The Flat season juggernaut rolls into Ascot this weekend for Champions Day and what, on paper at least, should be one of the most competitive racing days in the calendar.
However, one glance at ante-post lists for the big Group 1 races suggests we are in for anything but. The six-race card features four Group 1 contests, the Group 2 Long Distance Cup and the concluding Balmoral Handicap, the toughest of all ‘getting out stakes’.
The likes of Stradivarius, Palace Pier, Mishriff and Dream Of Dreams all dominate the markets for their respective contests, all of whom are guaranteed to handle what are likely to be soft ground conditions, although there is very little rain forecast to land on the Berkshire track after Tuesday.
So, are we going to see a procession of short price favourites dominating the big races? The markets say so, but end of season races on testing ground are often the perfect scenario for an upset so let’s see if we can unearth some bigger priced runners that could cause a splash.
Stradivarius was clearly unsuited by the way things panned out in the Arc but he was chinned in this race 12 months ago and this will be his third race in less than a month, so there must be some sort of chance that the odds-on favourite isn’t at his peak.
Of those at bigger odds, the one that appeals most is Max Vega (25/1), who got no luck at all when only fourth in the Prix Chaudenay at Longchamp. He’s a horse that needs to get rolling a fair way out, so being caught in a pocket in a steadily run race was always going to spell trouble and we clearly didn’t see the best of Ralph Beckett’s charge in France.
He had some very useful performers behind him when second to Hukum in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury where ground conditions were probably a touch livelier than he ideally wants, so we know he’s a talented horse when he gets on a galloping track and conditions at Ascot on Saturday will be right up his street.
Qipco British Champions Sprint
Dream Of Dreams looks a different horse now to the one that was well beaten in this race last year but even so, he looks well worth taking on at his current price, especially with so many viable alternatives likely to stand their ground.
King Power Racing struck with 33/1 chance Donjuan Triumphant in this 12 months ago and there are definitely reasons why their two runners this time around, Happy Power and Art Power, can show up well.
Art Power was picked off by Dream Of Dreams in the Sprint Cup at Haydock last time but it might not be as straightforward for the market leader to repeat the trick at this track, given the manner in which Tim Easterby’s speedy grey dominated his rivals at the Royal meeting earlier in the season.
We know he loves to get his toe in and he doesn’t have a great deal to find to be right in the thick of the action, while it also looks significant that Silvestre de Sousa has gone with him over Happy Power, who posted a career-best effort when completing a hat-trick on soft ground at Newmarket last time.
Qipco British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes
Magical is in here but she will surely be heading to the Champion Stakes instead, which makes this a little more open than the ante-post market implies.
The last five winners of this race have been 5/1 or shorter, so it’s not a race that has thrown up an upset in recent times. With that in mind, the solid play looks to be Wonderful Tonight who posted a career-best effort to win the Group 1 Prix de Royallieu in Paris, where she proved too strong for progressive filly Pista, who won the Park Hill Stakes at Doncaster on her previous outing.
That was over 1m6f but conditions at Ascot will be placing an emphasis on stamina, so she won’t be failing in that department, and this filly looks as tough as nails so she won’t be going down without a fight.
Queen Elizabeth II Stakes
Many people’s banker of the entire day goes in this – Palace Pier. Already odds-on across the board, his price will contract even further when, as looks most likely, Kameko is taken out due to ground conditions.
Palace Pier is unbeaten in five starts, the last two of which have been Group 1 contests, and comes here a fresh horse having not run since mid-August. Ground conditions won’t bother him, he’s won on round and straight courses, and he’s accounted for some of the best horses in Europe, so it’s hard to find any real chinks in his armour.
From a betting standpoint, I’m in no rush to take him on but for those looking to play at bigger prices, then look no further than Century Dream who loves to get his toe in and who looked better than ever when winning a Group 2 on soft ground at Goodwood two starts back. He’s a course and distance winner who has everything in place to show his true colours.
Qipco Champion Stakes
It doesn’t really sit particularly well with me that the owner of Mishriff has decided to use Frankie Dettori when he has a retained rider in David Egan. I have no problem with owners wanting to use the best available at the time, but if that’s the case, don’t employ a retained rider. It just lacks a bit of class.
Mishriff may well have won the Arc given the way that race panned out – he’s a horse with a smart change of gear, and he has an obvious chance here. However, this is a deal more competitive than the market implies.
Magical and Addeybb, first and second in this race 12 months ago, have to be high on any shortlist but I’m a big fan of Lord North, whose finest hour came at this track when he thrashed a stellar group of rivals in the Prince Of Wales’ Stakes this summer.
Things never really happened for him at York, where he wasn’t alone in struggling to contain Ghaiyyath, but that track was never going to play to his strengths and I’m sure we’ll see the real Lord North back here. He’s a huge player in this.
Raaeq rocketed to the head of this market when running away with a 7f handicap at Ascot earlier in the month but, for all that he’s on a steep upward curve, he’s back up in trip, carrying a penalty and facing a different level of opponent this time, so this will be no cakewalk.
Escobar took noteworthy scalp of Lord North when coming from last to first in this race 12 months ago and a 3lb higher mark ought not to be enough to prevent another big run at a track he goes so well at. Ground conditions won’t bother him and the strongly-run, big-field scenario is right up his street.