A Champions Day Made of Rock and Steel

A dream result for Dettori on King Of Steel | Racingfotos

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ASCOT, UK–It's that time of year, with retirements of the top horses coming thick and fast, but the really good news from Champions Day is that Big Rock (Ire) and King Of Steel will both be back to wow us again next year. 

And wow they did, along with that other predictable star of the show, Frankie Dettori. It is a course that he has been lighting up ever since his magnificent seven of 1996 and at which he is now commemorated in bronze, the statue of Dettori having been unveiled by the Queen before racing. Even in the October gloom Dettori dazzled, galvanising Trawlerman (GB) back into contention in the Long Distance Cup when defeat looked certain, and then, from the back of the pack, aiding the magnificent equine specimen that is King Of Steel to the most ostentatious of last-gasp victories.

The 'new' Ascot can so often be devoid of atmosphere, but not on Saturday, when football chants from the terraces brought Dettori back to scale, the vast parade ring encircled by fans. An almost breathless Kia Joorabchian was understandably in his element as his horse who so nearly caused a massive upset in the Derby got up to claim his first important Group 1 win. It may not be his last either, and Joorabchian reported afterwards that he had already told Dettori that he couldn't let him retire now. 

A crowd of just over 30,000 came to say goodbye to the man famous enough to be known simply as Frankie. They may well be saying hello to him again next June, as it's hard to imagine that once the adrenaline of this monumental day leaves him that Dettori will be able to walk away from the track he loves the best, particularly after a season when he has so obviously still been riding at the peak of his powers.

To add to the international connections surrounding King Of Steel, a Spanish-owned, French-trained winner of the Queen Elizabeth II S. brought some extra pizzazz to the day. Jean-Claude Rouget is in line to retain his champion trainer title in France but in the coming years it is easy to see him having greater competition from the rising star of the French ranks, Christopher Head, for whom Big Rock now rivals dual Classic winner Blue Rose Cen (Ire) for the title of stable star. From having his first Group 1 winner on Arc day last season and a first Classic in the spring, Head has now notched a first Group 1 winner in Britain. Quite the year.

Linking those two three-year-olds further is the fact that they both race for their breeder Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals, who, like Joorabchian, confirmed that his star colt would race on next season. The Spaniard made quite a splash at the breeding stock sales in Europe and America several years ago and his significant investment in broodmares, now based primarily in France at Haras de l'Hotellerie, has been justifiably rewarded this season in particular. He is also the breeder of G1 Prix Morny runner-up and Group 2 winner Ramatuelle, who was sold as a yearling. In a short time, he is rivalling some established names of the turf, and is fourth in the owners' table in France this year with only a handful of runners compared to those around him in that elite company.

One man who was cock-a-hoop at temporarily spoiling the Frankie farewell was Tim Easterby after watching his admirably tough Art Power (Ire) keep Kinross (GB) at bay to win the British Champions Sprint. The six-year-old's five prior group wins have all come in Ireland, but this first top-level strike on home turf clearly meant the world to the understated Easterby.

The son of Dark Angel (Ire) had been gelded over the winter, meaning he will certainly be back next year as long as he remains fit and well. 

“We only gelded him because we couldn't find a job for him at stud,” Easterly reported. Even before his Group 1 win, Art Power has done more than some to have earned a place as a stallion somewhere. 

Doncaster-based breeders David and Yvonne Blunt enjoyed the biggest success of their racing days when their Poptronic (GB) held on under a front-running ride from Sam James to land the British Champion Fillies & Mares S. for Karl Burke. Her next appearance will be in the Sceptre Sessions at the Tattersalls December Mares Sale, with her value having now likely increased from six to seven figures.

The daughter of Nathaniel (Ire) was bred by the Blunts from Alpine Dream (Ire) (Dream Ahead), one of three mares at their Yorkshire property.

“We thought long and hard about it,” said Yvonne of Poptronic's entry in the sale. “And she deserves a chance at better breeding than we could probably give her. We have her half-sister as a foal at the moment, so we are looking forward to her, and we have one or two nice horses in the pipeline with Karl as well.”

Too early for those of us snared in traffic on the M25, the Goffs Champions Day Sale took place in a morning slot in the parade ring at Ascot, and can be summarised thus: one horse, one million. 

After a long month of yearling sales, the idea of a five-horse catalogue with one withdrawal is immensely appealing to bloodstock hacks. In this case, just one of the lots was sold, for a nice round £1,000,000 to Wathnan Racing. The horse in question, Rogue Lightning (Ire) (Kodiac {GB}), won the Listed Scarborough S. on his penultimate start, and then ran fifth in the G1 Prix de l'Abbaye. The three-year-old will remain with his trainer Tom Clover but will make his next start in the colours of the Emir of Qatar's increasingly prominent operation.

“To be a part of QIPCO British Champions Day has been a real privilege,” said Goffs group chief executive Henry Beeby. `”We believe sales at Ascot have a bright future as a location to sell quality, top-class bloodstock.”

While it is good to see the ever imaginative Goffs team extending its association with Ascot, it remains questionable that any sale should take place on a race day. Over the last month especially there have been number of clashes with major race days to the extent that it sometimes feels that for some the sales are greater sport than the racing. What happens on the track should always be the big show. 

Ascot, on the inner track and outer track, delivered its own big show despite the looming threat from Storm Babet. Champions were crowned, even while the season is still in full flow, but they were two thoroughly deserving members of the weighing-room. 

Few people have taken the racing world by storm quite like Billy Loughnane, a mere spectator at Champions Day last year, and this year crowned champion apprentice at the age of 17 with more than 100 wins to his name throughout the year. On the podium before racing he was clapped on the shoulder by William Buick, himself a former champion apprentice and now a dual champion. 

Their achievements were overshadowed on this day by the former champion who now bowls on to Melbourne and California after waving an ebullient goodbye to Ascot with a Champion Stakes victory on his final ride in Britain. Well, maybe.

 

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