British Championship Day, The Dawn of Something Exciting

By Vic Zast

[Editor's Note: Vic Zast traveled to Ascot to witness the first British Champions Day. Zast, a correspondent, has attended every Breeders' Cup World Championship since its inception in 1984.]

(Ascot, England – October 15, 2011)  Horse racing headlines in London’s newspapers this past week were not what the organizers of the Qipco British Champions Day wanted.  The good PR expected for England’s initial Breeders’ Cup-like event was overshadowed by controversy about the new whip rules in force as of Oct. 10, a change requiring remedial behavior that some jockeys, including Richard Hughes, seemed unprepared for.  Hughes was hit twice by the authorities in the last four days for hitting his mounts more than five times in the homestretch and, albeit embarrassed, he caused a ruckus.

Ironically, the first Breeders’ Cup World Championships, held at Hollywood Park in 1984, was met with some flap, too. But it came after the races instead of before them.  The stewards disqualified Gate Dancer from second to third to the benefit of Slew o’ Gold but left Wild Again up as the winner of the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Mickey Taylor and Dr. Jim Hill, Slew o’ Gold’s owners, requested a hearing and got it, believing that Wild Again also interfered. But taking Wild Again down was too much to ask, what with jockey Pat Day praising the Lord to the heavens and time running out of the NBC-TV telecast.

Neither incident, by the way—the one here in London or the one in the U.S. 28 years ago—will, or has had, a detrimental effect on these end-of-season proceedings. Both the first British Champions Day and the first Breeders’ Cup Day offered memorable highlights, the kind that presages history. Those in attendance at Ascot today left the grounds fully assured that they were part of burgeoning development. How could they not, considering the presence of 26,749 fans, Queen Elizabeth II and the incomparable Frankel? 

The Juddmonte superstar was listed at 2-7 before even a quid was wagered. The little newspaper space that was left over after the Hughes affair was hashed and re-hashed paid homage to his previous eight victories. There was no such protagonist involved in the Breeders’ Cup when it held its premiere. The Queen herself dressed in Khalid Abdullah’s colors. Homage was the order of business before, during and after the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. “Who knows what happens next year,” Frankel’s rider Tom Queally said.

The gathering of interested parties that formed around the parade ring for Frankel left no room for even a stringbean. The colt entered the course hugging the rail, barely jogging. He is built like an NFL linebacker, has four white stockings that end where a golfer’s socks end—barely over the ankle—and a white ace of diamonds in between his eyes.

Frankel won as he pleased in a very slow time, according to U.S. standards. Queally waited until two furlongs out and then let the reins out. The crowd gave up a roar, but the sound wasn’t anywhere near what was heard when Zenyatta ran or, for that matter, Wild Again. Regardless, those who witnessed the demolition understand that he’s without comparison.

As for the rest of the card, with about five minutes to go before the first post it appeared as though the crowd was a disappointment. But as soon as the horses entered the track, the insides of Ascot spilled over into the seats and there wasn’t a perch to be found. When petulant Jamie Spencer rode Fame and Glory to British Champions Day trivia (“Which horse won the first British Champions Day race?”), a delirious throng joined in his celebration. It roared in fact when the field rounded the bend for the stretch run and cries of “Go Frankie, Go Jamie” ringed the air as it looked like Opinion Poll might catch him.

Old-timer Irishman Johnny Murtagh brought Deacon Blues home in the Sprint, the day’s second race, and, then in the third race, Dancing Rain in the Fillies’ and Mares’ Stakes.  The French-bred,-owned, -trained and -ridden Cirrus Des Aigles, at 7-1, won the Champion Stakes.  The 1-1/4 mile fixture was transferred from Newmarket, as were two other races and became with this running the biggest purse in British horse racing history. All told, purses in England aren’t what they should be considering the talent that competes here. But at about $2 million, winning was nothing to sneeze at.

As a footnote to Cirrus Des Aigles’s victory, jockey Christophe Soumillion fell afoul to the new whipping rules. He lost his share of the purse and received five days of inaction. In one sense, the story that ruled all the headlines before all the action took place will most likely rule the headlines hereafter.

Was there a sense of history about? The answer is definitely. Next fall, British Champions Day goes only two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup Championship days and there will be further erosion in the number of European participants. Today’s British Champions day attracted six of the nine top-ranked horses on the World Thoroughbred Rankings and two won. In case you wonder, only two U.S.-trained runners make the list’s top 25 horses and only one, Tizway, will run three weeks from now in Louisville.

“We are very pleased to have made a big impact internationally,” said Rod Street, CEO of the British Champions Series, Ltd. But one wonders if Street knew how spot on he was. Since money isn’t everything, at least not on this shore, Breeders’ Cup organizers should worry. This year’s event may attract So You Think (number six on the list) and Goldikova (number 14). But, next fall only a fortnight will separate the British Champions from the Breeders’ Cup, creating a choice heretofore never offered. Arc runners, too, have a new option.

A large number of people who don’t ordinarily attend flat racing in England came to Ascot because of British Champions Day. One man, Richard Tilley of Somerset, said he preferred jumpers but wanted to learn what the fuss was about. Another man, Nigel Pritchard of Beverley, East Yorkshire, said, “We booked back in April as soon as they announced.” His partner Elizabeth Bentley proclaimed, “I’d like to think it’s the dawn of something new and exciting.”

Hope was in the dry, warm air of Southern California when U.S. horse racing was at this same stage. The virtue was palpable at Ascot. As the world turns, so does the future of world championships.    

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