Declan Rix

The day after a superb QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot, Declan Rix reflects on a card that saw champion performances from Cracksman and Roaring Lion.

  • Sunday 21 October
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SOFT GROUND MONSTER BOWS OUT IN STYLE

Cracksman’s six lengths hammering of the Group 1 Champion Stakes field on Saturday sees John Gosden’s strapping four-year-old bow out at the top of his game. Twelve months on from winning the same race in similarly devastating fashion (by seven lengths), Anthony Oppenheimer’s son of Frankel now retires to the breeding sheds to start the next chapter of his life.

The much-maligned colt thankfully finishes his career on a high having apparently failed to capture some of the racing public’s imagination throughout his racing days, and despite another monster performance, you still feel he won’t get the credit he deserves. Maybe correctly?

I can see why some haven’t taken Cracksman into their hearts. At the end of last season, many took umbrage to the fact he was rated higher than last year’s star horse and stablemate Enable, meaning he finished the season officially, as “the best horse in Europe”.

This distain towards Cracksman was unfair and more a case of people’s ignorance on how ratings work. No one was suggesting Cracksman had a better season or achieved more than Enable in 2017, but simply, his peak performance, in last year’s Champion Stakes, was better than anything Enable did in terms of form.

Given that absurdly good run came on very soft ground, many wondered, including me, how Cracksman would fair this campaign when taking on Group 1 horses on proper summer terrain. Having started the season brilliantly on good ground when winning the Prix Ganay by four lengths, it’s fair to say Cracksman disappointed in his next pair of starts.

At Epsom in the Coronation Cup, he scrambled home at odds of 2/7 to beat the enterprisingly ridden Salouen by a head. Throughout the race, the son of Frankel looked completely off his game, never travelling, but showed great tenacity to eventually grind down the runner-up. Post-contest, connections blamed the colt banging his head on the stalls for the lacklustre victory on his favoured soft ground.

Just 19 days later he went to Royal Ascot for the Prince Of Wales's Stakes where again he never travelled with any fluency before going on to be well-beaten by the classy and improving Poet’s Word. The pre-season worries about how good Cracksman would be on fast ground against top-class opposition were fully borne out here, as he couldn’t live with the pacey Poet’s Word.

Connections again had an excuse post-race however, blaming the fillies from the preceding race distracting their star colt. Having witnessed Cracksman in all his glory having been at the track, this is an alibi I can vouch for. While it was hugely disappointing to witness him being beaten, it was at least encouraging he came eight lengths clear of the 122-rated Hawkbill, for all that horse was clearly well below his best.

Missed engagements due to fast ground in the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Juddmonte International and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe followed and saw his stock decrease, and his connections mocked.

Missing the Arc at ParisLongchamp was a call that robbed racing fans of seeing Enable vs Cracksman finally take each other on. Given it was the one race Cracksman was kept in training for, him missing the ParisLongchamp race due to fast ground was a dubious call. The ground would hardly have been any quicker than the Royal Ascot sod he competed on in June, and the Arc was arguably run over a more suitable trip.

Thankfully, his fans saw him go out on a lofty high on Saturday. Also, thankfully, his detractors saw just how good he can be, granted his favoured soft conditions. While Cracksman was a good horse on fast ground, he was simply a monster on soft.  

Cracksman wins the Champion Stakes
Frankie Dettori can afford to celebrate early as Cracksman annihilates his field

Physically, he is also a horse of huge stature, and as he goes on to his new career as a stallion, I do wonder will he produce stock that will simply need too much time to be top-level Flat competitors? Ironically, many of Cracksman’s critics seemed to be National Hunt fans. Well, they may be cheering on his progeny down the line.

Needle aside, as a flat racing enthusiast, it was simply brilliant to see him go out on top. For two British Champions Days running, just like his father, he lit up Ascot.

LION CLAWS BACK QEII FIELD LIKE A CHAMPION

It was a case of déjà vu as Champion three-year-old elect Roaring Lion again overcame adversity to win the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on British Champions Day. Under Oisin Murphy, the gritty grey overcame what was possibly his toughest test of the season when all variables are considered.

Dropping down two furlongs to a mile in ground far too soft on his eighth start of the year, many questioned could John Gosden’s top Classic generation colt get the job done. In the end, he only had a neck to spare over 33/1 chance I Can Fly, but that margin of victory doesn’t do justice to the obstacles he overcame to win.

As well as race conditions not suiting, Roaring Lion deserves extra credit for overcoming his extremely tricky draw in stall 15. While all the main protagonists, including the second and third home, raced towards the far side with near ideal cover and leads, Roaring Lion basically had to race widest of all without any cover, for what looked like the entire race. It’s hard to be sure on that given the poor camera angles used by those covering the event, but it certainly seemed the case.

While beating the officially 110-rated I Can Fly and 114-rated Century Dream may not go down as outstanding Group 1 form in some books, when you factor in all the son of Kitten's Joy had to overcome, arguably, it was one of his most impressive performances of the season.

Roaring Lion wins the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes
Roaring Lion (far right) comes late and fast to win the QEII under Oisin Murphy

And what a year it’s been for the classy grey. The QEII success was his fourth Group 1 of the season after his victories in the Coral-Eclipse, Juddmonte International and Irish Champion Stakes. Three of the successes have come by a neck, but in all three, the Qatar Racing Limited-owned colt was value for much more.

As his official rating of 127 suggests, he is a genuine top-class colt, but what has really struck me about Roaring Lion is his will to win. While many questioned his attitude late on last year and during this season, given his antics of running around, he can never be accused of not wanting to win. OK, he wasn’t straight-forward in stages of his career, but as he’s matured, he’s become the full article. If there was any kink in him, he simply would not have won the QEII yesterday as he had so many opportunities to shirk the issue and didn’t.

Sadly, it now looks as if Roaring Lion is off to stud. As a racing fan, it’s disappointing news, but from a breeding perspective, I can fully understand the decision of Qatar Racing on a charge they’ve described as, “the most important horse we’ve ever had”.

As we’ve seen with Cracksman this season, it can be extremely tough to keep older colts mind on the game. Nothing is a given and it’s this very reason why I have such huge respect for Sir Michael Stoute given his record with older horses.

While I have concerns about Cracksman making it as a flat stallion down the line, Roaring Lion is an extremely exciting stallion prospect. If he can pass on his will to win and class, he will no doubt have a successful career.

TOUGH STRADIVARIUS STAYS THE DISTANCE

In winning the Group 2 British Champions Long Distance Cup at Ascot on Saturday, Stradivarius further enhanced his reputation as the best stayer around, and one of the toughest horses in training. Five times the son of Sea The Stars has raced this season, and five times he has collected.

Among those quintet of victories, two Group 1s and a cool million pounds bonus were picked up for owner Bjorn Nielsen. This season’s Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers' Million bonus saw John Gosden’s stayer collect the seven-figure sum after winning the four-race programme; the Group 2 Yorkshire Cup, the Gold Cup, the Goodwood Cup and the Group 2 Lonsdale Cup Stakes.

The athletic chestnut cemented his remarkable campaign in winning on Champions Day under Frankie Dettori, who stole the inside rail down the Ascot straight when Ryan Moore was asleep on the race second-favourtie Flag of Honour, in what was a brave and cute tactical manoeuvre.  

From here, he scooted 1½ lengths clear of the unlucky Thomas Hobson, who was hampered at a crucial late stage, a coming together which saw Frankie Dettori pick up a three-day careless riding ban.

The race was all about the winner however, who has shown an iron-like constitution to go unbeaten in five races this season. One-mile six-furlongs on good to firm, two miles on soft or two-and-and-a-half miles on firm, it all came alike to this unbelievably tough sort.

In a division that's usually hard to impressive in, Stradivarius has been one of the stars of the season, and expertly handled by the nearly peerless John Gosden. His achievements in no way should be underestimated. You’ve got to be in awe of his constitution.

MALI HUGELY IMPRESSIVE IN CHAMPIONS SPRINT

Sands Of Mali ran out an impressive winner of the Group 1 British Champions Sprint Stakes on Saturday, giving northern-based duo Richard Fahey and Paul Hanagan their biggest victory of the season.

While the 28/1 starting price may suggest this was a fluke, I’d be inclined to think we’ve just seen a good performance from a horse who excels on soft ground and likes Ascot. To be fair to Sands Of Mali, when a slightly unlucky second in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, he showed he is fully effective on much faster sod.

Paul Hanagan deserves credit for his winning ride, as making-all at the Berkshire straight track isn’t the easiest, but Hanagan got the fractions spot on, and he did enough to hold on the back-to-life Harry Angel.

In what has been a disappointing theme in this piece, Harry Angel looks another of the flat game’s stars set to retire at the end of the season. While Clive Cox’s stable star was back to form here, he was still comfortably below his peak, and I have no doubt we never got to see the very best of Harry Angel.

Declan Rix
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