Champions Day – a decade of the best
A decade of the best – we look back at 10 years of British Champions Day and some of the notable winners of the Flat season’s finale at Ascot
Saturday will see another star-studded finale to the British Flat season at Ascot, 10 years on from its inugeration in 2011, when a number of existing high-class contests were moved into one exceptional card.
QIPCO Champions Day has established itself as one of Britain’s most eagerly-anticipated racedays of the year, staging the final races in each of five QIPCO British Champions Series categories; Sprint, Fillies & Mares, Long Distance, Mile and Middle Distance.
It’s the nation’s richest raceday and has featured countless heavyweights of the international Flat racing scene in the relatively short time since its inception – some of the biggest names in racing to have posted a number of sensational performances over the years. Saturdy’s 10th renewal is set to be yet another quality afternoon’s racing.
The meeting’s big sprint prize, the Group 1 QIPCO British Champions Sprint Stakes, is always a thrilling affair featuring the season’s leading speedsters over six furlongs.
Muhaarar was a particularly notable winner in 2015 when landing his fourth successive Group 1 victory, the first time a sprinter had done so since Dayjur in 1990.
Returning to the scene of his Commonwealth Cup victory earlier that summer, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s champion sprinter rounded off a sensational season when soaring clear of his 19 opponents to score by no less than two lengths.
Slade Power, the 2013 winner, went on to land a valuable pair of Group 1 prizes as a five-year-old the following season, including The Diamond Jubilee Stakes; a feat repeated by the popular James Fanshawe-trained The Tin Man, who claimed the 2016 renewal before tasting Royal Ascot success the following season.
The first QIPCO British Champions Day saw the dual Oaks heroine Dancing Rain lead her rivals a merry dance in what is now the Group 1 QIPCO British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes with a brilliant front-running display under Johnny Murtagh.
Four years later, Qatar Racing’s versatile filly Simple Verse landed the prize a month after Classic glory in a dramatic running of the 2015 St Leger. Now a multiple winner in Group 1 company, Magical – so often the bridesmaid to the mighty Enable – was victorious in 2018 before enjoying her second QIPCO British Champions Day success in last year’s QIPCO Champion Stakes.
Last month he won the Irish Champions Stakes, adding to his Group 1 tally, at Leopardstown.
Most recently, the 2019 QIPCO British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes winner Star Catcher notched up her third victory at the highest level since winning The Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot earlier that summer, holding onto victory by a mere short head.
Long distance specialists have long held a special place in the affections of Flat racing enthusiasts, perhaps owing in part to their frequent longevity as well as their courage and resilience over the marathon trip.
Few however, have been quite so popular as Stradivarius, the supremely dominant force in the current staying division who in 2018 completed a perfect season when adding the Group 2 QIPCO British Champions Long Distance Cup to a burgeoning unbeaten run in Britain’s top staying contests.
The now three-time Gold Cup winner could not follow up his QIPCO British Champions Day success twelve months later, when severely testing conditions were a valid excuse for his brave defeat to St Leger winner Kew Gardens. But, he’s back for this year’s renewal.
Order Of St George is another memorable name on the race’s roll of honour, the Ballydoyle colt signing off a glittering 2017 campaign with an authoritative win back at the scene of his 2016 Gold Cup victory.
A further two winners of Royal Ascot’s oldest and most prestigious prize have gone onto glory in The QIPCO British Champions Long Distance Cup; Fame And Glory in 2011 and Rite Of Passage a year later, the latter defying the odds on what was his first run in 510 days.
The Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes regularly attracts many of the world’s most elite milers and has been won by some of the most distinguished alumni in racing history.
One name in particular, the 2011 victor, stands high above all others but of those to have landed the prize since, the 2016 winner Minding was memorable in being the first filly to win the race in 29 years.
That season’s Guineas and Oaks heroine achieved her seventh Group 1 success when, dropped back to a mile for the first time since her shock defeat in the Irish 1,000 Guineas, defying a late challenge laid down by specialist milers Ribchester and Lightning Spear. She duly ended the season as Cartier’s Horse of the Year.
Two years later, it was Roaring Lion who landed the spoils. The Qatar Racing colt had already enjoyed a stellar season, his back-to-back Group 1 wins in the Coral-Eclipse, Juddmonte International and QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes establishing him as the season’s leading middle-distance performer.
On soft ground and running back over a mile for the first time since finishing fifth in the 2000 Guineas that May, the popular grey showed he had the courage to match his class when prevailing by a neck. Like Minding, his achievements were justly heralded at that year’s Cartier Racing Awards when crowned Horse of the Year for 2018.
One of the most deserving winners of ‘the QEII’ was surely Excelebration. A commanding three-length victory in 2012 took the high-class miler to eight wins from 14 starts, and his sixth at Group level. This was his finest hour, having so often played second fiddle to the aforementioned 2011 winner, a colt touched with an unprecedented talent who Excelebration had in vain chased home on five occasions.
The Group 1 QIPCO Champion Stakes is Europe’s richest ten-furlong contest and the feature race of the day. Originally run at Newmarket, it boasts an impressive roll of honour dating back to 1877 that includes the likes of Brigadier Gerard and Pebbles, and since its move to Ascot, has continued to attract the very best middle distance horses in training.
Its inaugural running on QIPCO British Champions Day was won by the popular French gelding Cirrus Des Aigles, who ran in the race no fewer than four times, including when second in the subsequent two renewals. His 2011 victory saw him assert himself over numerous high-class rivals including So You Think, Snow Fairy, Midday, Nathaniel and Twice Over.
Another French raider, the brilliant Almanzor, took the race in 2016 after having landed both the French Derby and Irish Champion Stakes, beating that season’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe heroine Found.
The 2013 QIPCO Champion Stakes saw a fiercely contested battle between three top-class horses, Godolphin’s Farrh memorably winning by a mere neck ahead of Cirrus Des Aigles and Derby winner Ruler Of The World while the following year, the five-year-old Noble Mission bravely rallied in the dying strides to defy multiple Grade 1 winner Al Kazeem, again by a neck.
It was an emotional victory for the horse’s trainer Lady Cecil; the widow of the late Sir Henry, who had trained Noble Mission’s esteemed brother to win the race in 2012.
Cracksman, himself the son of Cecil’s masterpiece, was a hugely impressive back-to-back winner of The QIPCO Champion Stakes. His demolition job of 2017, in which he galloped his rivals into the soft ground to win by an emphatic seven lengths, earned him the mantle of the world’s best three-year-old, and the colt duly followed up with a decisive victory over the top-class Crystal Ocean the next year.
But what of his sire? We have alluded to the incomparable Frankel several times, with the view to ‘saving the best for last’, for the highest-rated racehorse of all time was indisputably the greatest of champions, a horse truly without equal.
QIPCO British Champions Day undoubtedly owes much of its success to this racing colossus, its first two years fortunately coinciding with Frankel’s final two seasons in training – and he was to make both his own. He won the 2011 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes with that rare ease which had become his trademark, extending his extraordinary winning run to nine as he swept aside an elite field including the second-placed Excelebration, who was to claim the prize the following year.
Twelve months later, with another four Group 1s to his name including an astonishing 11-length victory over Excelebration in The Queen Anne Stakes (his second triumph at Royal Ascot) came Frankel’s swansong. The 2012 QIPCO Champion Stakes was perhaps his toughest assignment of all.
Yes, the supreme miler had conquered ten furlongs with a consummate victory in the Juddmonte International at York last time out, but the extended trip on distinctly testing conditions back at Ascot was an altogether different task.
Despite being uncharacteristically slow away from the stalls however, he was soon cruising. Sir Henry Cecil’s pride and joy crossed the line for the final time, one and three-quarter lengths clear of proven mudlark and the previous year’s winner, the highly regarded Cirrus Des Aigles.
It was not his most authoritative victory, but in disposing of yet another top-class field in unfavourable circumstances, it was a gripping finale to the most glorious of careers.
The 32,000 sellout crow erupted in appreciation for this remarkable horse and his masterful trainer, whose life was so sadly claimed by cancer just eight months later. The legendary colt retired unbeaten in 14 starts, with ten Group 1s and over £2.9m in prize money to his name.
Frankel had got QIPCO British Champions Day off to an electrifying start and put the infant fixture firmly on the map, drawing in legions of supporters including both passionate racegoers and newcomers to the sport.
Despite not being quite in his league, in the ten years since this hugely popular raceday was founded, a multitude of Europe’s finest performers have continued to light up Ascot each October and we look forward to welcoming another host of stars here this autumn.
♦ Champions Day trends – your guide to the key 10-yer stats for all the Group action http://wp.me/s8e3Dl-stats
♦*you can see more of Elizabeth Armstrong’s work at her website elizabetharmstrong.co.uk