Kevin Blake

British Champions Day produced plenty of headlines, but Kevin questions it's place in the racing world

  • Monday 19 October
  • Blog
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REFLECTING ON SOME REMARKABLE STORIES ON BRITISH CHAMPIONS DAY

It seems to be the general view that British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday delivered more good stories than top-class racing performances, and to a large extent, that is true.

Top-class Flat racing is often accused of being dominated to an unhealthy extent by the all-powerful biggest players in the game, usually by National Hunt aficionados with a lack of self-awareness of the power balance in their preferred code. However, British Champions Day was quite the opposite, dominated by players that we aren’t quite so accustomed to seeing at the top table. It made for a refreshing and exciting spectacle that quite rightly had the headline writers purring both inside and outside of racing.

Geldings won all four of the Group races on the card open to them. As well as that, three of the six winners were owned by syndicates from backgrounds that would have theoretically made them accessible to any syndicate of owners. Trueshan cost just 31,000gns as a breeze-up horse. Glen Shiel was a Godolphin cast-off that his current connections bought for £45,000 at a horses-in-training sale last year. And, Njord was bought for €54,000 at a horses-in-training sale just under a year ago.

As well as making for good stories, results like these on the biggest stage of the sport are extremely important to show that the dream is achievable. With prize money levels on the floor in Britain, and the ownership experience being very restricted due to the Covid situation, now more than ever anything that helps sell the dream of ownership is a positive for the industry.

There were any number of feel-good human-interest stories too. Hollie Doyle (expanded on later) and Tom Marquand took the riding honours, and deservedly were the focus points of the day, but there remain other notable performances too.

Archie Watson’s role in the victory of Glen Shiel in the Qipco British Champions Sprint was perhaps overshadowed by the attention given to his jockey, but Watson deserves credit for his first Group 1 winner. Taking on a second-hand horse from a trainer of Andre Fabre’s renown isn’t a task many would relish, but his transformation of Glen Shiel from a 102-rated 10f performer into a Group 1-winning sprinter in just over a year, is a serious feat of training.

David Menuisier also deserves praise for his handling of Wonderful Tonight - another Champions Day winner that would have been accessible to most owners having cost €40,000 as a yearling. She has progressed relentlessly this season, and one could have been forgiven for fearing that her slow-motion slog when winning the Prix de Royallieu at Longchamp just two weeks earlier might take the edge off her, but she was having none of it. Not only did she reproduce her Royallieu form, she bettered it to produce a career-best effort in victory. Her emergence as a star will be a welcome tonic for Menuisier and his team after they lost the popular Thundering Blue in difficult circumstances recently. In Wonderful Tonight they have a very good filly we will hopefully see back on racecourse next year.

Wonderful Tonight winning on Champions Day despite costing only €40,000 as a yearling.

Of all the equine performances we saw on Saturday, it was the winning effort of Trueshan that impressed me the most. Inevitably there was much focus on the underperformance of Stradivarius, but even a peak form Stradivarius might have struggled to cope with Trueshan on this day. Despite pulling notably hard in the early stages, Trueshan swung into the race with notable fluency and powered away in the closing stages to see off the first two home in the Irish St Leger by 7½ lengths.

It would be dangerous to write Trueshan’s performance off as one that flatters him. It is also worth remembering that he is very much proven on firmer ground, having won three times on ground Timeform called good. This is a stayer very much on the upgrade, and he might well prove to be the main challenger to Stradivarius’s crown next season.

HOLLIE DOYLE COMES TO THE FORE

On a day of great stories, none were more box office than the feats of Hollie Doyle. The 24-year-old is an emerging star in the sport and for her to ride a double on such a big stage, including the first Group 1 victory of her career, made for wonderful scenes.

It was in 2008 that Hayley Turner rode 100 winners in a calendar year in Britain, which was her eighth year as a jockey, and three years later she rode her first Group 1 winner. Hollie Doyle is ahead of that curve, riding 100 winners in a year that was her seventh as a jockey last year, while securing a first Group 1 winner last Saturday in her eighth year as a jockey.

An elated Hollie Doyle after her first Group 1 win on Glen Shiel last weekend

Hollie has already started to raise the bar for female jockeys in Great Britain, and the next test for her will be to keep pushing that bar to the next level. Inevitably, she has been put forward by some as a potential Champion Jockey, but the challenge that feat presents is summed up by the fact the current championship leader Oisin Murphy has ridden 50% more winners than her during the current campaign.

However high Hollie Doyle pushes the bar of excellence, what she has already achieved is remarkable. As much as the BHA and British racing wants to push the “all jockeys are equal regardless of their gender” narrative, it remains exceptionally rare for a female jockey to rise to anything approaching the heights Doyle already has. It shouldn’t be forgotten that progressive racing nations such as France and Japan recently saw fit to introduce a female jockey allowance (1.5kg in France and 2kg in Japan) in the vast majority of their races, in an attempt to equalise a perceived imbalance between the genders as jockeys.

Thus, what Doyle and indeed Hayley Turner achieved on level terms in Britain is genuinely sensational. They have been, and remain, exceptional outliers in their profession that should be heralded and celebrated as such.

BRITISH CHAMPIONS DAY'S PLACE IN THE RACING WORLD

British Champions Day has grown into a significant occasion since the first running of it in 2011. Given that it takes place at Ascot in mid-October, some ease in the ground is the norm rather than the exception, and it can occasionally ride testing as it did on Saturday. How this is greeted by the racing public often seems to be dictated by the results on the day. If the stars and fancied horses manage to win, there doesn’t seem to be too much cribbing and moaning. However, in a situation such as on Saturday where the headline horses were well beaten to accompany some surprise results, the narrative switches to how unsuitable such a surface is for a top-class Flat meeting etc…

Regardless of what people think, this meeting in its current form is locked into its position in the European Pattern and is highly unlikely to move unless it is completely re-structured. As has been well documented over the years, the Irish authorities pulled off an exceptional strategic move in seizing the initiative by creating Irish Champions Weekend at a time when there was growing speculation the British authorities wanted to move British Champions Day into a mid-September slot. The Irish took an open chair at the table of the European Pattern, and with Irish Champions Weekend and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe meetings now locked in, there is no room for a meeting such as British Champions Day in between the two amongst the European Pattern.

It is where it is, and barring the British authorities deciding to do something very daring such as breaking with the European Pattern and running the meeting in an earlier slot without Group status attached to the races, it is there to stay. After 10 editions, one would have hoped that this reality would have been accepted. Alas, it is rare that an opportunity for a moan in racing goes unseized!

Kevin Blake
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