We say goodbye to the flat racing campaign for 2017 with the now-annual curtain call on Saturday: the British Champions Day, sponsored by QIPCO and hosted by Ascot.
This is British horse racing’s richest day, with more than £4 million in prize money up for grabs, and it could well prove to be a lucrative day for punters if the favourites roll up in good form.
There’s plenty of prestige, alongside the purse, for all involved to battle for. Silvestre de Sousa has already claimed the jockey of the year title, with the trainer’s gong going to Aidan O’Brien – who, incidentally, could break the record for most Group 1 winners in a single year if he lands two or more on Saturday.
The beauty of Champions Day is that it features the best in the business across the various disciplines. There’s the Long Distance Cup for the premier stayers, the Champion Sprint Stakes for the speed demons and in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the Champion Stakes, two lucrative Group 1 affairs that will identify the finest flat horses in the land and offer up some clues ahead of 2018’s Classics.
There has been a lot of rain around Ascot in the past couple of days, and so conditions are set to soften up ahead of race day – a key angle for punters to follow in.
So who are the standout picks in the day’s biggest races?
Long Distance Cup (1:25pm)
The action gets underway with this two-mile, Group 2 contest that arguably should be a Group 1 given the brilliant cast that has been entered.
Order of St George and Big Orange are fantastic rivals, and could well go head-to-head once again in another thrilling encounter in front of the Ascot crowd. The latter took the spoils in an pulsating Gold Cup back in June, although the former has since bounced back with victory in the Irish St Leger and a decent fourth in the Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe.
But that latter run came just 20 days ago, and you have to wonder how well the Aidan O’Brien charge will have recuperated – clearly the Irish trainer knows what he’s doing on that front!
Big Orange took the honours in the Gold Cup but was well beaten last time out at the Goodwood Stakes by Stradivarius, a progressive sort who, like Big Orange, is not a fan of soft conditions.
Punters are advised to take a watching brief for the day’s opener.
Champion Sprint Stakes (2pm)
It appears as if heavyweight rivalries could the theme of Champions Day, with Harry Angel and Caravaggio set to renew hostilities in the Sprint Stakes.
Caravaggio bested Harry Angel in the Commonwealth Cup back in June, and you wondered if the O’Brien trained three-year-old was destined to dominate the sprint scene this term.
But Harry Angel roared back with a near two-length triumph over his adversary in the July Cup, and continued his upward curve with a win on the heavy going at Haydock Park in the Sprint Cup Stakes.
The Godolphin-owned three-year-old is a worthy favourite at around the 11/10 mark here.
Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (3:15pm)
The best miler in the land will be identified here, and given the weight of evidence you would just have to favour Ribchester over the rest of the field.
The Godolphin colt has taken the spoils in three Group 1 outings this term, including the Queen Anne Stakes, and lost out by a head in another at the Sussex Stakes. The four-year-old thus has big successes to his name in all sorts of conditions.
After capturing the 2000 Guineas double, Churchill had the world at his hooves, but he has been defeated in each of his last three starts including a woeful run-out at Leopardstown in September. There is no real basis for his status as second favourite, making Ribchester a stronger fancy than normal.
Champion Stakes (3:50pm)
And finally the big one, which is the day’s richest race with some three-quarters-of-a-million going to the winner.
Cracksman has assumed favouritism in the market and why not: he’s won his last two starts on softer ground, including a strong edition of the Great Voltigeur Stakes by six lengths.
But Barney Roy has been the biggest market mover, shortening to 3/1 in places, and that’s probably thanks to his strong run in the Juddmonte Stakes, where he finished two-lengths back to Ulysses.
Ulysses is not in the field for this one having been withdrawn, and that’s a shame as he could have led the way in a fantastic three-way dance with Cracksman and Barney Roy.