By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Although Saturday is a rather slow day of racing in the U.S., fans of international racing are in for a treat, as QIPCO British Champions Day is scheduled for October 18th. Comprised of five championship races, it’s the culmination of the British racing season, with a grand total of fifty-six horses turning out to vie for major victories at Ascot racecourse. It’s a day of racing you won’t want to miss, so let’s start handicapping!
British Champions Long Distance Cup (Eng-II)
On paper, this looks like a two-horse race between Leading Light and Estimate, the first two across the wire in the 2 ½-mile Ascot Gold Cup (Eng-I) over this course in June. Both have come back with strong performances since then, with Leading Light winning the Irish St. Leger Trial (Ire-III) and placing second in the Irish St. Leger (Ire-I), while Estimate most recently scored a solid victory in the Doncaster Cup (Eng-II). Both should have little trouble with the two-mile distance of Saturday’s race, as both are thoroughly proven at even longer distances, and I would be surprised if they don’t run 1-2 in this race. The question is—which will emerge on top? I’ll side with Leading Light to maintain his edge over Estimate, keeping in mind that Estimate has a tendency to disappoint on occasion, such as when seventh in this race last year.
British Champions Sprint Stakes (Eng-II)
The solid favorite in this six-furlong sprint is G Force, winner of the Betfred Sprint Cup (Eng-I) last time out. Although he’s clearly very talented, he doesn’t have much experience over very wet turf courses, so the heavy going he will find on Saturday could prove a disadvantage. In that respect, Gordon Lord Byron warrants respect, but the capable sprinter/miler ran less than two weeks ago in the Qatar Prix de la Foret (Fr-I) at Longchamp, and an identical turnaround last year resulted in a poor seventh-place finish in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. This, coupled with the fact that the Sprint Stakes will be his fifth race in less than two months, makes me wonder if he’s vulnerable in this spot. Therefore, I’ll take a shot with Viztoria, who has good form over heavy going and who triumphed with ease in the six-furlong Testimonial Stakes at the Curragh on October 12th, his first race since August. I also like Gregorian, who ran well against the top sprinter Slade Power in the Darley July Cup (Eng-I) four starts back.
British Champions Filly & Mares Stakes (Eng-I)
Good luck finding the winner of this race! An evenly-matched field of ten has been entered, with the majority of the runners entering off of defeats in their last starts. Seal of Approval seems like a logical choice after winning this race last year, but she has been beaten in all four of her starts since then and is hard to endorse off her most recent defeat. In the quest to find value, I finally settled on Tasaday, a Godolphin filly that finished third behind Tapestry and Taghrooda in the Yorkshire Oaks (Eng-I) two starts back. She’s listed at between 8-1 and 10-1 with the British bookmakers, and I’m hopeful that she’ll offer similar odds in the American pools.
Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I)
Night of Thunder is the favorite, based at least in part off his victory over Kingman and Australia in the 2,000 Guineas (Eng-I) earlier this year, but the three-year-old colt has lost his last three starts and does not seem to have much of an edge (if any) over his Queen Elizabeth II rivals. In fact, the two-time group I winner Charm Spirit beat Night and Thunder fair and square in the Qatar Prix du Moulin de Longchamp (Fr-I) last time out, with the exceptional miler Toronado finishing between them. Off of that effort, he is my selection to win, although I also greatly respect the chances of Custom Cut, who brings a five-race win streak into the Queen Elizabeth II. His credentials may not be as flashy as some of his rivals, but he has a good record on wet turf courses and appears to be rapidly improving.
Champion Stakes (Eng-I)
The remarkable eight-year-old Cirrus des Aigles won this race in 2011 and finished second in 2012 and 2013, demonstrating both his affinity for Ascot and his incredible talent. After winning three straight group I races earlier this year, he returned from a layoff to finish first in the group II Prix Dollar at Longchamp, although he was disqualified and placed second for interference in the homestretch. Nevertheless, that was an excellent prep for the Champion Stakes, and the heavy going at Ascot—conditions that Cirrus des Aigles loves—absolutely makes him the horse to beat on Saturday, and I won’t try to oppose him. For second, I’ll take Ruler of the World, who finished third in this race last year after being beaten 11 ½ lengths in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. He improved his showing in this year’s Arc, coming home just 5 ¾ lengths behind the victorious Treve, and seems poised for another good run in his third start off a layoff. For a longshot, I like Al Kazeem, who finished right behind Ruler of the World in the Arc. He hasn’t been at his best thus far this year, but his Arc effort suggests that he might be returning to form.
Who do you like in the British Champions Day races?