The Qipco British Champions Day fast approaches, and with it the climax of the Flat season in Europe.
Ascot proudly hosts the richest raceday in Britain, with many of Europe’s finest in attendance. French colt Almanzor is arguably the star of the show. Jean-Claude Rouget’s French Derby hero swerved a crack at the Arc in preference to Ascot, and after his stunning win in the Irish Champion at Leopardstown, will be a short-priced favourite for the showpiece event; the Qipco Champion Stakes.
“He has been in really good form since the Irish Champion,” said Rouget earlier in the week. “We're extremely happy with him. The colt has been based in Deauville for a while now and did his final piece of work on Monday over a mile on grass under Christophe Soumillon which really pleased us. He's very laid back, a lovely horse with a fantastic turn of foot which should serve us well. He will also like the forecast good ground.”
The French trainer also believes the track will prove ideal for his challenger, adding: “I believe he will like Ascot. It resembles our French courses more than Newmarket with its undulations.”
Almanzor is set to face the Arc heroine Found, with O’Brien’s filly attempting to gain revenge for the Leopardstown defeat. She finished second in the corresponding race 12 months ago, having finished down the field in the Arc at Longchamp. Traffic problems in the Paris race meant that she arrived at Ascot a relatively fresh horse. That may not be the case this time around, though O’Brien appears keen on letting her take her chance. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting that her major objective this season was always the Arc.
If France look likely to capture the main event, then Britain look to have a strong hand in the Champions Sprint Stakes. Indeed, the race is being billed as a direct clash between Henry Candy’s Limato and Karl Burke’s Quiet Reflection. The latter was last seen in the Sprint Cup at Haydock. That was more than a month ago, and she’ll arrive here fresh and ready to deliver a power-packed display. She was beaten by Limato in the July Cup, but Burke believes his filly has strengthened since then.
Candy will make a late decision on Limato’s participation, with the weather again key. The four-year-old was sensational in winning the July Cup, and was mightily impressive at Chantilly when landing the Prix de la Foret. “I've seen the forecast has changed slightly and there are a few more showers around,” said Candy. “It will be a late decision, though. He'll be declared and we'll be walking the track.”
The top two in the betting certainly won’t have it all their own way. And the French have a live contender in the Francois Rohaut trained Signs Of Blessing. Another who’ll arrive fresh for the battle, he’s performed at a high level throughout this campaign, winning the Maurice De Gheest last time at Deauville. “The horse is in excellent health and I'm extremely happy with him,” Rohaut said. “He went up to Deauville after his final work last Thursday, and he has had a great preparation since his last race with no hiccups.”
The Brits hold a strong hand in the Sprint, but it’s the Irish that hold the aces in the Champions Fillies & Mares. Aidan O’Brien sends over his dual Oaks winner, Seventh Heaven. Her victory at York in August when defeating Found looks to be the strongest piece of form around. She has improved throughout the campaign, with her only blip coming at Epsom in June. She’ll take all the beating.
Dermot Weld has a terrific record at Ascot, and will be pretty confident of a strong performance from Zhukova. This race has been her target from the beginning of the season. The four-year-old is three from three this summer, though her best performances have come on soft ground. Any rain between now and Saturday would certainly enhance her chances.
Ireland also launch a strong challenge for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, with Ballydoyle confirming the participation of the Guineas and Oaks winner Minding. She was no match for Almanzor and Found in the Irish Champion over 10 furlongs, but arguably her best performance of the season came at Newmarket back in May when she romped home in the 1000 Guineas. Her last run at a mile came in May, and that has to be a slight concern.
Kevin Prendergast will be hoping that Awtaad is back on track after his win at Leopardstown last month. The Irish 2000 Guineas winner was sensational back in May, when thumping Galileo Gold by more than two lengths. His worst performance came on fast ground at Goodwood, and his chances of success will improve should rain fall over the next few days.
Galileo Gold looked a shadow of his former self when trailing home at Deauville in August. Prior to that performance the English 2000 Guineas winner had proved himself a high class colt in four Group 1s. The break may well see him back to his best, with Hugo Palmer reportedly confident of his horse going to Ascot ‘at the peak of his powers’.
Palmer’s colt had Ribchester behind him at Newmarket in the Guineas, but Fahey’s Godolphin owned colt has done nothing but improve throughout the summer, and appears the horse to beat on Saturday. A fast finishing third to The Gurkha and Galileo Gold in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, he then captured the Jacques Le Marois at Deauville. He looks the most progressive in the field, and rightly sits at the head of the betting.
Everything points to a thrilling day of top-class action, possibly as good as any held at the track. This Qipco British Champions Day is set to live up to the name.