The charmer of Channel 4 racing, Nick Luck, set the scene, and Rod Street, Chief Executive of British Champions Series announced the one major change to this year’s programme. The much derided apprentice handicap that has so far closed the card on Champions Day has gone. In its place comes a one-mile handicap, which with prize money of £250,000 will be the most valuable handicap race over that distance in Europe.
That race also sees the restoration of an old name, the Balmoral Handicap, to the racing calendar. It isn’t, though, the reintroduction of an old race, as the old Balmoral Handicap was run over five furlongs at the Royal meeting. In a further innovation, all ten racecourses that host races in the Champions series will host at least one of 18 qualifying races, with many of the top handicaps such as the Royal Hunt Cup, the 32Red Bunbury Cup and the Betfred Cambridgeshire among them.
The first six home in each of these races will qualify for the Balmoral Handicap, although only 30 will be able to run.
The new race, along with increases to prize money for some of the other events on Champions Day, takes the prize fund at Ascot on 18 October to a whopping £3.75m. Street said, “Overall prize money on QIPCO British Champions Day has increased by 25% since the inaugural renewal in 2011. This record breaking prize fund underpins the day’s status as one of the most important race meetings in the world.”
Turning to the horses we should be looking out for this season, few people would have expected Jamie Osborne’s Toast Of New York to feature on that list when he was put away after two wins on the all-weather at Wolverhampton last Autumn. Success in the UAE Derby changed all that, and the horse Osborne describes as his “one little Trojan” in comparison with the legions of the Ballydoyle and Godolphin empires has a supplementary entry for the Epsom Derby.
There are difficulties in weighing up Toast Of New York. First, he’s run four times on dirt, and only once on turf, although he’s worked on grass every day, and apparently Jamie Spencer says he feels good on it. Osborne is worried about it, saying, “The only reason he’s run mostly on artificial surfaces is that those were the right races at the right time for him. I don’t think turf will be disadvantageous to him.”
The trainer acknowledges that there are “mixed messages” in the horse’s pedigree when it comes to the question of whether he’ll stay the Derby distance. We won’t have another chance to assess that before Epsom, as Osborne says that after making such a big effort at Meydan early in his three year old career if Toast Of New York lines up in the Derby he’ll do so without a prep race.
James Fanshawe said he does all he can to avoid pre race interviews so that he doesn’t have to make any predictions, preferring his horses to do the talking. Top of his list is last season’s QIPCO Mares and Fillies victor Seal Of Approval, who will have that race as her target again this year. Beyond Seal Of Approval he wasn’t offering any horse to note for either the Champions Series or the season in general.
Roger Varian showed no such reticence, although he does have more horses to choose from, as he now trains the biggest string in Newmarket. Kingston Hill has entries in both the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, and Varian gave the impression the latter race would suit his horse better. He said, “He won the Racing Post Trophy to finish as the second top rated juvenile colt. His style of racing says he will stay and his pedigree suggests he will stay a mile and a half. Ten or twelve furlongs won’t have too many fears for him.”
Last season Aljamaaheer was winning races over a mile, and whilst he may compete over that distance at some time during the season, it wasn’t the priority. Varian said, “We’re going to start the year looking at him more as a sprinter than a miler. If he really took to 6 furlongs then that would be very exciting. All those 6 furlong races through the year could suit him”
Varian highlighted Mutashaded as a promising colt who could step up to Group company over middle distances, but it was clear that he felt his strength this year lay with the sprinters. Alongside Aljamaaheer, he highlighted Justineo and Morawij as horses to look out for over the minimum trip, and Steps and Rock Ground over either five or six furlongs.
As for the Classics, there was little optimism, with all his possible horses having to prove if they worthy of a run. Look out for Mushir in the Free Handicap and a sprinkling of entries in several of the trials.
The fillies are to the fore in the Charlie Hills yard. He has two possibilities for the 1,000 Guineas in Kiyoshi and Queen Catrine. He favours the former, who will go straight to Newmarket in May if everything goes well. That means Ireland or France is the likely destination for Queen Catrine, though she’ll run in a trial at either Newbury or Newmarket to see just how she has progressed over the winter.
Sir Michael Stoute flagged up two horses to look out for. Asked if there was an older horse in training he would like to be responsible for he had no hesitation in picking Aidan O’Brien’s Magician, because “he’s just so versatile, he’s a Guineas winner, he’s a Breeders’ Cup Turf winner. I’d go for him.”
Of the horses in his own yard Stoute nominated Windsor maiden winner Idea as one to watch. He’s entered in the 2,000 Guineas, and a run in the Greenham will show whether he’s up to a run in the Classic.
These are all English trained horses, and as in previous years, the British Champions Series will be all out to attract the cream of world racing to Ascot in October. The likes of South Africa’s Shea Shea, America’s No Nay Never and France’s Cirrus Des Aigles are all familiar visitors to Britain. Now another country is joining the show, with Noozoh Canarias set to be the first Spanish trained runner in a British Classic in the 2,000 Guineas, the first race in this season’s Champions Series on 3 May.
Bring it on!