When the concept of Champions Day was first unwrapped, its underlying ethos was to showcase the best of British racing.
Trainer John Gosden hailed it, and supported it, from day one, so how fitting that he was the chief beneficiary of the latest celebration of best at Saturday’s eighth renewal.
Gosden saddled half of the day’s winners in ROARING LION (Queen Elizabeth II Stakes), CRACKSMAN (Champion Stakes) and STRADIVARIUS (Long-Distance Cup), not to mention the placed horses, CORONET and LAH TI DAR, in the Filles And Mares.
Indubitably, on a day more versed in saluting equine heroes (Frankel, Muhaarar, Farhh, Solow, Cirrus Des Aigles spring comfortably to mind), this one belonged to the 67-year-old Newmarket handler.
Yes, all three of his winners went off at short prices, with odds of 2/1, 5/6 and evens accurately reflecting the expectancy among punters. But the enormity of Gosden’s achievement is reflected with equal accuracy by the fact that in the whole previous seven-year history of the Qipco-sponsored shindig, he had managed only four triumphs.
What’s more, while all three winners were short in the market, they were readily vulnerable on such a star-studded occasion, laced with so many high-profile rivals. Roaring Lion had to overcome a drop in trip on Soft ground he was not bred for at the end of a long, hard season at the highest level. Cracksman had to overcome a four-month absence and worrying doubts about his laboured efforts earlier in the season. Stradivarius had to overcome unsuitable conditions and a suspicion that he’d had enough for the campaign when only workmanlike on his latest outing.
However, all the nagging negatives were put to bed by a masterclass in preparation for a big day by Gosden and his faithful team at Clarehaven Stables. Roaring Lion was the subject of an inspired decision to switch from the Champion to the QEII, helping him to achieve a fourth successive Group One success in a sequence that surely crowns him the horse of the year. Cracksman had his enthusiasm rekindled, helped by the fitting of first-time headgear, to such a spectacular extent that he was able to repeat his mudbath romp of 12 months earlier. Stradivarius was freshened up to perfection to saunter home in an albeit sub-standard stayers’ contest without needing to hit top gear.
If ever a day was designed to parade the skills, wisdom and experience of a horse-racing trainer, this was it. It capped a third trainers’ championship for Gosden thanks to a staggering tally of prize money amounting to £8,241,041. And it capped an extraordinary season in which he has dined at the top table with admirable regularity, and laid bare every facet of his talent. Whether that be reviving his stable stars, Cracksman and Arc heroine Enable, when all seemed lost, whether that be inducing dramatic improvement from Roaring Lion, a colt thrashed more than nine lengths as an 8/13 favourite on his seasonal bow, or whether that be unearthing the latest cluster of potential champions in two-year-olds Too Darn Hot, Calyx and Turgenev. Oh, and lest we forget, he’s even managed to find time to land major handicaps such as the Ebor (Muntahaar) and the Cambridgeshire (Wissahickon) along the way. Variety of horse, versatility of achievement. Quite simply, Gosden has no peers in European racing at present.
Of course, it helps when, in the plate, you can call upon jockeys of the calibre of Frankie Dettori and Oisin Murphy. At different ends of the age scale they might be, but it is the same crest of a wave they are riding at the moment. Dettori’s adroitness in nipping up Ryan Moore’s inside to engineer Stradivarius’s win was yet another example of the Italian’s big-race expertise at its finest. But it was bettered by the cool maturity with which Murphy nursed home Roaring Lion with perfect timing through the final 2f on ground the son of Kitten’s Joy was detesting. It was a ride in dramatic contrast to the over-animated, over-excited one he gave the same colt at Doncaster 12 months ago, which arguably cost him the Racing Post Trophy behind Saxon Warrior, and it demonstrated the improvement he has made as a pilot. No wonder he has assembled no fewer than nine Group Ones across the globe during those ensuing 12 months.
Mind you, Murphy’s and Dettori’s efforts weren’t the only instances of polished riding during the afternoon. From Paul Hanagan’s front-running judgement on SANDS OF MALI in the Sprint to James Doyle’s daring, late pounce on Balmoral Handicap winner SHARJA BRIDGE, there was more than enough to camouflage the fact that the champion jockey was not riding because of his whip-abuse indiscretions. Bearing in mind the crackpot criticism imposed on Doyle for his similar steer on Sea Of Class in the Arc, it was tempting to ask whether Sharja Bridge wouldn’t have won had he been ridden differently.
The prowess of Dettori, Murphy, Doyle and Co certainly exposed again that the Stobart Jockeys’ Championship is rarely won by the best jockey, more often by the jockey prepared to travel to all corners at all hours in search of rides. Indeed three of the best out there, Dettori, Moore and William Buick, have not even made the top ten this time round. With Silvestre de Sousa announcing that he is to concentrate more on quality than quantity next season, a tilt at a third successive title by the Brazilian looks unlikely, so maybe Murphy or Doyle will get the chance to buck the trend.
Quality was certainly the word on the lips of the 30,000 racegoers who flocked to Ascot on Saturday. There was room for mild disappointment that, of the 32 top-rated horses in the world at present, only five, CRYSTAL OCEAN, Roaring Lion, Cracksman, HARRY ANGEL and RECOLETOS, made the gig. But genuine excuses, such as injury, ground, trip and alternative targets, covered most of the relevant absentees. And at a time of year when the top-gun meetings come thick and fast across the world, those racegoers could hardly complain at the presence of 19 Group One winners among the 73 animals on parade.
Not complaining either were the Al Thani brothers, whose vast financial backing for Champions Day, through Qipco, was rewarded by the triumph of Roaring Lion, who races under their Qatar Racing banner. Sheikh Fahad Al Thani was positively beaming as he described it as his greatest day in racing, moments after all but giving the Queen a hug in the royal box as they watched the QEII unfold.
It was so telling, however, that he also took time out to pay eloquent tribute to Gosden. Before Roaring Lion retires to spearhead the growth of the Qatar Racing-backed operations at Tweenhills Stud, the Sheikh wants the trainer to prepare the grey colt for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Dirt at Churchill Downs a week on Saturday. Now, as Dettori keeps saying, and we all know, Gosden is a genius. But not even he could pull that one off, could he?