I think everyone who has racing’s best interests in heart should be thanking Chris Stickels, writes Tony Stafford. His early decision to utilise Ascot’s unwatered inner hurdles track for three of Saturday’s six Champions Day races undoubtedly saved the day. Whoever arranges the on-the-day weather also deserves congratulation. As we drove away in lovely late autumnal sunshine a big crowd was celebrating some excellent competition despite the testing underfoot conditions.
Last year’s fixture was run on ground official described as “soft, heavy in places”. The three races run on the close-to-unraceable ground until Saturday’s respite were run in uniformly slower times than 2018; the opening sprint 2.04sec slower; and the two mile races, the QEII 2.40 sec slower and the concluding Balmoral Handicap 2.30 sec slower than their predecessors.
Two of the three inner course races were run over officially shorter yardages than normal. The stayers’ race, 93 yards shorter, was run in eight seconds faster time than last year. The Fillies and Mares, 87 yards shorter than the mile and a half was run almost five seconds faster than last year. The Champion Stakes was still officially a mile and a quarter and interestingly only differed from last year by 0.37sec, Magical’s time actually minutely quicker than six-length winner Cracksman 12 months earlier.
So when adding the “missing” yards from those two earlier Inner Course races, all three of the switched races were run close to last year’s times.
Swinley Bottom is always the sticking (or perhaps Stickelsing) point when the ground gets bad. Ascot’s facilities and glamour, even after a week of monsoon conditions in the soft southeast of the country, continue to attract the crowds and as ever it was the younger generation that energised and populated the enclosures.
It was on that day that the Alizeti consortium announced the completion of its buy-out of the Tote from Betfred. Anyone who has backed any horse minutes or even seconds from the start of a race and waited for the win dividend knowing it will almost certainly, especially in the case of a winning favourite, be considerably less than the pre-race figure shown on screen will be hoping for less disingenuous dividends. If the technology that allowed such disgraceful returns is still in place, Alizeti or even Ali Baba would be destined to failure. One day somebody should look into past events. It happened often enough to be comical never mind questionable.
But let’s go back to Champions Day. So Stradivarius didn’t win again, just being nosed out of a second Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup by last year’s St Leger winner, Kew Gardens, under a masterful ride by Donnacha O’Brien. At least Stradivarius, in winning ten consecutive races since another Ballydoyle Classic winner, the five-year-old Order Of St George, denied him in the same race two years earlier, won the four £1 million bonus staying races in both the last two seasons. This race is not included in the bonus. Maybe to make it harder, for £2 million, throw in this race.
John Gosden is not the greatest loser in the world. He suggested after the race that the going beat Stradivarius. Sorry John, it was always reckoned Kew Gardens didn’t like soft ground, but as he showed when winning at Doncaster last September, he relishes a battle. On Saturday he also made it clear that he will be the one to beat in the Gold Cup next June, and in finishing five lengths clear of the rest it is hard to suggest Stradivarius did not run up to form.
But undoubtedly the star of the show was Magical, and typically, the name chosen by Mrs Susan Magnier has been uncannily appropriate. As they milled around in the winner’s enclosure after her comfortable win over mudlark Addeybb, Derrick Smith was talking to Aidan O’Brien about the possibility of her going to another Breeders’ Cup. Aidan said: “Sure, if you asked her, she wouldn’t say no!”
Amazingly since her fourth place behind Laurens in the Matron Stakes on Irish Champions Day 13 months ago, she has raced 13 times, 11 of them in Group or Grade 1 races. In five of them she has finished behind Enable, when tenth in last year’s Arc and fifth when Enable was beaten this month by Waldgeist.
Otherwise she’s been in the first three every time, and the only months in which she has not appeared have been between December last year and March.
As Smith again was saying on Saturday: “Imagine what her record might have been if Enable hadn’t been around. It tells you how good Enable is to see her win like that.” It does indeed, Derrick.
And “like that” it truly was, Donnacha hardly picking up his stick even when the filly with 18 races already on her dance card, having cruised through the race on going which, as with Kew Gardens, was hardly playing to the accepted strengths of a product of the peerless Galileo.
Had another of his fillies, the 20-1 shot Delphinia, been able to hold off Gosden’s Star Catcher rather than succumb by a short head in the Fillies and Mares race that Magical won last year, or more probably had Donnacha O’Brien and Fleeting not been unlucky in running in fourth in that race, then O’Brien would have passed Gosden in the race for the Champion Trainer title. Big John is just over £100k ahead and with the Vertem Futurity, the final Group 1 of the UK season being worth only £111,000 to the winner he should hold on.
I’m looking forward to the jumping now and with the recent torrents come safe conditions on the training and schooling grounds for the top trainers. Nicky Henderson was at Ascot on Saturday and said he had been very happy with his horses in their preparations which, until last week, had been almost entirely on his all-weather strips. “But then when we got on the grass, I realised they weren’t quite as “ready” as I’d thought”. Don’t worry, that’s one stable’s horses which won’t appear until they are ready. Like everyone else I can’t wait to see the next chapter in the unbelievable history of Altior. Who knows, maybe in time he’ll do a Desert Orchid and win a Gold Cup?
I’m off to Pontefract this afternoon where Raymond Tooth’s homebred Sod’s Law gets the chance to win for the second time on the track with ground, trip and Danny Tudhope all in his favour, before next week’s visit to the Horses in Training sale. But there’s a nagging worry at the back of my brain. All year I’ve been following a Micky Hammond horse with the greatest of frustration, including in the ladies’ race on King George day.
Frankelio is the name and he’s a four-year-old son of Frankel who had decent form in France. On his last start there he was beaten three-quarters of a length into third in a conditions race over a mile at Saint-Cloud, one which caused me all year to refer back to it saying how ridiculously well-handicapped he had become.
On Saturday at Ascot, the horse that beat him that day, namely The Revenant, and now with an official rating of 120, finished runner-up to the 2,000 Guineas second, King Of Change. That Saint-Cloud run was Frankelio’s second encounter with The Revenant, as they had been second and third, again separated by three-parts of a length, at Compiegne a month previously and almost a year to the day to Saturday’s epic performance, again on heavy ground.
At Pontefract, Sod’s Law, a 5-1 shot, gives 7lb to Frankelio now rated only 72. I can picture it now, Tudhope coming from way back to hit the front 100 yards out and then Graham Lee swooping even later on Frankelio. Magical might be the best-named horse of all time, but Sod’s Law isn’t far behind.