Ascot Champions Day 2013 Preview / Tips
Ascot looks set for a real test of the popularity of its fledgling Champions Day this weekend as, for the first time, it will be without its two main stars. In the inaugural running of the Champions Day meeting, crowds were baked by the sun and buzzing from a Frankel demolition job in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
And last year, the weather gods were again kind to Ascot, the rain stopping and the sun emerging just in time for an eleventh hour (literally) confirmation that Frankel would grace the Champion Stakes itself.
This year, there will be no Frankel, though his legacy lives on through various exhibitions, and the forecast is unsettled. With the ground currently on the soft side, and likely if anything to get softer still, A-Listers like The Fugue have already sent in their sick notes and will look towards sunnier climes and more hoof-rattling turf.
Despite these setbacks, this third running of the Champions Day card retains plenty of quality and, from a punting perspective, the presence of deep ground may make winner-finding easier. No, not easy, merely easier.
The six race cards features three Group 1’s, a Group 2 and a Group 3… and, erm, an apprentice handicap. Surely at some point the beaks will scrap that incongruency and stage a race – maybe even a handicap – more befitting of a card with the word ‘Champions’ in the title. No matter, six races, so six winners to be found. Let’s get to it…
1.45 QIPCO BRITISH CHAMPIONS LONG DISTANCE CUP (Group 3) 2m
We start with a two mile Group 3, and not many of top stayers have stood their ground. In truth, it’s an unfashionable distance these days, and the fact that the highest rated in here is 115 reflects that. Furthermore, the fact that the lowest rated of the dozen entries is 107 attests to its competitive nature.
Too competitive to be taking 2/1 about a favourite, I’d say, despite her robust credentials. Estimate is the filly’s name, and she’s the Queen’s own lassie. Estimate blooming loves it at Ascot, she does, and she’s three from three here. Two of those were at the last two Royal meetings, upgrading her 2012 Queen’s Vase for the real deal in 2013, the Gold Cup itself. (And, lest you forget, one was amused at that!)
Estimate won that Queen’s Vase over course and distance, and in Saturday’s ground and grade too. She has a very good profile, and she’s tough to boot. She may well win, but her rating gives her barely a breath of advantage over the likes of Ahzeemah, Times Up, Saddler’s Rock, and Royal Diamond; and actually asks her to find a pound against Harris Tweed. Too short for me.
Harris Tweed is the top-rated, and he swims through muddy puddles like Peppa Pig on steroids (one for the parents there!). Despite winning three times at a mile and three-quarters, there remains a stamina reservation when stepped up to this two mile range, a reservation underscored by a single attempt at the distance in 25 career starts.
That was a respectable enough fourth place in the Lonsdale Cup at York, on good ground, where he led until collared. Harris Tweed is a little one-dimensional in terms of run style, and will highly likely attempt to make all. He might have unwanted company from either Saddler’s Rock or Royal Diamond but, if he can ignore them and get to the lead, he has a chance of staying there all the way to the lollipop.
Ahzeemah has progressed well through the ranks, despite an irritating predilection for silver medals: half of his eighteen races to date have culminated with the second step on the podium. That does, though, include three in his last four starts – and a win, gasp – all in higher grade than this.
This fellow stays well enough and he’s classy enough, but I’m not at all sure about the ground for him. True, he won the Lonsdale Cup on good to soft two runs ago, and that over two miles. But his two prior efforts on genuine soft ground – both early in his career, granted – were of a lower level than the performances which surrounded them.
I can’t say he won’t go in the ground and, at 8/1, there is some latitude to take a chance on him given his other attributes.
If there’s a beast in the field – Estimate aside – capable of marked improvement, it is Eye Of The Storm. He’s looked better with each step up in trip, starting this season with a second place over ten furlongs, before winning in Listed company at a mile and a half, and then replicating that feat over two miles.
He’s won on extremes of going, so there should be no worries on that score. At 10/1, he’s mildly appealing in a race which is generally unappealing from a punting perspective.
The rest are a gathering of occasionally capable rogues, and I’d not trust any of them with a shekel of my wagering fund… with the marginally possible exception of Aiken, a fellow who was a neck second in this last year. He didn’t debut in 2013 until mid-August, and has been a little disappointing in two runs since – both as 3/1 favourite.
That brace of battles should at least have him at concert pitch here, and with proven form in the conditions, he can outrun his outsider-of-the-field odds.
Long Distance Cup selection: Eye Of The Storm 10/1 Betfred
Rag with a squeak: Aiken 14/1 bet365 (1/4 1-2-3)
2.20 QIPCO BRITISH CHAMPIONS SPRINT STAKES (Group 2) 6f
Formerly the Diadem Stakes, the British Champions Sprint Stakes has elevated the profile of its predecessor somewhat, with the average winner’s rating rising from 109 for the three years 2008-10, up to 117 for the two ‘Champions’ years. Most probably, then, we’re looking for a horse with a rating of at least 110 to bag this.
That truncates a field of fourteen down to five. They are, in top-to-bottom ratings order, Slade Power, Maarek, Balmont Mast, Viztoria and Jack Dexter.
Maarek is favoured here, despite – like Estimate in the previous race – a rating of 114 being a pound below the top-rated in the contest. He did me, and plenty of others, a favour two weekends ago when storming home to grab the Prix de l’Abbaye at odds of 15/2, and soft ground is the making of this son of Pivotal.
Specifically, none of his eleven wins have been on good ground or quicker, and he’s won his last four all on going officially described as ‘soft’. Although three of those victories were over five furlongs, the fourth was here in this race last year. Indeed, six of his eleven wins have been at the three-quarter mile trip.
Assuming he’s recovered from his Parisian exertions, Maarek will take all the beating.
Slade Power has earned that top rating by running third in the July Cup, a Group 1 over six poles. He followed that up with a Group 3 win at the same trip, before being out-speeded in the five furlong Nunthorpe. Back at six last time, again in Group 1 company, he bested all bar the facile victor, Gordon Lord Byron.
That was on good to soft and, despite a Listed win on soft, the pick of Slade Power’s form is on quicker grass – and in smaller fields. He came into this race in similar form last year (indeed, off an identical Racing Post Rating in his last time out winning race), and was five lengths inferior to Maarek. I see no reason whatsoever that he’ll be much closer this time, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not much of a Slade Power fan.
Viztoria was disappointing when bashed up by Moonlight Cloud and the rest in Paris last time, but prior to that she’d won at Listed, Group 3 and Group 2 level. She drops back to six furlongs for the first time this season in this, and that could suit a filly with a lot of zip and a love of soft ground.
I still think she has something to find with Maarek, but she’s a far more palatable prospect than the Power.
The stickout profile mudslinger in the field is Jack Dexter. His form on soft or heavy is 111111. On good to soft it’s 2613. On faster it’s 5374005. If ever there was a horse with an unambiguous preference for soft ground, it’s Jack. However, despite wins in Class 5, 4, 3, 2, Listed, and Group 3 company, he has yet to add a Group 2 – today’s grade – to his palmarès.
In fairness to Jack, he’s twice run well in G1 and G2 company on unsuitable ground, and since they were his only two attempts, this could be his day to step up. He’s the one I fear most.
Balmont Mast should probably have gone to the Breeders Cup. He’s quick enough, and has a clear preference for all weather surfaces (I’d not be sure about US dirt, in truth). His turf form is a step slower than his poly level, and though he did win a good ground Listed contest last time over six, he’s yet to race over this far on proper soft ground, and wouldn’t be certain to see it out.
Hawkeyethenoo surprised me last year when second in this on soft ground. He’s normally a turf rattler, and I’d not expect him to make the frame this time. Looking for an outsider with a bit of a chance involves trying to find a horse with soft ground six furlong pattern race form. Maybe Sirius Prospect is the one.
He’s a dual Listed winner, one of them as recently as August over seven furlongs on soft ground; the other was six furlongs, also on soft. He’s a course and distance winner too and, though a bit hit and miss, would make the frame at his best.
Cape Of Approval also has a case to be made for him. He was never put in the race in the Abbaye and, consequently, didn’t have a hard time… and is a bigger price here as a result. Before that, he was beaten little more than a length on unsuitable good ground (all five wins on yielding or softer), and before that he beat Maarek, albeit over five furlongs.
Two of Cape Of Approval’s five wins have been over six furlongs, though, so he sees it out well enough. Whether the combination of trip and class will be too much for him remains to be seen, but as a four year old with just fourteen runs to his name, 25/1 offers scope to be wrong.
Champion Sprint selection: Maarek 5/2 Coral
Each way alternatives: Sirius Prospect 20/1 bet365 (1/4 1-2-3), Cape Of Approval 25/1 bet365 (1/4 1-2-3)
2.55 QIPCO BRITISH CHAMPIONS FILLIES & MARES STAKES (Group 1) 1m4f
Formerly the Pride Stakes when held at Newmarket, and now upgraded to Group 1 status for the first time, the Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes is run over a mile and a half. It has drawn the Oaks winner, Talent; the Opera and Middleton winner, Dalkala; Nassau third, Hot Snap; and the Group 1 Grosser Preis von Berlin winner, Nymphea; as well as several other up-and-comers.
It’s a bugger’s muddle of a punting puzzle, but a pretty good race and deserving of its elevated Group 1 status. The one I’m leaning towards, though not too much of an inclination it should be said, is Dalkala. I tipped her, but didn’t back her (doh!), two weekends ago when she mugged Tasaday on the line in the Group 1 Prix de l’Opera.
She seems to be a ‘now’ filly, and the French have a fine record of plundering British fillies’ Group 1 races in recent years. Indeed, they have won eleven ladies’ only Group 1’s at a mile-plus since 2003, from 52 runners. That was worth a profit of 29.5 units, and the main man in all that?
Alain de Royer-Dupre has won four such races from fifteen saddled runners, and three from his last five! That trio – all in the last two seasons – were sent off at 10/1, 2/1 and 9/2 respectively, and Dalkala demands attention as a consequence.
She’s already proven her appetite for overseas travel, having claimed the Group 2 Middleton Stakes at York in May; and she looks the best bet in a race full of poor bets. A mile and a half on soft ground will be fine for her.
Talent is the Oaks winner and bids to uphold that race’s moderate looking form. The Lark was third behind her that day, and has at least won – as she liked – since, albeit in a rough old race for the Park Hill. There might not be much between them here, on ground more in The Lark’s favour, though neither of them look especially attractive from a betting slant.
Hot Snap could improve for softer ground as a daughter of Pivotal, but she wouldn’t be certain to stay this far, and her form might not be up to this either. It wouldn’t stun me if she won, but nor could I call her a value play at 7/1 or so.
Waila is much more interesting. Trained by Sir Michael Stoute, and owned by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild – the same connections as dual Pride Stakes winner, Crystal Capella – Ryan Moore completes the connection triumvirate by doing the heaving and steering. Waila beat Riposte in a Sandown maiden back in April, that rival going on to win the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot subsequently.
Waila herself was inexplicably six lengths back in the Ribblesdale, and that was almost certainly not her running; especially so when you consider that on her only subsequent start she beat the above average Gertrude Versed by ten lengths in a Newmarket Listed event over this twelve furlong range.
The ground is the question mark here, as she’s never raced on slower than good to soft. That debut effort is easily overlooked as Stoute’s jockeys are not allowed to use the whip on a horse’s first start as a rule, especially aboard fillies. Waila looks to have a bit of knee action, which offers the prospect of possible improvement for the slower surface, that’s so much flim flam on my part as I’m far from expert on such matters.
Nevertheless, 8/1 in places is an accessible price about her chance.
Igugu is expected to improve a lot for her first run since April, a three-parts second to Zurigha over a mile. But this is a different test altogether. That was a mile in Listed company on good to firm, this is a mile and a half in decent Group 1 company on soft. She’s won over this far in South Africa, and she’s won four South African Group 1’s too, including one on soft.
How that stacks up against a European middle distance contest is anyone’s guess and, while I respect Mike de Kock (without necessarily liking his training style), she’s not for me.
Nymphea wouldn’t be the worst rag in the world with which to wager. She stays well, acts on soft, and has won a Group 1 as recently as two starts back. Moreover, she can front run as well. Nymphea has been placed in eight of her nine races, and the 12/1 with Coral is worth taking each way.
Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes selection: Dalkala 9/2 Betfred
Next best: Waila 8/1 Hills
Speculative each way: Nymphea 12/1 Coral
3.30 QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES (Sponsored By Qipco) (Group 1) 1m
Queen Elizabeth Stakes selection: Maxios 11/2 Coral
Best each way: Elusive Kate 14/1 general
4.05 QIPCO CHAMPION STAKES (Group 1) 1m2f
The other established race, and the main event on a card full of main events, is the Champion Stakes over a mile and a quarter. There are a few horses that I have something akin to ‘groupie’ status with, and one of them runs here. Before I get to that, let’s run the rule over the key profile features of recent winners, again courtesy of the fine work at horseracebase.
– 13 of the last sixteen winners were either first (eight) or second (five) last time out.
– Horses aged three to five have won all bar one of the last sixteen Champion Stakes, but only eleven horses older than five have lined up in that time.
– Only one horse rated lower than 118 (five were unrated when winning) has won.
That gives us a shortlist of Cirrus Des Aigles, Farhh, and Mukhadram, who are – not coincidentally – the first three in the betting.
Whereas pace looks virtually assured in the preceding Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, it’s less clear cut here and, over the slightly longer distance, that could play into the hands of a horse with a fine turn of foot. That said, Mukhadram likes to lead and he’ll probably have things his own way in the early part of the race.
He showed when winning the York Stakes and, more notably, when almost nicking the St James’s Palace Stakes, that he’s a dangerous foe from the front. The big imponderable with his chance is the ground. He may have won the Group 3 Brigadier Gerard Stakes on good to soft, but a margin of victory of half a length over Main Sequence – re-opposes here as a 66/1 shot – doesn’t suggest he’s ideally suited to it. Nevertheless, he will lead into the straight, and then we’ll see.
A fair number of his rivals like to race close enough to the pace to ensure Mukhadram doesn’t slip away. That close up gang includes some or all of Cirrus Des Aigles, Farhh, Morandi and Main Sequence.
Cirrus Des Aigles is my ‘groupie’ horse. I heart CdA. 🙂
He’s a seven year old, and he’s still at the top of the flat racing tree. That’s because he was long since de-coupled and thus has no stallion value. Great news for racing fans, whose affiliations with favourite equines is often confined to a season or two on the level, and ten or less races.
Cirrus Des Aigles will be having, wait for it, his fifty-second race! God love him. I love him. He’s been first or second in 36 of his 51 to date, and third in five more. He’s won fifteen pattern races, three of them at Group 1 level, including this race in 2011, its first year at Ascot.
Last year, he got closer than all bar Zoffany has ever done in a Group 1 contest behind Frankel, when finishing second. He was impressive in the Prix Dollar last time out and, whilst probably a trifle regressive on his best form, he’s still very much the one to beat here.
The ground is a plus for Cirrus, as he loves the quag: eleven of his eighteen wins have been on softer than good. So is the trip: fourteen of his eighteen wins have been within 100 metres of this mile and a quarter trip.
In other words, conditions are optimal for Cirrus Des Aigles.
But he is not the highest rated runner in the field. That honour falls to Farhh, rated 124, who is marked up as a pound superior to Cirrus and also to Mukhadram. Farhh belongs at the top table and, though we’ve only seen him once this season and that five months ago, he commands respect.
When we last saw him, he was duffing up Sovereign Debt by four lengths in the JLT Lockinge Stakes, a Group 1 over a mile. That was on good to firm though, and it was a very weak race for the grade (the only other runner rated higher than 115 was tailed off injured and hasn’t been seen since).
Farhh himself jarred up there, hence the protracted absence, but he’s bred to gobble up the divots being be Pivotal out of a Lando mare. Mmm, mud, yum yum. Strange(ish) then that this will be Farhh’s first foray into the deep stuff, having only had thee good to soft races on turf south of good.
That trio resulted in a laughably easy win in the Thirsk Hunt Cup, and commendable runners up spots in the Coral-Eclipse and the Prix du Moulin, both proper Group 1’s.
With Farhh, it’s all about his health and fitness. If he’s healthy and fit, he’s highly likely to be in the first two. I’d be confident he’s healthy or he’d surely not be here. With so many late season pots overseas, however, I have less confidence in his level of fitness against cherry ripe oppo. And, at a best priced 4/1, I’ll let him beat me if he can.
Of the rest, Derby winner Ruler Of The World has a tarnished reputation to repair, and would surely make that good if he could vanquish all here. That seems unlikely to my eye, though he may be better suited to ten than twelve furlongs, despite that Epsom Blue Riband triumph. The ground should be all right for him, though this comes soon enough after a hard race in Paris.
Hillstar has been deserted by Ryan Moore, who prefers Ruler Of The World, and that’s a clue in itself to this fellow’s chance. He should appreciate the ground, and it’s noteworthy that Sir Michael Stoute is persisting with him at Group 1 level. I would have thought a tilt at the Breeders Cup Turf might have been a better option though.
Finally, for me at least, there are a couple of interesting further French foragers in the form of Morandi and Triple Threat. The former was only just bested by Intello – third in the Arc, and the French Derby winner – in a going and distance Group 3 last time, and he does have a heavy ground Group 1 win on his CV. That triumph was more a procession – scoring by seven lengths – but it was another desperately weak affair for the level.
Morandi has a propensity to find one too good, and he may again do so, but at 16/1 he’s a value each way play for those that prefer that type of wager.
Triple Threat is saddled by the genius French trainer, Andre Fabre, and he has a line through Morandi, courtesy of Intello, which Fabre also trains. This son of Monsun will have no truck with the turf, though his overall patchy profile leaves him with a bit to find against some of these. On a going day, he could scrape a place, but I’m much more drawn to Morandi from a long shot perspective.
If you want a real outsider to pitch at, Main Sequence – a gelding that has been called plenty of names in his time – was an unlucky fourth in the Grand Prix de Paris last Summer, and acts well in the mud. He’s 66/1 and shouldn’t be able to win, but there’s a strong chance of him out-running that price, and a small chance of him scraping onto the podium.
Champion Stakes selection: Cirrus Des Aigles (perleeeeeeaaaase!) 6/5 888sport
Each way alternative: Morandi 16/1 bet365 (1/4 1-2-3)
Hail Mary rag: Main Sequence 66/1 BetVictor (1/4 1-2-3)
4.45 QIPCO FUTURE STARS APPRENTICE HANDICAP (CLASS 2) 7f
Erm, have a nice evening… 😉