The Duke’s Weekend Preview – Champions Day

British Champions Day is one of the best Flat meetings in the world and one of my favourite days of the year.

There are some great horses on show at Ascot on Saturday and I’m thoroughly looking forward to an excellent spectacle.

The first race on the card is the British Champions Long Distance Cup.

Big Orange won the Ascot Gold Cup earlier in the season but it is worth bearing in mind that was on much quicker ground. I don’t think the soft conditions will be to his liking, so he’s not for me, despite the fact I think he is one of the class acts in the race.

Sheikhzayedroad won this contest last year but he’s not in quite the same form and the ground is against him. Dartmouth didn’t run well last time so it’s hard to have loads of faith in him here. Duretto is still progressing and is lightly raced this year so he comes in to the race a bit fresher than most. That might be advantageous so keep him in mind for each-way multiples.

Desert Skyline comes in to the race in form after winning the Doncaster Cup, but he was held fair and square by Stradivarius in a couple of races earlier in the season. Stradivarius would be my each-way play in this. He was third in the St Leger, beat Big Orange in the Goodwood Cup in August and won the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot in June. He’s 9/1 and that looks like one of the most solid each-way bets of the day. Order Of St George is the one to beat after finishing fourth in the Arc at Chantilly. However, it is worth noting he was turned over as odds-on favourite in this race last year.

My Selection – Each-way Stradivarius

The British Champions Sprint is very competitive. Starting with two horses at big prices who could get involved.

Tasleet won on soft ground at York in May and was runner-up to The Tin Man in the Diamond Jubilee the following month. He could play for the places, as could Brando who won a Group 1 in France but has subsequently run a couple of stinkers.

Realistically I think it comes down to three horses; Harry Angel, Caravaggio and Quiet Reflection. If Quiet Reflection is up to the level of form she showed last year then 7/1 may seem a big price come the end of the race. She only receives a couple of pounds from Harry Angel and Caravaggio and I think even at her best she may come up short of those two. Harry Angel gets the vote ahead of Caravaggio mainly because he has improved as the season has gone on, winning the July Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup.

Although Caravaggio beat Harry Angel in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, I think the form can be reversed. I’m pretty confident those two will come home first and second and I hope I’ve chosen the correct order.

My Selection – Harry Angel

The third race is the British Champions Fillies and Mares Stakes. Left Hand is quite long odds if first-time blinkers bring about any improvement. She’s not far off the level required and headgear is an interesting move.

Bateel looks the most likely winner. She comes in to the race in great form after scoring in the Prix Vermeille and the soft ground will suit. Journey was an impressive winner of this race last year but she may prefer slightly better ground and was legitimately held by Bateel last time.

Hydrangea has played second fiddle to her stablemates for most of the season but she did win a Group 1 in Ireland last month, so she should not be ruled out at fairly decent odds of around 7/1.

My Selection – Bateel

The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes looks like one of the races of the season.

Let’s start off with the one I like the most; Ribchester. I think he’s an excellent miler and his only defeat at Ascot was in this race last year when runner-up to the brilliant Minding. Ribchester has improved since then, he won the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, and although he was surprisingly defeated in the Sussex Stakes by Here Comes When, I think he is the best horse in this contest.

Beat The Bank is in great form and deserves a crack at a Group 1, while Churchill has regressed after his heroics in winning both the English and Irish 2000 Guineas. Thunder Snow is pretty consistent and in a first-time visor he makes some appeal for the places, while Al Wukair is the one I fear the most. Andre Fabre is a very good trainer and Al Wukair is an improving colt who won at the highest grade in France most recently.

My Selection – Ribchester

The Qipco Champion Stakes is the penultimate race on the card.

I’ve put a line through Highland Reel as I think the ground is probably a bit soft for him.

I’ve narrowed it down to four options. Poet’s Word has been talked up by a few good judges. I respect their opinion as he has improved quite markedly, but one good run in what I felt was a sub-par Irish Champion Stakes does not make me want to jump on the bandwagon.

John Gosden has done well to keep Cracksman and Enable apart. I think Cracksman has a leading chance on ground he will relish, whereas Barney Roy might just prefer quicker conditions.

The one that has ducked under the radar is Brametot. He won the French versions of the 2000 Guineas and Derby, before two seemingly poor runs. But look a little closer and you’ll realise he deserves some forgiveness for those efforts. In August he ran at Deauville in a race with a ridiculously long name that would take me half an hour to write. What’s important is that Brametot missed the break. He never had a chance after that. Then in the Arc, watch it back, he got totally mullered up against the rail with nowhere to go, before running on again in to a respectable fifth – the horses who finished ahead of him are all Group 1 winners. As much as I love Barney Roy and Cracksman, I can’t refuse the 13/2 on offer about Brametot.

My Selection – Brametot

The final race to look at is the Balmoral Handicap, perhaps the toughest race of the day. Brigliadoro and Accidental Agent are both in form and carry penalties for their latest wins.

Lord Glitters ran a belter in the Challenge Cup and the extra furlong here should suit. He has to have a massive chance, as does The Grape Escape who is getting better all the time. It sometimes pays to read between the lines and I think Qassem has been prepared with this race in mind.

The entire race meeting is sponsored by Qipco, a Qatari investment company and Qaseem is owned by Al Shaqab Racing (also Qatari). The horse has run creditably in some good races this season, but not enough to raise his handicap mark too significantly. Now, first-time cheekpieces are applied and Frankie Dettori is up on board for the first time too. Alarm bells are ringing.

Similarly Oh This Is Us has the services of Ryan Moore for the first time since the pair finished second in the Lincoln in April off a similar mark.

I think Zabeel Prince is a Group horse in a handicap so he’s the one I will side with for win purposes. He’s won on soft ground and ran well at York last time, looking easily the best. He’s five pounds well-in ahead of the handicapper despite the penalty so he gets the vote, but I’ll also have a few quid on Qassem, in case my conspiracy theory is correct! Have a cracking weekend.

My Selection – Zabeel Prince (win), Qassem (each-way)

And a side note for Saturday – Aidan O’Brien is on the verge of equalling Bobby Frankel’s record for most Group/Grade 1 wins in a season.

Honestly? It’s game-set-match already. There are Group 1 races in Australia, at Champions Day and at the Breeders’ Cup all to come and to think the wonder-trainer won’t have at least a few Group 1 wins at those meetings, is pretty unrealistic.

You know what? Let me get in there early and be the first to congratulate him. Well done Aidan. The best trainer alive today.

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