in March he’s not been overplayed, and I have a strong feeling he’ll outrun those odds. He could prove a surprise package with conditions to suit.
With Ulysses away, Sir Michael sends Poet’s Word into battle. A typical Stoute sort, he has improved rapidly during his four-year-old campaign, and was a terrific runner-up last time in the Irish Champion Stakes. He stays further and goes on any ground. First or second in his last six starts, he looks sure to go well, though I fancy a place finish is the best he can hope for.
Of O’Brien’s duo only Highland Reel can win, and for that to happen the rain must stay away. Cliffs Of Moher is simply not good enough.
Yet again I find myself siding with Barney Roy. I was sure York would suit him last time, but he came off third-best behind Ulysses and Churchill. I fear Cracksman, especially if plenty of rain falls, as he’s a relentless galloper, rather than a colt with gears. Favourites have a modest record with three wins from the last 10, and so I’ll be backing Barney for the win. If plenty of rain falls I’ll chance a French three-year-old each-way, though it will be Recoletos rather than Arc fifth Brametot.
Best of luck to all those having a punt. And to those heading to Ascot on Saturday, enjoy a thrilling day of racing.