British Champions Day reflections
British Champions Day was a concept that had to deal with more than its share of detractors when it was created in 2011. Some critics choose to reserve their judgement even after the first two meetings were a great success, as those cards had a superstar to hang their hat on in the shape of Frankel.
However, in the years that have since passed, it has shown that it is more than capable of standing up on its own, with Saturday’s edition certainly being one of if not the best yet.
The race with the star billing was the QIPCO Champion Stakes and it more than lived up to expectations. The rematch between the first two home in the Irish Champion Stakes Almanzor and Found was the clash that sold the contest and it duly delivered, with ALMANZOR confirming the form by beating the tremendously consistent and game Found with plenty to spare.
It was an admirable ride in a high-pressure situation from the winning jockey Christophe Soumillon, as while Almanzor is known for his sweeping turn of foot, with the early pace not being as strong as anticipated, Soumillon adapted to how the race was unfolding in front of him and took closer order in the early stages. Once he found an opening with two furlongs to run, the result was never in any great doubt no matter how hard the Found tried to close the gap.
It was a performance that capped a sensational season for Jean-Claude Rouget and very much confirmed Almanzor’s place as one of the very best horses in the world. He has continued to improve throughout the season and the best news of all is that the plan is for him to stay in training next year. It is a wonderful boost for Flat racing when its stars remain in training for as long as possible and having him back and in the hands of game connections that are clearly not afraid to travel in pursuit of international competition is a great thing for the sport.
Almanzor’s success will also act as fuel for the dreams of breeders all over the world. Remarkably, Almanzor is out of a mare that was sold by the Aga Khan as an unraced three-year-old for just €16,000 to Haras d'Etreham. They sent her to their own stallion Wootton Bassett, a first-season sire with a €6,000 nomination fee that produced just 20 foals in his first crop, and the result has grown into one of the best horses in the world.
The main supporting race on the card was the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the array of Classic and Group 1 winners that it brought together produced an intriguing contest, with the Aidan O’Brien-trained MINDING producing a career-best effort to prevail.
While the bare form of her third in the Irish Champion Stakes had suggested that Minding had fallen short in what was the first top-class open Group 1 she had contested, she was one of those that raced on what was strongly suggested may have been an unfavoured strip of ground on the far rail. Without such a handicap to contend with on this occasion, she duly brought her form forward against the best colts around.
For Minding to produce such an effort when dropping back in trip on what was her seventh start of the season almost six months after she looked hard fit when making a winning seasonal reappearance in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket is not just a testament to her own constitution, but it is yet another example of what an incredible job Aidan O’Brien does with his horses.
The post-race chatter suggested that Minding may well stay in training next season and again, that would be great for the game. One can imagine Leopardstown will already be dreaming of an Almanzor/Minding rematch in next year’s Irish Champion Stakes.
Minding’s victory represented the highlight of the day for Ryan Moore, with him giving her a no-nonsense ride on her way to victory. However, it had been anything but smooth sailing for Moore up until that point, as things had not gone his way at all on Order Of St George and Seventh Heaven earlier on the card.
While Moore has ridden 20 Group 1 winners this year, it has to be said that he has struggled for the consistency that has lifted him to the position of best jockey in the world in the eyes of many. One can’t help but wonder whether the injury issues that saw him miss three weeks of action in the middle of the season in August have been having a negative effect on him, as he hasn’t seemed to be himself for much of the season.
On the subject of jockeys, Saturday also marked the crowning of Jim Crowley as Champion Jockey and Josephine Gordon as Champion Apprentice. While the British racing authorities did their best to fiddle with the criteria of the jockey’s championship to favour the more high-profile riders, it was wonderful to see a grafter such as Crowley get his reward by taking the crown after slogging up and down the country all season long in pursuit of it.
It was also very pleasing to see Josephine Gordon get her due recognition too. I have made my views on female jockeys known in this space in the past and it has been one of the highlights of the season to see Gordon battle her way to the top of the apprentice ranks despite the odds being stacked against her from the outset.
The grit and perseverance she has already shown in her career, which at one point stalled to the extent that she went 18 months without a winner, is an example to all young jockeys no matter what their gender. In common with all apprentices, she will face an even bigger battle to become established as a successful fully-fledged jockey once she rides out her claim, but she has the talent and the mental strength to make it.
With the ever-growing success of British Champions Day and Irish Champions Weekend bringing them ever closer to the same level as the traditional end-of-season highlights of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders’ Cup, it seems that the gap between these showcase meetings and the rest of the other important meetings in their respective racing jurisdictions is getting wider.
These meetings are only likely to get bigger, leading to connections of the best horses in Europe and beyond putting even more emphasis on targeting them. With that in mind, one can’t help but lament that history and circumstance has placed these meetings in a cluster at the backend of the calendar from September to November, a time where many of the star horses (especially the three-year-olds) in Europe have had long campaigns and are not always able to show their best.
In a perfect world, these meetings would be separated by a couple of weeks more and perhaps take place a few weeks earlier, but alas, the Pattern is an incredibly complex and intricate arrangement of fixtures that has evolved over many years and small changes never mind big changes are notoriously tricky to make.
While there has been a sense of rivalry between these high-profile meetings in the past, it is to their mutual benefit for a narrative to be created between them and anything that can be done from a programming perspective to help the meetings better complement each other should be considered.
Individually, they are all top-class meetings, but the more of a link there is between them, the more potential there is for them to be something even greater.
Clearer communication needed from BHA
A notable sideshow to the action on the track at Ascot on Saturday was the release of information halfway through the card by the BHA that employees of three trainers had brought “substances” into the stable yard that they shouldn’t have.
The reports revealed that the employees of Hugo Palmer and Francois Rohaut had brought “unallowable” substances into the stable yard as well as substances that are “allowable” with permission which in these cases had not been sought.
In addition, an employee of Jean-Claude Rouget was reported to have brought an allowable substance into the stable yard, but hadn’t sought permission to do so as required by the rules. In all three cases, the stewards referred the matters to the head office of the BHA for further investigation and ordered all of the horses trained by the handlers in question that were due to run at Ascot to be drug tested.
Now, first and foremost, the BHA have to be commended for their steward’s reports, which are published in a detailed and timely manner that makes them the standard setter in this regard in this part of the world.
In addition, while Hugo Palmer has since expressed frustration that efforts to make sure everything was in order were in his opinion stepped up by the raceday stewards on what is one of the biggest days of the year in British racing “as if they were looking to make an example of people”, he and indeed any other trainer that has nothing to hide should welcome such actions with open arms, as they are ultimately designed to catch cheaters.
The unwillingness of regulators to police their sports biggest stars on their biggest stages for fear of damaging headlines is what has led to the likes of cycling being dragged through the mud.
However, with all that being said, one can’t help but feel that this situation could have been handled better from a PR perspective. For those that are familiar with the strict rules with regard to a horse being administered any sort of substance on raceday no matter how innocent, the wording of the reports coupled with the fact that no further action was taken on the day strongly suggested that these were technical breaches rather than being anything sinister.
However, the vast majority of people reading such reports are unlikely to be intricately familiar with the rules and the wording of these reports were ambiguous enough to lead to widespread misunderstanding and insinuation of serious wrongdoing.
After the card had concluded, the BHA confirmed that the whole thing was essentially a storm in a teacup, with the substances involved being routine supplements/medications and that the issues were administrational/management oversights by the trainers involved rather than an attempt to cheat.
However, plenty of damage had already been done in a PR sense and if anything, it could have been worse had more media latched onto the story without knowing any better.
In this day and age with drugs in sport being such a huge issue, it takes very little to prompt damaging and unfair comment in cases such as this. The BHA have a duty to the professionals involved and indeed the sport as a whole to better communicate the realities of these cases to avoid negative coverage where it is not warranted. The wording of the reports in these cases left too much to the imagination and one can only hope the BHA learn from it.
It has been an uncomfortable few weeks in the world of Horse Racing Ireland, with the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Brian Kavanagh for an unprecedented third term as chief executive coming under national scrutiny in what was a PR disaster for the Irish racing industry.
The details of how it all played out and the response to it have been well documented elsewhere in recent weeks, but the end result that came out of the Agricultural Committee meeting with the HRI board last week is that while Joe Keeling repeatedly apologised for “mishandling” the appointment procedures, it will come as no great surprise to most that things will essentially continue on as they were in terms of the hierarchy in HRI for the remainder of what will be Kavanagh’s final term.
It is a sequence of events that Irish horse racing really could have done without. That the industry here is so financially reliant on state funding, the year-to-year levels of which are at the mercy of the whims of the government of the day, one would have hoped that every care would have been taken by HRI to ensure that every official procedure would have been undertaken by the book, but that clearly wasn’t the case here.
The case for Irish racing receiving the levels of tax payer funding that it does is not always easy to justify to the everyday tax payer and national attention being focused on issues such as this doesn’t make it any easier. One would hope that lessons will have been very quickly learned in HRI, but whether the damage caused to racing’s public image and to the racing’s relationship with the government will be as quick to heal remains to be seen.