British Champions Day: Did it live up to its billing?

QIPCO Champions Day arch at Ascot. Photo:

Analyst James Willoughby takes a mathematical approach to see if British racing’s flagship day at Ascot on Saturday can be counted a success.

The fourth British Champions Day – the culmination of a year-long series of races sponsored by QIPCO Holdings of Qatar – took place at Ascot last Saturday.

The meeting was the subject of much scepticism, even pre-emptive criticism, in certain sections of the domestic racing media, after a week of unusually heavy rain intensified a clarion call to shift the meeting forward in the calendar, when the going is less likely to be heavy. Moreover, the early retirement of superstar horses Kingman, Australia, and Taghrooda – discussed here in August - had denuded the meeting of the kind of horse likely to live up to its title.

Last year, I reviewed how the meeting compared in quality with other great race days around the world. This year, I wrote down five questions that needed an answer. So, how did British Champions Day do? 

Q1: So, it’s Champions Day; does any horse deserve such a title?

Close, but not really. Let’s take a look at the Racing Post Ratings (RPR) earned by the winners of the five Group races (the other event is a valuable handicap) in order to see how they compare with the first three renewals:

G2 British Champions Long Distance Cup (2m)
2011* Fame And Glory: RPR 115
2012* Rite of Passage 117
2013* Royal Diamond 115
2014 Forgotten Rules 117
*run as G3

G2 British Champions Sprint (6f)
2011 Deacon Blues: RPR 121
2012 Maarek 118
2013 Slade Power 119
2014 Gordon Lord Byron 121

G1 British Champions’ Fillies’ And Mares’ Stakes (1m 4f/2,400m)
2011* Dancing Rain: RPR 118
2012* Sapphire 118
2013 Seal of Approval 118
2014 Madame Chiang 115
*run as Group 2

G1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (British Champions Mile) (1m/1,600m)
2011 Frankel: RPR 139
2012 Excelebration 131
2013 Olympic Glory 127
2014 Charm Spirit 124

G1 QIPCO Champion Stakes (British Champions Middle Distance) (1m 2f/2,000m)
2011 Cirrus Des Aigles: RPR 130
2012 Frankel 136
2013 Farhh 127
2014 Noble Mission 123

That is pretty clear. The weakest version of the four years, with no horse topping an RPR of 123.

Yes, there’s no denying it. The purist wasn’t really sated. In terms of sheer class – nothing else – this year’s Champions Day was a little short of the standard required of it. After all, this is the richest day’s racing in the British calendar, and the Champion Stakes is the most valuable race.

In particular, it seems increasingly clear that the Fillies’ And Mares Stakes does not really deserve G1 status in the grand scheme of things, but it does play an important role as part of the expanded Pattern for female horses.

Q2: It was the bottomless ground, right? What can you expect in the mud? So, how soft was it out there on Saturday?

To answer that question objectively, we need to turn to a little bit of mathematics involving the finishing times of the races. Let’s calculate the percentage time that the winner of each race lagged the standard time – the benchmark of a good horse’s expected time on a sound surface at each particular distance.

For example, Champion Stakes winner Noble Mission recorded 2 minutes 11.23 seconds against a standard time for the 10 furlongs (2,000 metres) of 2 minutes 5 seconds. The formula is: time recorded / standard time x 100  so the calculation is  131.23 / 125.0 x 100 = 105.0% (5% slower than the standard).

Here are the other four time comparisons, calculated in the same way:

Long Distance Cup: Forgotten Rules 107.3%
Sprint: Gordon Lord Byron 106.8%
Fillies & Mares: Madame Chiang 106.6%
Mile: Charm Spirit 107.6%

The pace was only steady in the Mile, so we will discard the slowest time comparison of 107.6% and average the other four: (105.0 + 107.3 + 106.8 + 106.6) / 4 = 106.4%.

So, it looks as if the ground was causing these high-class horses to finish the course about 6 percent slower than they might have done on a decent surface.

Let’s perform the same calculation – discarding the slowest time comparison and averaging the other four – for the previous three years of this meeting, noting the official going in the opinion of Ascot clerk Chris Stickels:

2011 (Good): 98.0%, 98.9%, 100.2%, 100.7%, 102.2% = 99.4%

2012 (Soft): 103.6%, 104.2%, 105.0%, 105.6%, 106.9% = 104.6%

2013 (Soft): 104.7%, 105.4%, 105.6%, 106.8%, 108.0% = 105.6% 

As with our survey of the merit of the winners for Q1, the results are pretty conclusive: It was heavy going, as advertised, but nothing bordering a swamp, as might have been expected judging by the hyperbole of some.

It has been at least soft on three of the four Champions Days, but that doesn’t mean there is a 75 percent chance it will be soft going forward. No, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on small samples like that. But a wider sweep of the going over the last 10 years of October flat meetings at Ascot finds 20 percent good ground or faster, 44 percent good to soft ground or yielding, and 36 percent soft ground or heavier.

Therefore, it is rather unfortunate that there has been so much rain before Champions Day so far, but easy ground is likely to be the norm.

Q3: Right, it seems reasonable to update our prior beliefs to an estimate that it is 40 percent likely that the ground will be at least soft. Is it likely to be significantly faster in September?

Is there a divine right for horses who prefer fast ground to get their conditions for so-called “championship racing?” No, maybe not, but it would certainly be better if the ground were closer to good. How much do our chances improve in September? Well, it turns out that they are dramatically better, given the evidence at Ascot.

September meetings in the last 10 years have seen 65 percent good or faster ground, 25 percent good to soft ground or yielding, and only 10 percent soft or heavy. This is compelling evidence of a tipping point between the chance of soft or heavy going in September and October. The marginal benefit of moving the meeting forward – abstracted from all other considerations – looks significantly large.

Of course, this is a coarse method statistically; it would be better to consult rainfall totals, rather than rely on this limited metric. And the data from Bracknell weather centre nearby strongly agrees. The average annual rainfall since 1981 is 53.7 millimetres in September and 71.9 millimetres in October. That’s a staggering 34 percent more.

So, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Moving the meeting forward by at least three weeks would yield a significantly higher probability of better ground.

Q4: So, it would be faster in September, in all probability. But is the kind of soft surface found at Ascot particularly unfair?

No. The Ascot straight track is a purpose-laid modern sports facility with good drainage and high-quality turf. To gain a more objective measure of how fair it is, let’s consider the distance separating the first six home in each of the five featured races. This is far from a perfect metric, but it is at least illustrative of whether horses get over the Ascot surface when it is soft.

For each race, let’s use a weighted average of the distances the second- to sixth-placed finishers were beaten on the heavy going this year. The weights are x3 (for the second), x3 (for the third), x2 (for the fourth), x1 (for the fifth), and x1 (for the sixth). It’s important to do this because we care a lot more about the second- and third-placed finishers than the fifth and sixth.

For example, in the Long Distance Cup this year, the distances behind Forgotten Rules were 1.75, 0.25, 2, 2.5, and 0.5 lengths. Multiplied by their weighting, the distances become 5.25, 0.75, 4, 2.5, and 0.5 for a total of 13 lengths. The sum of the weightings 3, 3, 2, 1, and 1 is 10. So, the weighted average of lengths beaten for the first six is 13 / 10 = 1.3 lengths (the winner is discarded from the calculation for obvious reasons).

The full set of weighted averages for Ascot’s big races on heavy this year:

2014 Long Distance Cup: 1.3 lengths
2014 Sprint: 0.6 lengths
2014 Fillies & Mares: 1.1 lengths
2014 Mile: 1.3 lengths
2014 Champion: 1.3 lengths

In Q2, we calculated that in 2011 the Ascot surface was by far the fastest it has been on Champions’ Day. The winners of the five Group races were running 1 percent faster than the Racing Post standard time on average. Let’s see what the weighted average of the spread of the first six was on that occasion: 

2011 Long Distance Cup: 1.0 lengths
2011 Sprint: 0.75 lengths
2011 Fillies & Mares: 1.4 lengths
2011 Mile: 2.4 lengths
2011 Champion: 0.9 lengths

The spread of horses at the finish is a function of the pace and the variance in ability, as well as the surface. But, hopefully you see the point: This year’s ground at Ascot wasn’t “bad,” as some referred to it. Horses were not strung out, and for those who turned up, the surface really wasn’t driving the results any more than it does when it is good or faster. Of course, there is an obvious selection bias at work here: perhaps a few fast-ground horses didn’t bother to turn up, driving the results we found in Q1. But the point is that it isn’t a disaster if it does ride soft or heavy – this is a track that can take a load of rainfall and still provide formfull results.

Q5: Having considered the quantitative evidence as best we can, the conclusion is this: The quality was down on the softest ground encountered on Champions Day; the likelihood is that it will be soft on about 40 percent of future occasions; but the surface is fair to the horses who do turn up. What about the emotional content, though – it’s not about facts and figures for those who turn up on the day?

And here’s the rub: it was spectacular. Though lacking superstars, the races were exciting to watch and competitive visually and the horses did not look to be labouring.

This is a meeting that has so far been blessed with tremendous storylines: two wins for the brilliant Frankel and his late trainer Sir Henry Cecil, and this year, Frankel’s full-brother Noble Mission scored for Cecil’s widow Lady Jane. You could not make it up.

There was also the finest piece of sportsmanship I have ever witnessed in this same Champion Stakes. Jockey George Baker, narrowly denied Britain’s richest prize on Al Kazeem, immediately slapped the winning jockey James Doyle on the back in delight. This wasn’t a reflective gesture but a reflexive one. And it arguably showed what the professionals involved in the day had invested emotionally. A charge often held against top-flight flat racing is that it features an insentient approach motivated by the business-like ambitions of the powerful connections who dominate it. Not so here.

What to do, if anything, about British Champions Day? What is the overall verdict?

Strategic decisions about the future of any enterprise should be made with the head, not the heart. Champions Day cannot rely on getting by with the type of highly charged storylines with which it has been blessed. The racing was great to watch and really competitive, but it was short of being truly world-class.

If the meeting were moved forward, the ground would likely be faster, which would increase the magnetism for good horses. But this is extremely problematic because it would clash with the Arc meeting at Longchamp and require major surgery in terms of the rest of the British Pattern.

Instead, there is talk of Ascot using revolutionary rain covers. If this is practical, it strongly appeals as a better solution. The surface rides pretty well even when it is testing and it must be remembered that Kingman, Australia, and Taghrooda – the meeting’s potential star turns – had all retired. (Australia would likely not have run on heavy ground in any case.)

In another year, one or more of that kind of horse could go some way to providing the quality required, but it does appear there is a correlation between the softness of the surface and the merit of the winners, at least judged by Racing Post Ratings within the bounds of this study.

Often, the cleverest move is to do nothing and to wait for more evidence. Plenty of forces were detrimental to this year’s Champions Day, but it was still a great spectacle. Roll on the next one.

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