British Champions Day, the richest day’s horse racing in the country, returns to Ascot for the third time on Saturday, with the sport’s power-brokers keen for it to build on the unquestioned success of the first two. The highly ambitious project, which will offer £3.4m in prize money, 11% more than last year, was given the sort of start its creators could only have dreamed of by Frankel, perhaps the best Flat racehorse any of us have seen, who made the event instantly unmissable.
He put up a career-best when landing the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes by four lengths in 2011 and stepped up to the main race, the Champion Stakes, last year for his final racecourse appearance. The mighty colt ensured a huge crowd and then sent them home happy but Ascot will have to do without him on Saturday, when it could be argued that the concept of Champions Day will be tested for the first time.
“Clearly, there was a Frankel factor,” concedes Nick Smith, Ascot’s head of communications, “and I think we just have to move on from that. It was a very, very special time, he drew the sort of crowds you might see only once every 10 years and he was a wonderful horse to have had here but we’re in a different world now.”
Smith expresses himself “pretty pleased” with the list of equine talent expected to turn up this time. “The QEII is shaping up to be a real championship, with Dawn Approach taking on Toronado again, Soft Falling Rain as the new kid on the block, and possibly Maxios in there as well. We’re happy with that.”
Dawn Approach and Toronado are the flashy three-year-old milers who lit up the summer with their rivalry, fighting out thrilling finishes at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood. The latter contest took so much out of them that they each flopped in separate races the next month, but both have been given time to recover and this final clash would be a huge draw for any raceday.
Unfortunately, it is not yet certain to happen. Toronado and Olympic Glory, another QEII entrant, are owned by the Qatari Sheikh Joaan. While he can be relied on to run one of them at Champions Day, which is sponsored by his family, he does not want to run them against each other and a decision about which will go may be taken as early as morning, after a key gallop at their Wiltshire base.
Smith hopes the Champion Stakes will prove “the top 10-furlong race of the year”, with Cirrus Des Aigles, the 2011 winner and second to Frankel last year, back once more, facing potentially strong opposition from Declaration Of War, Farhh, Mukhadram and others.
For strength in depth, though, the fillies race on the card, a Group One for the first time, is hard to match. Talent is expected to be there, which will make it the third year in a row that the Oaks winner has run, while Dalkala, a Group One winner on Arc day, should also take part. Igugu, from South Africa, adds some international glamour.
Maarek, another Arc-day winner, is likely to be the headline act in the sprint race. “All in all,” Smith concludes, “these races have done very well.”
There will be additional attractions on Saturday, notably an exhibition of photographs and artefacts from the home of Sir Henry Cecil, Frankel’s trainer, who died in June. Also on display will be a series of sporting trophies, including the FA Cup, the Ashes urn and the Jules Rimet Trophy won by England in the 1966 World Cup. Even so, attendance is unlikely to be much more than 25,000, compared to the Frankel-inspired sell-out of 32,000 last year.
As for Frankel, he threatens to be as good at his second career as he was at the first. Now a stallion based at Banstead Manor Stud in Newmarket, he covered 133 mares this spring, successfully impregnating 126 for a 95% fertility rate that impressed bloodstock professionals. Unsurprisingly, he is reported to be “in very good form”.
He will not be entirely absent. A portrait, described by breathless press releases as “dramatic” and “unique”, has been created by Chris Levine, the light artist who famously created a holographic image of the Queen in 2004. It will go on display for the first time on Saturday. The task for Champions Day is to survive long enough to produce another hero worthy of similar veneration.
Flat Season Finale
QIPCO British Champions Day, now in its third year, is the culmination of the European Flat racing season. In 2012, it produced spectacular fields for what was Britain’s highest-value raceday ever at £3 million.
As the QIPCO British Champions Series comes to a close for 2013, this raceday features the end-of-season championship races for:
- Ten-furlong horses: The Champion Stakes;
- Milers: The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes;
- Sprinters: six furlongs;
- Long-distance horses: two miles; and
- Fillies and mares: one mile and four furlongs.
For further information on British Champions Day
- Ascot hopes Champions Day 2013 can escape from the shadow of Frankel (theguardian.com)
- Queen Elizabeth II and Frankel: Capturing greatness (cnn.com)
- Dawn Approach and Toronado to clash for fourth time on Champions Day at Ascot (telegraph.co.uk)