Why Qipco British Champions Day was such a brilliant occasion

Performance of the day: Cracksman and Frankie Dettori storm six lengths clear to win the Qipco Champion Stakes for the second year running. Photo: Dan Abraham/focusonracing.com

In 2011, the British Champions Series was launched to organize a series of the top 35 British flat races for 3-year-olds and up, culminating in one-day festival of championship races known as British Champions Day.

The championships have been sponsored since the launch by the Qatari investment group Qipco, and in 2015 Qipco renewed their sponsorship through at least 2024. At the time there was criticism that this day in late October would clash with other year-end championships, such as the Breeders’ Cup in the U.S. in early November and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris in early October. In addition, the late fall dates would mean cool and rainy weather, resulting in softer and heavier ground.

Well, the weather has certainly produced soft and yielding conditions, but Qipco British Champions Day has rapidly achieved parity with the other major racing events of the flat season. It is a brilliant day of racing, and the 2018 edition last Saturday was no exception.

Unlike turf races in the U.S., where the overwhelming majority are run on firm or good going, in the UK at this time of year they generally take place on soft surfaces. Although it was a beautiful, sunny day at Ascot, that was certainly the case on Saturday, when the course was listed as soft, and runners in the longer races had to contend with heavy ground in places.

The card consisted of five Qipco British Champions races and a £250,000 handicap. Remarkably, John Gosden trained the favorites for four of the championship races. Two of the four seemed to favor softer ground - Lah Ti Dar in the mile-and-a-half Fillies & Mares Stakes, and Cracksman in the 1¼-mile Champion Stakes, both ridden by Frankie Dettori. The other two - Stradivarius in the two-mile Long Distance Cup, again ridden by Dettori, and Roaring Lion, ridden by Oisin Murphy in the one-mile Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, might be challenged by the conditions, Gosden warned before racing.

As a punter can find only in England and Ireland, bookmakers were taking bets on a ‘Fab Four’ bet, which would pay off if all four of the Gosden favorites won. When the bet was first put up, the odds were in the neighborhood of 30/1. Going into the week of the race, the price had dropped to 20/1. By race-day, it is reported that the bookies had dropped their price to 14/1.

So let’s go through each race:

Race 1: £500,000 G2 Champions Long Distance Cup (2m)

Unbeaten in four races this season, Stradivarius, who is owned by Bjorn Nielsen, was the even-money favourite.

At the beginning of the year, Weatherbys Hamilton Insurance had unveiled a £1 million bonus designed to “celebrate, support and promote the staying horse”. To win the WH Stayers’ Million, a horse had to win one of four designated races in May, the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in June, the Goodwood Cup in July and the Lonsdale Cup at York in August. Stradivarius won the Yorkshire Cup in May and then swept the remaining three races to earn the bonus at York.

Saturday’s race produced one of the most exciting finishes of the day. Flag Of Honour, ridden by Ryan Moore, trained by Aidan O’Brien and owned by Coolmore, went to the front and was still in front inside the quarter pole. Then Dettori squeezed through on the rail and kicked on. Thomas Hobson, ridden by Andrea Atzeni, moved up on the inside of Dettori but could not move through on the rail. Stradivarius prevailed at the wire. There was no stewards inquiry, but the stewards did give Dettori a three-day ban for aggressive riding.

One win for Gosden.

Race 2: £632,500 G1 Champions Sprint Stakes (6f)

Sands Of Mali, ridden by Paul Hanagan, trained by Richard Fahey and owned by the Cool Silk Partnership, went to the front right out of the gate and never looked back. Second favorite Harry Angel was closing but could not catch him. This was a skillful ride by Hanagan as he was able to set moderate fractions  on the 28/1 chance with no pace pressure.

Gosden did not have a runner.

Race 3: £600,000 G1 Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes (1m4f)

Gosden’s La Ti Dar, also sent off at even-money, made much of the pace, but she was no match for Magical, ridden by Ryan Moore, trained by Aidan O’Brien and owned by Coolmore, who went on to win by a length at 5/1. Magical is a daughter of Galileo and this was her first G1 victory. Her win would have brought a huge sigh of relief from the bookmakers as it ended the chances of Gosden achieving the ‘Fab Four’.

Lah Ti Dar finished third, with the 4-year-old Coronet running past her into second in the final furlong. Coronet is also trained by Gosden.

Race 4: £1.1 million G1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (1m)

The original plan for Gosden’s Roaring Lion had been to run in the mile-and-a-quarter Champion Stakes. His last three races at one mile had been losing efforts but he had won his three most recent races - all prestigious G1s at around ten furlongs. However, Gosden was concerned about Roaring Lion’s ability to handle the deeper turf at the longer distance, largely due to the dirt U.S. pedigree on the dam’s side, so the decision was made to drop back in trip for this one-mile contest.

Despite the conditions, Roaring Lion, the top-ranked runner in Europe’s Cartier Awards Horse of the Year standings this year, did not disappoint, winning by a neck over the Aidan O’Brien-trained longshot I Can Fly.

Two wins for Gosden.

After the race, the trainer spoke candidly: “At no stage was he ever on the bridle and Oisin [the jockey] said he absolutely hated the ground. He’s probably a good ground/good-to-firm-ground horse, but he showed his class and so did the jockey.”

Roaring Lion is owned by Qatar Racing, whose Sheikh Fahad Al Thani sponsors the Qipco British Champions Series, with his brothers.

Sheikh Fahad said, “I’d say that this is my greatest day in racing.” He was also quoted as saying that the horse would be retired at the end of this year for breeding. However, he said they were considering running the horse in the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs on November 3.

Since the Arc winner Enable, also trained by Gosden, is headed for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, it is possible that, if Roaring Lion does run in the Breeders’ Cup, he might go instead for the BC Classic.

Race 5: G1 £1.3 million Champion Stakes (1m2f)

Cracksman produced the most impressive performance of the day. Owned by Anthony Oppenheimer, the colt was sent off at odds of 5/6 and won brilliantly by six lengths. This was the second year in a row Cracksman has won the race.

The victory makes Gosden the first trainer to win three races on Qipco British Champions Day.

Gosden is a brilliant speaker and highly articulate when he talks about his involvement and success in the industry. Click here and go to the second video to watch a fascinating interview in which he reflects on his day and the performances of his horses, jockeys and entire team.

Congratulations to these British champions

While the British flat racing season doesn’t finish until the end of December, the following awards were made on Saturday:

  • 2018 champion trainer: John Gosden (purse earnings of £8.2 million, more than £2 million more than runner-up Aidan O’Brien, who had won the title the two previous years).
  • 2018 Longines champion owner: Godolphin
  • 2018 Stobart champion jockey: Silvestre De Sousa
  • 2018 champion apprentice: Jason Watson
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