On Saturday the Qipco Champions Series came to its dramatic conclusion, delivering a fairytale ending.
Despite the most troublesome of build-ups, Champions Day could not have been more thrilling. The Champion Stakes, the most valuable race in Britain and ‘main event’ on this prestigious day, went to the brother of the sport’s greatest racehorse.
Just two seasons ago, the mighty Frankel ended his sparkling career with success in the very same race. Trained by the late and much-loved Sir Henry Cecil, the horse was retired to stud leaving behind a seemingly decent, yet far less talented sibling. Two years later, Noble Mission kept up with family tradition under the tutorship of Sir Henry’s wife Lady Cecil. Understated and wonderfully humble, the trainer was quick to thank her team and loyal owners. Special praise went to her jockey, “The key has been the forcing tactics. James gave him an incredible ride. I can’t thank him enough.”
The race itself could not have been more exciting. Noble Mission sent to the front, attempted to gallop the sting out of his opponents. The tactic looked to be working until one challenger cruised from the chasing pack to challenge. Overlooked by many after a disappointing time at stud, Al Kazeem was back to his best on the track and looked set to steal the headlines. But occasionally sporting events appear scripted with an inspirational outcome pre-destined.
James Doyle threw everything at his willing partner and in a pulsating finish Khalid Abdullah’s new star muscled his way to victory. Just yards after the line, defeated jockey George Baker reached across to congratulate his friend. It was an incredibly sporting gesture, and in keeping with the occasion, as racing came together in celebration of such a memorable victory.
Many had hoped that success would go to the wonderful Cirrus Des Aigles, who on this occasion was unable to sparkle. With conditions to suit, he surprisingly appeared beaten turning for home, though battled on bravely up the straight for fifth. After the race his jockey Christophe Soumillon was unable to explain the slightly disappointing run.
Dermot Weld was far more satisfied with the encouraging effort from Free Eagle. “I thought that was a very good performance. For a three-year-old it was a super race. Next year he may end up in the Arc.”
It proved to be another great Champions Day for the Irish and in particular for Weld and his team. He had been successful in the opener when Forgotten Rules overcame inexperience in winning the Long Distance Cup. Sore shins had seen his career delayed, but he is clearly a horse with great potential. Next year’s Gold Cup at Royal Ascot is sure to be on the radar. He has already been installed as one of the market leaders.
France may have failed to win the main event, but Charm Spirit’s victory in the Queen Elizabeth ll Stakes was far more than just a consolation prize. It’s fair to say that the day lacked an appropriate International flavour. Nevertheless, Freddy Head’s talented miler won a high-class renewal, defeating Guineas winner Night Of Thunder in the process. Always travelling supremely well, Olivier Peslier pounced at precisely the right moment, leaving Richard Hughes unable to peg him back on the favourite. The trainer hinted that his horse may now go to stud, having finished the season on such a high.
The second win for Ireland was yet another crowd-pleaser. Gordon Lord Byron threaded the eye of a needle to win the Champions Sprint, giving his trainer Tom Hogan arguably his greatest win. Clearly thrilled, Hogan spoke in glowing terms of his beloved warrior, “The horse is a superstar. He has been a fairytale for us and there’s plenty more in him. He’s thriving, and we’ll see where we go in the winter.”
G Force, favourite for the sprint, found the ground too testing and trailed in last. Great times still lie ahead for the youngster, but for him as with many others, Champions Day in October may be omitted from future targets.
The trend of soft or heavy ground is fast becoming established for the meeting. For many this will always be seen as a huge negative, along with the proximity of the Arc meeting and the Breeders Cup in the US.
But there can be little doubt that the events of Saturday continue to establish Qipco Champions Day as a terrific season ending celebration of racing. At its heart, the ‘Cecil Dynasty’ has ensured that such wonderful days will last long in the memory.