On Saturday, Ascot will host the ninth edition of what is billed as the ‘ultimate raceday’. Given that, in its short life, the event has been graced by memorable performances from the likes of Frankel and Cracksman, the epithet contains perhaps only a trace of hyperbole.
Inaugurated in 2011 to provide an end-of-season highlight, Qipco British Champions Day is the country’s most lucrative race meeting with £4.2 million in prize money as Ascot hosts the ‘finals’ of five divisions – sprint, mile, middle distance, stayers and fillies – of the British Champions Series of top-level races throughout the season.
Champions Day was created by moving (and in some cases rebranding) existing races into a single card, notably the historic Champion Stakes, which was duly moved from its traditional Newmarket base to become Britain’s richest race, though the Investec Derby at Epsom has since regained that crown.
The race formerly known as the Diadem Stakes is now the Qipco British Champions Sprint, while the Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup is the successor to the Jockey Club Cup. The sixth race on the card is the valuable Balmoral Handicap over the straight mile.
Qipco British Champions Day not only offers a stage for equine luminaries to strut their stuff; it also represents the end of the official season as far as the British jockeys’ title is concerned.
2011 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes – Frankel
Truth to tell, not everyone was entirely convinced by the concept of the new championship meeting but any such quibbles were soon rendered obsolete as Frankel took the starring role on Day 1. Extending his winning streak to nine as he completed his 3-year-old campaign, he overwhelmed an eight-strong field in typical fashion as he strode on at halfway before stretching clear in the final furlong and a half to score by four lengths over regular punchbag Excelebration. A Timeform rating of 143 at the end of the year put Frankel in fourth place on their all-time list; 12 months later he would be up to number one on 147.
2011 Champion Stakes – Cirrus Des Aigles
No list of memorable Champions Day performances would be complete without the hugely popular French-trained gelding known as ‘Fighting Cirrus’, a welcome annual visitor who ran in the Champion Stakes four years in a row. He won at the first time of asking when the race was the most valuable ever run in Britain, coming off best in a fiercely contested finish from So You Think and Snow Fairy. (Indeed, so fierce was the finish that Christophe Soumillon got a controversial five-day whip ban and forfeited his £50,000 share of the prize). Tough and courageous, Cirrus Des Aigles also finished second in the next two editions.
2012 Champion Stakes – Frankel
The final chapter in an extraordinary career as the horse many consider the greatest of all-time swept aside a top-class field on his second visit to Champions Day. Despite racing on really testing conditions for the first time – plus an uncharacteristically sluggish break on what was only his second run at a mile and a quarter – Frankel was never seriously troubled, easing past the previous year’s winner, Cirrus Des Aigles, to take the roof off the stands, packed out with a bumper crowd of 32,000. In an emotional aftermath, Sir Henry Cecil was struggling to speak owing to chemotherapy for the cancer that was to claim his life in 2013. ”I can’t believe that in the history of racing there has ever been a better racehorse,” he whispered.
2013 Champion Stakes – Farhh
The tightest Champion Stakes since the race was moved to Ascot with less than a length separating three top-class horses as Farrh won by a neck over Cirrus Des Aigles with Derby victor Ruler Of The World just a half-length away in third. Having never won beyond a mile beforehand in an injury-interrupted career, the 5-year-old hit the front a couple of furlongs out and had just enough to keep the challengers at bay in a thrilling finish. The remainder were six lengths adrift. Farrh remains Godolphin’s sole Brtish Champions Day winner.
2014 Champion Stakes – Noble Mission
Emotions were running high when Noble Mission emulated his elder brother Frankel to win the Champion Stakes after getting the better of a protracted nostril-to-nostril struggle with multiple G1 winner Al Kazeem. It was a thrilling duel: Noble Mission tried to make all, only to be headed inside the final furlong but fighting back to win by a neck. The result could hardly have been more poignant, given that the winning trainer was Lady Cecil, the widow of Frankel’s trainer. “It’s just a fairytale,” she said. “It means so much to us. When he died, I kept the licence to feel closer to him.”
2016 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes – Minding
As versatile as she was talented, the dual Classic heroine cut back to a mile for the first time since her shock defeat in the Irish 1000 Guineas to record the seventh G1 victory of a fantastic career (which included winning the Epsom Oaks over a mile and a half) via a convincing victory for Ballydoyle. After taking the lead two furlongs out down the centre of the course, the star 3-year-old filly held the late challenge of specialist milers Ribchester and Lightning Spear to win by a half-length and become the first female to win the race since Milligram in 1987. It was enough for her to be named Horse of the Year at the Cartier Awards.
2017 British Champions Sprint – Librisa Breeze
By its very nature, the roll call of winners on British Champions Day tends to feature racing’s superpowers. But they don’t have a monopoly. Coolmore (Caravaggio) and Godolphin (Harry Angel) among others saddled well-fancied types here but they were mown down inside the final furlong by course specialist Librisa Breeze, inconvenienced by the soft ground, who posted an upset for unheralded trainer Dean Ivory and jockey Robert Winston. It was Ivory’s first G1, and Winston’s first since 2004. The winner carried the colours of owner Tony Bloom, the Brighton & Hove Albion football chairman, who had landed a gamble via Withhold in the Cesarewitch seven days previously.
2017 Champion Stakes – Cracksman
When Cracksman was good, he was very, very good – as he demonstrated in no uncertain terms with this stunning display at the end of his 3-year-old campaign. Enjoying the soft ground, he simply overwhelmed his rivals, galloping clear in relentless style to score by fully seven lengths under Ascot’s favourite son, Frankie Dettori, to become European champion according to official ratings. In the process, he became a first G1 winner in Europe for his sire, Frankel – and, like Frankel, he came back 12 months later to record another Champions Day victory, this time slamming Crystal Ocean by six lengths in the same race on similar going.
2018 Long Distance Cup – Stradivarius
Champions come in all shapes and sizes. Dubbed the ‘Mighty Mouse’ by trainer John Gosden, Stradivarius – the diminutive chestnut with four white socks and a white blaze – had already landed the million-pound bonus on offer for the Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million with a string of high-profile victories in an unbeaten season by the time he returned to Ascot, scene of his Gold Cup triumph, in 2018. Despite not liking the soft ground, he reiterated his complete dominance of the division in a tactical race notable for Frankie Dettori nipping up Ryan Moore’s inner on the home turn, Team Ballydoyle having attempted to box in the favourite.
2018 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes – Roaring Lion
As much courage as ability as Roaring Lion overcame his aversion to horrible testing conditions. Although the Qatar Racing colt was established as the season’s leading mile-and-a-quarter performer thanks to a series of high-profile wins, he had not run over a mile since coming fifth in the 2000 Guineas. Driven to lead 100 yards out by Oisin Murphy, he needed all his guts to hold off outsider I Can Fly by a neck. “Roaring Lion was nothing but game today,” said trainer John Gosden. “He has proven his class and his guts to get there, but I think he was hating every second of running on that ground.”
This article appears in the latest issue of Gallop magazine.