CHAMPIONS DAY VERDICT: the legacy of Frankel and Cecil gives no ground for concern

Wonder horse FRANKEL and his mercurial master, Sir Henry Cecil, were not there in body.

Thursday, 24th October 2013, 9:44 am
Olympic Glory ridden by Richard Hughes wins the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes during the QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 19, 2013. See PA story RACING Ascot. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
Olympic Glory ridden by Richard Hughes wins the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes during the QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 19, 2013. See PA story RACING Ascot. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

But their presence in spirit left an indelible mark on the third QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot last weekend.

Cecil’s legacy was honoured by a simple but tasteful exhibition of his life that was the highlight of the day’s off-track attractions.

While Frankel’s fingerprints smothered a thrilling finish to the meeting’s signature race, the Champion Stakes.

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The first two home, FARHH and CIRRUS DES AIGLES, were horses who had their hearts broken in previous encounters with Cecil’s unbeaten and unbeatable colt.

When Frankel reigned, his form got franked anywhere and everywhere you cared to look. And here, 12 months after his retirement, his influence was still having its say at the highest level.

Corine Barande-Barde’s seven-year-old gelding Cirrus Des Aigles was runner-up for the second successive year, having bowed to Frankel in 2012, 12 months after winning the race.

Farhh never sniffed Frankel in the Sussex Stakes and Juddmonte International of August 2012 when hammered by a combined total of 13 lengths.

But he was a worthy winner here on his first appearance since bolting up in the Lockinge Stakes in May and on his final appearance before retirement to stud.

He was a fitting winner too in that he crowned Godolphin leading owner for the ninth time in 17 seasons. A perfect riposte to the traumas and travails surrounding the Mahmood al Zarooni drugs scandal.

Contrast the disgrace Zarooni continues to wallow in with the skill Godolphin’s number one trainer, Saeed Bin Suroor, summoned to bring the fragile Farhh to the boil for the big day.

Suroor’s achievement was matched only by veteran Richard Hannon, who pulled a rabbit out of his well-worn hat to land the other flagship contest of the day, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

The 68-year-old Hannon all but clinched the trainers’ championship with his gamble to fit first-time blinkers on OLYMPIC GLORY in a bid to cure the colt’s laziness.

And how it paid off as the three-year-old galloped home in a performance that owed much to superior stamina in Soft ground.

The testing surface was a major talking-point in the inquest that assessed the success of Champions Day.

There is little doubt it was softer than expected and too soft for some of the main protagonists.

But there was not one non-runner on the day because of the ground, which still staged a card rich in class and quality.

And even though the meeting remains in its infancy, it is already firmly established as an appropriate finale to the British Flat racing season.

It can only get better when it dovetails, from next season, with Future Champions Day (FCD), which showcases many of the leading two-year-old races of the autumn.

FCD will be held on the previous day to create a Champions Weekend that, in time, might well act as serious opposition to the Breeders’ Cup in the States.

I’m not sure the concept will truly take off until the weekend switches in its entirety to Ascot. And I’m not sure that will ever happen, given the opposition certain to be fired by Newmarket, where FCD currently resides.

But at present, Newmarket’s autumn fare overflows, which badly affects the size of its crowds. If HQ can be persuaded to plough most of its resources into building up its terrific three-day Cambridgeshire meeting in September, FCD could well be released to Ascot who, in turn, would be advised to surrender its Saturday meeting two weeks before Champions Day to protect the ground.

Undeniable, and so glaringly apparent last Saturday, is that Ascot is now a world-class venue and the only one capable in the UK of staging and projecting such an important event for the sport.

This year’s crowd did dip to just under 25,000. But the feedback received by the admirable Rod Street and his Great British Racing team was healthy.

The aforementioned Cecil exhibition, plus a fascinating display of major sporting trophies, including the Jules Rimet Trophy that Bobby Moore lifted in 1966, went down particularly well with racegoers and served as a lesson to other tracks where sideshows often bear no resemblance to the main action.

It is hugely encouraging that Street and Co continue to reject gimmicks and place the racing and the horses at the heart of their philosophy.

So it was pleasing that they were rewarded by a performance from RULER OF THE WORLD, a close third in the Champion, that gave the form of the often-maligned Epsom Derby a massive boost.

The day also resurrected the talent of KINGSBARNS, third in the QEII, a colt Aidan O’Brien had little doubt was his best horse at the start of the season.

And amid the £3.5 million war chest of prize money emerged genuine hope that the underdog can grab his share too -- courtesy of TOP NOTCH TONTO. A horse named without any illusions of grandeur and one who, 12 months ago almost to the day, was trailing three lengths behind Willie The Whipper on Heavy ground at Pontefract. Yet here he was slugging it out with, and beating, SIX Group One winners to finish second in the QEII.

Mind you, exactly 12 months ago to the day, Eddie Lynam’s sprinter SLADE POWER was in an even worse place as he was carted off in an ambulance with a career-threatening injury after breaking his pelvis during the Champions Sprint Stakes.

So what a comeback it was by the four-year-old to power to victory in the very same contest last Saturday.

As a class act who goes on any ground and is equally effective over 5f and 6f, Slade Power has the sprinting world at his feet next season.

As a foal, his mother tried to kill him and he had to be fostered by another horse.

The analogy with Champions Day itself cannot be resisted. It too was nearly suffocated at birth and might never have seen the light of day. Now life is good and the future is bright.