Horse racing celebrates its new, star-spangled climax to the Flat season -- QIPCO British Champions Day -- at Ascot this Saturday.
Since its inception three years ago, Champions Day has captured the imagination of the British public, and is fast developing into a must-be-there or must-watch sporting event.
Yes, the Grand National, Royal Ascot, the Cheltenham Festival and the Derby remain the jewels in racing’s crown.
While gems such as Glorious Goodwood, the Guineas Classics at Newmarket, the St Leger at Doncaster and York’s Ebor Festival shine bright.
But British racing has cut a real diamond in Champions Day. And one well worth a perennial polish, given that it attracts some of the best racehorses in the world, massive prize-money of more than £3.5 million, big crowds and global fascination.
Saturday’s renewal again features five top-quality contests that bring to a close a season-long series of Group races for sprinters, stayers, milers, middle-distance horses and fillies and mares. And the action is topped off by the kind of richly competitive handicap over a mile that punters love to get their teeth into.
The Champions Day critics still linger, arguing that it is staged too late in the year and, therefore, likely to be hamstrung by bad weather and unsuitably soft ground.
However, it has found a convenient niche, sitting neatly in the calendar between France’s ‘magnifique’ Arc Weekend and the Breeders’ Cup that is a racing institution in the USA. And few can argue against the success of the three fixtures to have been staged so far.
The first two, in 2011 and 2012, were fortunate to be graced by the mighty FRANKEL, but even without him and his legendary trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, Ascot hosted a memorable afternoon’s racing at last year’s event when the highlight was FARHH fending off CIRRUS DES AIGLES in the Champion Stakes.
The remarkable Cirrus Des Aigles, now eight years old, is back again this Saturday, bidding to add to his amazing career-record of 21 wins in a staggering total of 59 races that have amassed his connections almost £6 million in prize money.
Sadly, many of the heroes of the season from the UK and Ireland will be absent -- most notably champion miler KINGMAN, dual Derby winner AUSTRALIA, St Leger winner KINGSTON HILL, ace sprinter SLADE POWER and fantastic filly TAGHROODA, who landed the Oaks and the King George before finishing a gallant third in the Prix De l’Arc de Triomphe.
Kingman, Australia and Tahgrooda have all bowed to injury and/or retirement to stud. While other Group One scorers for the season, such as OLYMPIC GLORY, THE GREY GATSBY, MUKHADRAM and RIZEENA, are all giving Ascot a swerve.
However, despite the prospect of deep ground, nine of the top 25 rated horses in Europe, aged three and over, will be there in an international cast that includes NIGHT OF THUNDER, who beat both Kingman and Australia in the 2,000 Guineas, and now bids for glory in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. The day could also feature a re-run of the gripping Ascot Gold Cup duel in June between LEADING LIGHT and The Queen’s mare, ESTIMATE.
What’s more, compelling challengers to Cirrus Des Aigles are lined up for the Champion Stakes, including Frankel’s full brother, NOBLE MISSION, trained by Cecil’s widow, Jane, and FREE EAGLE, potentially the new superstar of the sport after returning from an injury lay-off with a breathtaking victory at Leopardstown last month.
Breathtaking is the word Ascot hopes will be on everyone’s lips after Champions Day 2014.
As well as the six races, visitors to Ascot will be treated to a host of sideshows and attractions that add lustre and ballast to an occasion bursting with feelgood vibes.
And for the first time, the day is complemented 24 hours earlier on Friday by Future Champions Day at Newmarket, which features three richly-endowed Group One races for the rising two-year-old stars of the campaign.
Expertly organised by Rod Street and his team at Great British Racing, which is the marketing and promotional arm of the sport, and generously sponsored by Qatar-based investment company QIPCO, the Champions Day concept is truly of huge significance to the prestige of racing in this country.