Britain’s flat season climaxes on Saturday with Ascot’s Champions Day card hosting four Group Ones as well as the opening Group Two Long Distance Cup and closing Balmoral Handicap. It’s the best day of flat racing we have in this country and there’s no shortage of quality on show, with the main talking point this year being John Gosden’s Willie Mullins-esque grip on the betting markets with four short-priced favourites on the six-race card. Like in 2017, we’ve also got very soft ground this year – possibly even worse – to consider when selecting our winners, and there might be a few upsets along the way.
13.25 Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup (Group 2)
Everything about the soft conditions and timing of this race suggests Stradivarius is an odds-on favourite to be taken on. Finding a bet from the rest of them is difficult, though. Stradivarius has had a tough season and wasn’t at his best when winning at York, but he’s been freshened up since and the ground can’t be too much of a concern to con nections given he’s running. Irish St Leger winner Flag Of Honour looks the obvious threat but he’s 9/4 and that hardly gets the pulse racing. I don’t think there’s a bet in this race, in truth.
14.00 Qipco British Champions Sprint Stakes (Group 1)
This is a muddling race. There’s no disputing the 2016 winner The Tin Man’s credentials as favourite, but he’s not a bet at 3/1. Nor is last year’s winner Librisa Breeze at 5/1, who has been out of form all season and needs to bounce back emphatically. Similar comments apply to last year’s second Tasleet, though he’s only run twice this season and could improve.
I like SANDS OF MALI as an outsider given he ran well at Ascot’s Royal meeting and won’t mind the ground. Course form counts for a lot at Ascot and I suspect this colt stays further than six furlongs, which is an attribute that’s essential on the straight sprint track at Ascot when it gets muddy. He gets weight from the older horses and is not without a chance; 25/1 underestimates him.
He beat Harry Angel last time out when racing up with the pace in the Sprint Cup, but The Tin Man, Brando and co stayed on past him. If he’s delivered a bit later he might be able to reverse the form. Harry Angel is the biggest price he’s been for a long time, but he has to prove he stays a stiff six furlongs on soft ground, which he has failed to do both in the Sprint Cup this year and this race the last. He did win the Sprint Cup on heavy going last year but Haydock is nowhere near as stiff, and you really need to stay further to win this given Ascot’s tough finish. He is the classiest horse in the race but looks vulnerable.
14.40 Qipco British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes (Group 1)
This is a really good race. Lah Ti Dar is a worthy favourite but looks very short on what she’s achieved on the track so far. She doesn’t look the most professional of racehorses and I can see her running a bit green and affording too much rope to some classy opponents.
Hydrangea won this last year but has been out of form all season and Ryan Moore has opted for MAGICAL. Magical was last seen in the Arc attempting a similar last-to-first route to Sea Of Class from their wide draws, except she was steered wide rather than up the rail. I think that run confirmed without any doubt that she stays this 12 furlong trip, and given she was last turning for home I think it was a good run to finish where she did.
I’m a sucker for a strong staying Galileo who is proven on soft ground, so Magical’s Arc and juvenile form – where she was a short-head from winning a Group One on soft ground – suggests she’s over-priced at 15/2. With so many runners with chances, I’m not sure there’s much merit in each-way betting so it’s win-only for me.
15.15 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Group 1)
This looks the deepest race of the day and the big news is our 8/1 ante-post selection ROARING LION runs here instead of taking up his entry in the Champion Stakes, where his stablemate Cracksman runs. We put him up for this race because it [not taking on Cracksman] made a lot of sense regardless off the soft ground going soft, as adding a Group One win over a mile to his bulging CV would certainly enhance his stallion prospects, and the yard will have wanted to split their aces.
Roaring Lion is undoubtedly the best horse in the race and is priced accordingly at around 2/1 – he might even be a bit of value. However, his confirmation has pushed almost every other runner’s price outwards and there are real some tempters on offer.
Ryan Moore rides Happily, who I think is a much better horse when there’s cut in the ground. That’s been a rarity this season and her best runs in 2018 have come at Chantilly (good-to-soft) and in the Sun Chariot (officially good ground but it poured in the hour before the race) a few weeks back, where she chased home Laurens.
Laurens re-opposes and is drifting in the betting, which surprises me. I’ve underestimated her all season and watched her win Group Ones time and again, only just doing enough. She beat Magical last time out at Newmarket and her trainer has always said she wants cut in the ground, so despite official ratings not suggesting she deserves to be any shorter in the betting, this winning machine is pretty nailed on to hit the frame. Given we’ve backed Roaring Lion already we’ll stick to him, but Laurens each-way is sorely tempting.
15.50 Qipco Champion Stakes (Group 1)
It’s difficult to see past last year’s champion Cracksman given he finally gets some soft ground. I was there last year eating humble pie after he absolutely destroyed a good Group One field, having questioned his short price pre-race. It was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen on the flat and, even though this season’s form hasn’t been on par, he’s difficult to oppose. That said, I said that before his Royal Ascot defeat by Poet’s Word, and he’s an odds-on shot with has a fair few questions to answer. He came into last year’s race hard fit and on a roll so, given the circumstances, he’s not a bet.
The biggest thing in second-fav’ Crystal Ocean’s favour is he skipped the Arc and, ignoring a spin behind Enable in the September Stakes, which was surely just a piece of work, this appears to have been his big target since a fine effort when just outstayed in the King George. I do believe Crystal Ocean can beat Cracksman on a going day, but at 3/1 he’s a fair price at best.
CAPRI has actually beaten Cracksman in the past in last year’s Irish Derby and ran very well in the Arc recently, but it seems farfetched to think a St Leger winner will improve for the significant drop to 10 furlongs. Despite that, I am starting to take a dim look at Cracksman’s overall form as the horses he beat in this last year were fast ground lovers, while Cracksman still had his three-year-old allowance and may have been flattered. The sum of his form this season adds up to a narrow defeat of Salouen – who Capri beat in the Arc – and a four-length early-season defeat of Wren’s Day – who? I also think Poet’s Word, who beat Cracksman over this course and distance on rattling fast ground at Royal Ascot, is a little over-rated.
I am seriously doubting Capri (6/1) and Cracksman (10/11) are as far apart on ability as the betting suggests, and given Capri’s liking for slow ground, coupled with his nailed on stamina, class will decide this race and that gives him a very good chance.
16.30 Balmoral Handicap
Paul tipped the winner Lord Glitters last year, but with 20+ runners this looks like a case of pin the tail on the donkey. No bet.
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