The build-up has well and truly begun for the QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday.
With over £4 million in prize-money, it is Britain’s richest raceday. Though Longchamp and the Breeders’ Cup are a little close for comfort in the racing calendar, Ascot’s end of season spectacular is nevertheless set to attract a star cast.
Late withdrawals and concerns over ground conditions were very much the theme as last year’s meeting approached. Yet on the day, terrific racing coupled with the heartening success of Lady Cecil’s Noble Mission in the Champion Stakes, reinforced the event as a vital component in Flat racing’s autumn schedule.
Quality horses along with thrilling contests are always key to the success of major meetings. Europe’s outstanding sprinter, Muhaarar, is one of the star attractions preparing to take on all-comers in the Champions Sprint. His last visit to the course saw him thrash Limato in the Commonwealth Cup, and announced his arrival as a sprinter of immense talent. He followed up with victories in the Darley July Cup and the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville.
Other notable entries include the Group 1 Betfred Sprint Cup winner Twilight Son and the runner-up at Haydock, Strath Burn. The former, trained by Henry Candy, is an undefeated three-year-old progressing at a rate on knots. The latter is stable companion to Muhaarar, and Charlie Hills will be hopeful of another huge run.
He spoke of both, saying: “Muhaarar needed a break; he had three pretty hard races in quick succession so we’ve freshened him up and I couldn’t be more pleased with him. We’re going in pretty confident. He’s physically come on well and has a huge amount of talent, we know he likes Ascot.”
And of Strath Burn Hills added: “He has thrived since Haydock. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way he looks. He did a great bit of work and will get better with age. He could run a big race on Saturday.”
Among the field is the first ever QIPCO British Champions Day entry from outside Europe. Emperor Max is trained in Singapore and has won 10 of his 20 career starts, twice finishing runner-up in Singapore’s prestigious Group 1, the KrisFlyer International Sprint.
The six-year-old is trained by Stephen Gray, who spoke of his excitement at running at Ascot: “We are stepping into the unknown bringing Emperor Max to Britain but we are not coming for nothing as Max is a true race horse and a tough customer. For me and my family it is a dream. I was at Ascot the day that Black Caviar won and I said then that it would be a dream to bring a horse here one day.” The horse will be ridden by Corey Brown, one of Australia’s best jockeys and a Melbourne Cup winner.
In the Champions Fillies’ and Mares’ Stakes there’s the potential of a mouth-watering clash between British Classic winners, Covert Love and Simple Verse, though the former could head directly to America for the Breeders’ Cup. Ralph Beckett, trainer of Simple Verse, said: “We’re very happy with her. We run. We know she’s beaten the colts but running against her own sex is the key to running in this race. I think she’s improved as the year has gone on – she’s battle-hardened and a mile and a half won’t hold any concerns. She doesn’t seem dependent on ground. She won on fast in the summer.”
Aiden O’Brien is likely to run last year’s Yorkshire Oak’s winner Tapestry. While the only horse to defeat the mighty Golden Horn, Arabian Queen, is also entered.
Jack Hobbs is another huge attraction, and he will take all the beating in the QIPCO Champion Stakes over a mile and a quarter. The Irish Derby winner arrives fresh having skipped the Arc in preference to this. His trainer John Gosden said: “We deliberately freshened him up after the Irish Derby. He’s a big rangy colt. He won over the mile and quarter first time out when green before getting a bit lost in the Dante. His father was at his best at 1m and a quarter. We’re lucky it’s drying, it’ll ride on the slow side of good but it shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience for the horses.”
One of his main challengers is likely to be the David Simcock’s The Corsican. He impressed when winning a Group 3 at Newbury last month, and this looks to be his optimum trip. Simcock spoke of his chances, saying: “He’s come out of his race (at Newbury) very well and we’re happy with him. He’s at his best on fast ground and his Prince Of Wales’s run, when he got stopped in his run, would have been is best so far. He’s improved since then, he’s running over his best trip and we’re looking forward to running him. We’re quietly confident in this horse.”
Found is another likely to challenge Jack Hobbs. Aiden O’Brien has always thought plenty of her, and she ran a cracker behind Golden Horn in Ireland before meeting all kinds of traffic problems in the Arc. She could run a huge race.
The long awaited duel between Solow and Gleneagles, is once again in the balance with ground conditions likely to be on the soft side of good come Saturday. Both horses are among the 12 entries remaining for the Group 1 £1.1 million Queen Elizabeth II Stakes which is run over Ascot’s straight mile.
Other leading contenders include the winner of the Group 2 Celebration Mile at Goodwood, Kodi Bear, plus a pair of multiple Group 1 scorers from the Andre Fabre yard, Esoterique and Territories.
Clive Cox, the trainer of Kodi Bear, said: “He’s very much at home on the ground and he’s had a nice chance to freshen up since the Celebration Mile. I’m thrilled with the progress he’s shown throughout the year. He’s been very convincing albeit this is another step up. We’re hoping for a big run on Saturday.”
Fourteen horses remain in the Group 2 £345,000 QIPCO British Champions Long Distance Cup. Last year’s winner, Forgotten Rules looks set to make the line-up as well as the recent Doncaster Cup winner Pallasator. Willie Mullins has several entered with Wicklow Brave set to be ridden by Ryan Moore.
Agent Murphy was a place ahead of Wicklow Brave in last month’s Irish St. Leger and will be bidding for a fifth career success. His trainer, Brian Meehan, said: “He’s been very consistent all summer. The Irish Leger was a big target for him so it made sense to follow up here. He was good at Newbury with cut in the ground but he’s very versatile. He’s in really good shape. Looking at him a couple of days ago, I haven’t seen him look as good all year.”
The meeting concludes with the valuable Balmoral Handicap (sponsored by QIPCO), won last year by Bronze Angel. A large field is assured with 31 horses standing their ground at the five-day entry stage.
Marcus Tregoning, trainer of Bronze Angel, will be hoping for a repeat of last year’s success, and said: “The Cambridgeshire was a non-event for him. He came out of it fine and went in to the field the day afterwards. He seems in great form, he has more weight than he used to have but he’s in good form. I think he’s as good as ever. We don’t always have a going day but he’s won two Cambridgeshire’s and an awful lot of prize money. He’s been a real flag-bearer for us.”
With every chance of a dry week ahead, the scene is set for a cracking day of top-class racing.