So the first QIPCO British Champions’ Day is now history – and an occasion we shall remember for good and bad reasons.
First and foremost, let us acknowledge the money thrown at the event achieved its goal. We had an afternoon of exceptional sport, with seven of the ten top-ranked horses in the world in action, among them the best miler I have ever seen – or likely to see – in this country. There was so much hype over Frankel that I was inclined to fear that it might be courting disaster, but once again he delivered in sensational style.
The day was also a qualified success for its promoters. The hoped-for 30,000 crowd did not materialise, which was disappointing, given the amount of publicity and the exceptionally fine weather for a mid-October afternoon, but a tally of 26,749 at least enabled a claim of justification for the switch from Newmarket, where last year’s not-quite-equivalent card attracted just under half that number.
Bookmakers on the course and up and down the country also reported a notable upsurge in business and as punters generally had the better of the exchanges, with well-backed contenders winning most of the races, they will not have been displeased with the outcome of an event in which the form held up well.
The Long Distance Cup – in former times the Jockey Club Cup, and now a race with no penalties and allowances – was clearly above the standard for a Group 3 contest, and with the first two in the Gold Cup, Fame And Glory and Opinion Poll, filling the same places again, the natural order of things prevailed.
Of course, the form book said there could be only one winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes
The Group 2 Sprint, formerly the Diadem, had a warm favourite in Deacon Blues, who obliged with uncommon ease. It was perhaps a shame that the July Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup hero Dream Ahead was not among his rivals to provide a stronger test, but the gelding, a constant improver throughout the season after a disappointing campaign in 2010, must now rank close to the top of his division.
In the Fillies’ and Mares’ Stakes, known as the Pride Stakes in its previous incarnation, there was plenty of support for two fillies – Vita Nova and Ferdoos – neither of whom had so much as a Group 3 win to commend her. Those with the appropriate respect for Classic form drew a bigger dividend than they might have expected with Dancing Rain, heroine of the Oaks, making all again and resolutely resisting all challenges.
Of course, the form book said there could be only one winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, though Excelebration had undoubtedly improved since his defeats by Frankel earlier in the year, and there was a new threat in Immortal Verse, not only an impressive winner of the Coronation Stakes but victrix over no less a celebrity than Goldikova in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville since then.
Run over the straight mile rather than the round course for the first time, all the other jockeys chose to ignore Frankel’s pacemaker, his three-parts-brother Bullet Train, when he opened up a long lead. The upshot was that the early pace among the real contenders was not strong and Frankel tugged at Tom Queally’s arms, running with his head to one side.
Frankel fright a brief one
But if that caused a modicum of concern, it did not last long. The favourite soon settled, was into second place at halfway, closed on the leader from the three marker and over the next furlong, his fastest, he had all of his pursuers in trouble. As Bullet Train faded, Frankel surged to the front, then took a couple of back-handers from his pilot just to keep his mind on the business in the final furlong, and it was all over.
Frankel is the closest approximation to perfection in a racehorse that anyone could imagine and he came back to a tumultuous reception from a throng which, to a man, recognised the privilege of seeing him in his regular imperious form. The reaction from Timeform was to raise his rating to 143, a mark not matched since Brigadier Gerard earned a 144 as a four-year-old 40 years ago. The Brigadier’s mark at three was ‘only’ 141 and Frankel has another year in which to enhance his reputation still further; the challenge now is to improve on the 145 achieved by Sea-Bird, the highest-rated horse in Timeform’s 60-plus years of assessing thoroughbred performance.
The Champion Stakes was controversially switched from Newmarket’s straight mile and a quarter to Ascot’s round course
The headline act had done his stuff and all that was left was for the Champion Stakes, controversially switched from Newmarket’s straight mile and a quarter to Ascot’s round course, to complete a perfect day. The cast of stars – which included seven previous winners of 24 Group 1s – seemed entitled to provide the fabulous finale and, up to a point, it did.
We saw a truly run race, completed in a time far quicker than standard, and a thoroughly deserving winner in Cirrus Des Aigles, who was never far off the pace, came with a resolute challenge from the furlong marker and wore down the gallant So You Think near the finish. Those admirable fillies Snow Fairy and Midday performed with distinction to finish close up in third and fourth, the latter just a short head in advance of the King George hero Nathaniel.
Viewers of the BBC’s coverage, which ended not much more than five minutes after Cirrus Des Aigles won, might have imagined they had seen a perfect day’s racing. The organisers of the meeting, so blessed by the weather, struck lucky again in that the terrestrial channel watchers – the largest proportion of the TV audience – were catching up with the day’s football results, blissfully unaware of the embarrassing aftermath to the Champion Stakes.
The new whip rules had been in force for only five days and had been the unwelcome focus of attention in the lead-up to the big day, the non-specialist media predictably revelling in the sensational news of Richard Hughes’s decision to quit after twice falling foul of the regulations, and of a threatened strike by fellow jockeys.
Soumillon suspension only made things worse
This was not something British racing needed at any time, let alone at a time when it was seeking to gain fresh adherents and preparing to celebrate the keenly anticipated inaugural British Champions’ Day. How much worse that situation became when, after the Champion Stakes, the winner’s jockey, Christophe Soumillon, received a five-day ban and lost his share – over £52,000 – of the richest race ever run in Britain. All for applying his whip once more than the new rule permitted. What had been something of a domestic brouhaha thus took on the complexion of an international incident.
Soumillon could not be blamed for his disgust over a punishment that patently did not fit his ‘crime’. English racing had scored another embarrassing own goal and the French seemed well entitled to recall the Marquis de Ximenez’s allusion to ‘perfidious Albion’.
Of course, in an ideal world – and in a sport which in the 21st century is truly global, with jockeys regularly riding in a multiplicity of countries – the rules governing the use of the whip would be the same everywhere. Regrettably that is not the case and probably never will be the case.
What had been something of a domestic brouhaha thus took on the complexion of an international incident
The new regulation in Britain, instituted simply to appease the do-gooders who understand nothing of racing and of the effect of the whip, was ill-conceived, its folly accentuated by its introduction a few days before the staging of a high-profile international occasion.
It is to be hoped that by the time these words appear in print some common sense will have prevailed. But increasingly, in my perception, evidence of common sense is hard to find among those entrusted with the governance of our sport these days.
I am tempted to say: Come back The Jockey Club, all is forgiven. Yes, there were plenty of bumbling, pompous old farts among their number, but they did know the horse, they did understand racing and they provided leadership the like of which we no longer enjoy.
I don’t think they would have fouled their own nest quite as the BHA managed to do on British Champions’ Day 2011.