Champions At A Distance

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Stradivarius | Scoop Dyga

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   Still in its infancy but already firmly established as a staple of racing’s culinary experience, Ascot’s Qipco British Champions Day is back on Saturday with the first of possibly several editions set in the COVID-19 era. No crowds, none of the hoopla that characteristically greets the collection of luminaries in all categories, no atmosphere other than that created by the races themselves.

Back in June, the Royal meeting was the first of the country’s major festivals to take place in the current void and it came through thanks largely to an epic performance by Stradivarius (Ire) (Sea the Stars {Ire}) in the G1 Gold Cup. It is therefore a relief that he belongs to one of the most sporting of owners with a genuine sense of the importance of tradition. Thankfully, Bjorn Nielsen has opted to allow his radiant staying star the chance to kick off the action in the opening G2 QIPCO British Champions Long Distance Cup. Successful in 2018 before being inched out by Kew Gardens (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) in a memorable encounter 12 months ago, the undeniably loveable chestnut slingshots from his shot at history in the G1 Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe 13 days ago. Seventh when bogged down in an unsuitably-run affair at ParisLongchamp, he is back in his counting house with Moyglare Stud’s dual G1 Irish St Leger heroine Search For a Song (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) the freshest challenge on his continuing odyssey.

Despite Stradivarius’s natural ebullience ensuring he is in the line-up, John Gosden does have a worry about the conditions. “The ground at Royal Ascot was what I would call ‘wet soft’ and this is going to be more ‘holding soft’. It has been very wet and unless we get some rain overnight, it will be riding holding and a little bit sticky,” he said. “I think the ground will worry a lot of people because most horses like to get through it and they like it loose wet, rather than holding. Having spoken at length with Mr Nielsen, the plan next year is to go for a fourth Gold Cup and as he won’t be running until May, here we are at the end of the season and we thought we would have a go at the Champions Day race.”

If Stradivarius is the opening of the concerto, then it is up to his unbeaten stablemate Palace Pier (GB) (Kingman {GB}) to supply the cadenza in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II S. before Magical (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) provides the closing movement in the feature G1 QIPCO Champion S. If there is one horse in action on the card who has the look of prodigy, it is Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum’s Palace Pier who could bear reasonable comparison with the likes of former QEII kingpins Warning (GB), Dubai Millennium (GB) or even Frankel (GB) if he comes through this with flying colours. Warning was sensational in 1988, when the race was the feature of the “Festival of British Racing” which served as one of the precursors of this great meeting. There are similarities between Palace Pier and that former Juddmonte celebrity, with the duo arguably denied 2000 Guineas glory only by dint of the fact that neither were ready for that Classic at that stage of their careers. The current leader of the division holds an upper hand in the fact that he has yet to taste defeat and his electric display when overturning Pinatubo (Ire) (Shamardal) over the turning mile here in the June 20 G1 St James’s Palace S. stays in the mind’s eye. That was backed up by a similarly impressive traversing of Deauville’s straight mile when taking the Aug. 16 G1 Prix Jacques le Marois and he is beginning to wear the air of invulnerability.

“He would have been a Guineas horse, but we weren’t able to have a prep in the Greenham so I went to Plan B,” Gosden said. “I wasn’t prepared to run him first time up in the Guineas, having missed last autumn because we had planned to run him in the Lagardere on Arc day. We’ve planned this race since the Jacques le Marois and he is coming into the race fresh and well.”

“We’ve been happy with him in his pre-race preparation,” he added. “He ran well on the round mile in June and it was hard to judge if his run in Deauville was better than his Royal Ascot run, given the ground. He was impressive at Deauville, but I thought he was impressive at Royal Ascot because he came strongly on the bridle and I think Frankie had a good hold of him at the end to win in good style.”

Magical is the third of the day’s short-priced favourites and in some ways the most rock-solid given that she has achieved the greatest piece of form so far this term by ending the streak of Ghaiyyath (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}) in the G1 Irish Champion S. at Leopardstown on Sept. 12. In a renewal that contained the subsequent Arc hero Sottsass (Fr) (Siyouni {Fr}), the sovereign of Ballydoyle finally delivered the kind of landmark performance that connections had long hoped for but feared would not emerge. In the aftermath of the retirement of her great female rival, she is here to complete the double-double of back-to-back English and Irish Champions, something that in itself if completed is unlikely to be matched for some time to come.

Aidan O’Brien will be looking to round off 2020 on a high following the contaminated feed debacle and the mixing-up of the fillies last Friday. Unusually, he has few other likely winners on the card, so Magical is very much the key player in their 2020 raiding party but she is one of those imperturbable types who can carry such responsibility. “She’s an amazing filly really–we’ve seen how consistent she has been. She has run in all the top Group 1s since she was a 2-year-old, which is unusual,” her trainer said. “There doesn’t seem to be any ceiling to her yet. She doesn’t need anybody else to help her–she’s very happy to plough a lone furrow.”

As usual, Gosden offers the main opposition to Ballydoyle in the Champion with Prince Faisal’s July 5 G1 Prix du Jockey Club hero Mishriff (Ire) (Make Believe {GB}) and Sheikh Zayed bin Mohammed Racing’s June 17 G1 Prince of Wales’s S. winner Lord North (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}). Frankie seems never to have wavered in opting for the former, who enhanced his reputation with an authoritative follow-up score in similarly testing ground in Deauville’s G2 Prix Guillaume d’Ornano on Aug. 15. He has come the route of the 2016 hero Almanzor (Fr) (Wootton Bassett {GB}), one of only two 3-year-olds to collect in the nine renewals since it was moved from Newmarket. The vanquished include the former Gosden luminaries Nathaniel (Ire) and Jack Hobbs (GB), as well as the likes of Ruler of the World (Ire), Free Eagle (Ire), Found (Ire) and Brametot (Ire), so it is a tough contest for the Classic generation.

Lord North was 1 1/4 lengths off Magical when third to Ghaiyyath in York’s G1 Juddmonte International on Aug. 19 and is a fresh horse re-opposing her over the course and distance on which he was so impressive at the Royal meeting. Testing ground is an unknown in this kind of company, but he was able to overcome it when taking a much weaker contest in the Listed James Seymour S. at Newmarket last November and this will answer that question.

“Obviously you are bringing 3-year-old French form to bear against proven older horses and that will be quite a challenge for him, no doubt,” Gosden said of Mishriff. “He has improved for racing this year. He was racing in the Saudi Cup at the end of February, he has been to Chantilly and Deauville so he has seen a lot of the world but he is not over-raced, that is for sure. Lord North put in a great run in the Prince of Wales’s and he is another one that has come up through the ranks. He is talented and is in exceptionally good form. He likes the track and he should handle the ground and I hope he runs a really solid race for us.”

“The standard is set by Magical, let’s hope he is good enough to give her a race,” Gosden added of Lord North. “James [Doyle] felt he was spinning his wheels all the way at York and that he wasn’t comfortable. He said he wasn’t really getting hold of the ground, so to that extent he felt he didn’t show his true ability.”

Soft conditions are ideal for last year’s runner-up Addeybb (Ire) (Pivotal {GB}), who also chased home Lord North in the Prince of Wales’s before enjoying a freshener and returning to defy a seven-pound penalty in the Listed Doonside Cup over this trip at Ayr on Sept. 19. Despite the merit of that performance, Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum’s 6-year-old still has to raise his game to an unprecedented level to see off this field and trainer William Haggas is fully aware of the task in hand. “It’s a tough race. He’s very well and will enjoy the ground,” he said. “It was a much weaker race he won at Ayr, but he had to have a run and that was good.”

The Champion’s unknown quantity Skalleti (Fr) (Kendargent {Fr}) has that fairytale aura of the inaugural Ascot Champion S. hero Cirrus Des Aigles (Fr) (Even Top {Ire}). Jean-Claude Seroul’s beloved grey made the most of a six-pound swing with Sottsass in the G3 Prix Gontaut-Biron over this distance at Deauville on Aug. 15 before winning Cirrus Des Aigles’s old warm-up, ParisLongchamp’s G2 Prix Dollar, on Arc Saturday. He showed a telling turn of acceleration in deep ground that could make a difference here and he also has the benefit of Pierre-Charles Boudot which counts for a lot these days.

Trainer Jerome Reynier said of Skalleti, “We’re pretty happy with him. He has been training in Chantilly and is training well. It is the toughest race in his career and there is only two weeks between his last race and Saturday, which is not long. We’ve been managing his career and giving him time between his races and this time that won’t be the case, so that’s a little concern. He can handle any ground, I think, but he is much better on heavy ground and other horses are not as happy with that, so the softer the ground the better. It’s a good achievement for us to bring a horse like this to run on Champions Day and we are going with confidence.”

France and “PCB” lead the way in taking on Palace Pier in the Queen Elizabeth II, with last year’s runner-up The Revenant (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}) only just back on the scene having won on his belated seasonal bow in the Oct. 3 G2 Prix Daniel Wildenstein at ParisLongchamp. “He has had no physical issues since last year,” trainer Francis Henri Graffard explained. “I had him ready to run at the beginning of the season, then lockdown came and we had no idea how long it would last and feared that it would force him to run on summer ground that he does not like. We decided to turn him out and wait until the autumn. He came back in July to allow us to get him ready for this race and the Wildenstein. The Revenant has come out of his Prix Daniel Wildenstein victory very well. He needed the race badly, so he will come on a lot. The softer the ground the better for him. Last year it was very soft, which helped us. It would be great if he runs a similar race. With humility, I see Palace Pier as the one to beat and if we were placed again it would be a very good performance.”

Among the supporting cast but perhaps not just a bit-player is Ballydoyle’s Circus Maximus (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), who is impossible to write off despite two heavy defeats when third in the Prix Jacques le Marois and in the G1 Prix du Moulin at ParisLongchamp on Sept. 6. Back over this straight mile over which he captured the G1 Queen Anne S. on June 16, the Flaxman Stables and Coolmore representative is two-for-two here and it is worth remembering that he upstaged another Gosden star in Too Darn Hot (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}) in last year’s G1 St James’s Palace S. “He won the St James’s Palace and the Queen Anne there, so he does love Ascot,” Aidan O’Brien commented. “He’s a very hardy, tough horse who loves a strongly-run mile, which is what he usually gets at Ascot. The Jacques le Marois was a very strongly-run race and we were forward, whereas Palace Pier was taking his time. The ground was very deep as well and Deauville is a flat track, while Ascot is stiffer. We’re very happy with the horse and we’re looking forward to the race.”

Gosden has another string to his bow in Shadwell’s July 10 G1 Falmouth S. and Oct. 3 G1 Sun Chariot S. winner Nazeef (GB) (Invincible Spirit {Ire}) and she is ample back-up should Palace Pier misfire. “She has improved remarkably this year,” her trainer said. “She is a very good filly with a great attitude that won well the other day. She handles the slower ground. She is a course-and-distance winner and the owner felt she had every reason to be in the race. I think this is probably a better option than America for her and I’d say that is now unlikely for her.”

Such is the success story of Hollie Doyle in 2020, it seems almost probable that she will choose this day for an inevitable first Group 1 victory and the most likely mount to provide that is Anthony Oppenheimer’s Dame Malliot (GB) (Champs Elysees {GB}) in the G1 QIPCO British Champions Fillies & Mares S. One of the final shots at enjoying a triumph at this level for the soon-to-be-retired trainer Ed Vaughan, the homebred does appear primed for the headlines. Her success in the G2 Princess of Wales’s S. over this mile-and-a-half trip on July 9 sets the standard in a weaker-than-average renewal and she meets nothing of the calibre of Tarnawa (Ire) (Shamardal) who she trailed when third in the Sept. 13 G1 Prix Vermeille at ParisLongchamp last time.

“I’m really hoping Dame Malliot can win, because it would be wonderful for Ed Vaughan,” Oppenheimer said. “Sadly, fairytales rarely come true, apart from in Walt Disney, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed. We missed the race in France on Arc weekend because the ground was too heavy. She’s had a bit of a rest since her last run, which was very good and she’s well and in good form.”

Christopher Wright’s Wonderful Tonight (Fr) (Le Havre {Ire}) beat a solid field in the 14-furlong G1 Prix de Royallieu at ParisLongchamp last time on Oct. 3 and still arguably has untapped potential, while Susan Magnier and Linda Shanahan’s G1 Irish Oaks heroine Even So (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) was just behind Dame Malliot and Wonderful Tonight when sixth in the Vermeille on ground that was probably too lively. Trainer David Menuisier said of Wonderful Tonight, “I’m very pleased with her. She’s fine and has been giving us the right signals throughout. She did a good canter on Thursday morning on the bridle and we were very pleased with her. In the grand scheme of things, we don’t have anything to lose and if she wasn’t feeling the way she is I would have been more than happy to pull the plug and turn her out for next year. But considering she’s like this, we felt we ought to give her a go.”

Doyle may have already achieved the feat by the time the Fillies & Mares swing into action, as she rides the live outsider Glen Shiel (GB) (Pivotal {GB}) in a competitive edition of the G1 QIPCO British Champions Sprint S. Just 1 1/4 lengths behind Saeed Suhail’s Dream of Dreams (Ire) (Dream Ahead) in the Sept. 5 G1 Haydock Sprint Cup, he is one who will relish ground conditions and Hambleton Racing’s racing manager Cosmo Charlton said, “He’s in great form–his last few bits of work have been really good and Archie [Watson] has been very happy with him since Haydock. The more rain they get, the better. The ground will be fine for him, I’m sure, but we know he handles heavy ground particularly well and will stay further. Hopefully he’s going there with a good each-way chance. We’re massive fans of Hollie’s and it would be brilliant if we could provide her with her first Group 1 winner.”

Dream of Dreams has turned around his fortunes this summer with a seven-length success in the seven-furlong G2 Hungerford S. at Newbury on Aug. 15 and with his Haydock Sprint Cup score, but he remains winless from five starts at this track. Two of those were narrow and possibly unlucky defeats in the G1 Diamond Jubilee S., while two others were unplaced efforts in this contest so the messages are mixed. “The gelding operation has helped Dream of Dreams, but most sprinters improve as they get older and he’s the same,” the owner’s racing manager Bruce Raymond said. “I wouldn’t say he was fragile, but he used to come back from his races a bit sore and things and he’s just more mature now. I think he’s a worthy favourite. He had a little breeze on Wednesday morning under Ted Durcan and he was very happy with him. I don’t think he would want really heavy ground, but soft ground is fine.”

One who is historically highly effective on deep ground is Lael Stable’s sensation One Master (GB) (Fastnet Rock {Aus}), who was denied success in this late on 12 months ago. Having brought up a third consecutive success in the G1 Prix de la Foret over her ideal seven at ParisLongchamp on Oct. 4, she has specialist sprinters to overcome but trainer William Haggas is expecting another bold show from the versatile mare. “She should run a good race. She’s done her bit now,” he said. “This is a bonus, but she ran such a good race last year and she seems in really good form.”

Whereas Doyle has yet to score at this exalted level, another burgeoning young talent in Cieren Fallon has the jump on her having bagged Newmarket’s July 11 G1 July Cup S. with Oxted (GB) (Mayson {GB}). He re-appears for the first time subsequently and trainer Roger Teal said, “We were unfortunate to miss Haydock, but he seems back on song now. Conditions are probably going to be his biggest hurdle. It suits other horses like Dream of Dreams and One Master. They have got solid form on soft ground, but if we do handle conditions we’re in with a fighting chance. The owners are keen to find out and I’m keen and he’s in good shape. It’s fingers crossed he handles it and he can put up a performance and mix it with the best of them. He’s only had two races this year so we’ve been pretty steady with him and he’s a horse who runs well fresh.”

Both Doyle and Fallon are names that are sure to appear on the honour roll at this meeting for several years, as is Doyle’s partner Tom Marquand who is on David Ward’s unbeaten and exciting Starman (GB) (Dutch Art {GB}). He beat the smart Dakota Gold (GB) (Equiano {Fr}) in the Listed Garrowby S. over this trip at York on Sept. 6 and is being chanced on ground that his trainer Ed Walker is concerned about. If he manages to overcome and win, he can be marked down as one of the race’s best winners but it would be no surprise to see him come back in 12 months’ time with stronger credentials.

“He’s done nothing wrong and Dakota Gold, who he beat at York last time, has won the Bengough and the Rous S. since,” Walker said. “To go into a Group 1 like this on his fourth start is a big ask, but he deserves to take his shot–he’s in great form and this has been the plan since he won at York. The ground probably won’t be ideal, but we’ll see. There was cut in the ground when he won at York, but this will be different again. It’s exciting and we’re looking forward to it.”

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