British Champions Day has been a successful event through two years, but one of the big questions remaining is how much of the strong attendance numbers should be attributed to the presence of superstar Frankel, now retired. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
Special to America's Best Racing
LONDON — It is reaching a crescendo with rising anticipation for the season-ending races that will define the year and determine champions.
Of course, this is all in reference to __________.
Like the old “Match Game,” there is more than one way to fill in the blank. In two weeks it will be the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in America. Less than two weeks ago, it was the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France. And this Saturday, 30 miles west of Piccadilly Circus at Ascot Racecourse, it will be an event regarded as much as a celebration of racing as it is a shot over the bow of the other two.
British Champions Day was born two years ago as a merger of climactic races that used to be held at Ascot and Newmarket. The biggest race – the $2.1 million Champion Stakes at 11:05 a.m. U.S. Eastern time – was held for 134 years at Newmarket before it was moved to Ascot to become the centerpiece of a day of races worth $5.6 million.
Financial challenges have reduced the number of races around Great Britain. Add the need to counter the lure of the Breeders’ Cup and the Arc, and the object of British Champions Day was simple. As one English racing executive said at the time: “We need to give our sport a major, new platform to compete for the public’s attention.”
Throw in a pile of oil money from a Qatari sheikh – the same one who helps finance the Arc card in Paris – and England has its own claim to the quintessential finish to the racing year, even if the entire day is worth less than individual races like the Breeders’ Cup Classic or the Arc de Triomphe.
“British horses can still go for the Breeders’ Cup if they want,” the late trainer Sir Henry Cecil said two years ago. “But the races we want are on dirt there, so why fly turf horses all the way over to America? To win at Ascot on Champions Day, value-wise, will be much more.”
That is one reason Cecil kept top-ranked Frankel running in England when he could have taken him to France or to America. Frankel’s undefeated résumé – all done without the need for a passport – included the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes for milers on the first British Champions Day in 2011 and his triumphant finale last year in the Champion Stakes.
FRANKEL AFTER WINNING THE 2011 QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Now retired to stud, Frankel’s absence from Saturday’s Champions Day seems to show up in every English newspaper, TV and radio story offering a preview of the attractions that will be coming. While Her Majesty the Queen will be in attendance to see her popular Gold Cup-winning filly Estimate compete in the two-mile Long Distance Cup, the two of them are no Frankel.
Three-time British champion jockey Ryan Moore, who will ride Estimate, said the merger of big races onto the same card has cost some horses the chance to stand out in more than one of them.
“Having the QEII and the Champion [Stakes] on the same day, you’ve got horses that can line up in both races,” he told SkySports. “You’re just diluting the quality of both races. I just think it’s taking away from both races in some respects.”
So, too, is the weather. It has been a typically rainy October in southern England, leaving the Ascot track too soft for contenders preferring firmer ground. That was the big reason five horses were scratched from the Champion Stakes just before the post draw Friday. If the rain is not going to go away in most Octobers, why not move Champions Day to September?
“There has been talk about that since the very beginning,” Ascot chief executive Charles Barnett told the BBC. “But the European [calendar] is quite constraining, and actually I think we’ve found an extremely good slot. It’s the end of the season, and European horses would otherwise be drifting off abroad. It’s nice they continue to race here, and we’re very pleased to see the best horses there are.”
Those horses include Cirrus des Aigles. His second consecutive victory this month in the Prix Dollar in France and his affinity to rain-softened courses make him the 5-to-4 favorite in the Champion Stakes. A 7-year-old gelding who missed eight months after straining a ligament late last year, Cirrus des Aigles won this race in 2011 and chased Frankel to the finish line last October, finishing 1¾ lengths behind in second.
CIRRUS DES AIGLES WINNING 2013 PRIX DOLLAR
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
“I think he will bring fire and brimstone down on Ascot,” trainer Corine Barande-Barbé told Racing UK.
But will he bring racegoers? Hedging their own bets, organizers are trying to lure the casual fan by displaying about 30 famous racing and sporting trophies – including the 1966 soccer World Cup won by England and the 4-inch tall Ashes urn that is the most famous prize in cricket.
“Clearly, we’re not going to get quite the same support as we did in Frankel’s year,” Barnett told the BBC. “There will be 24,000-25,000 people depending on the weather on the day, which is a significant crowd. We’re very pleased to get a crowd of that nature this time of year.”