I’ll be honest; Champions Day fails to float my boat. Don’t get me wrong; it is a good day’s racing, with races to anticipate and with the prospect this year of Aidan O’Brien achieving something truly memorable. But CHAMPIONS day. A day of champions? It doesn’t exactly do what is written on the tin.
It is the overarching title that grates with me. At the Cheltenham Festival horses are crowned champions through winning races that are most definitely championship races: 2-mile Champion Chase; Champion Hurdle; the Gold Cup; the Champion Stayers, for instance. The whole season weaves its magical way to Prestbury in March. It is an organic passage through winter, as if set out in stone since all of eternity by the sporting gods. Flat racing has a dozen cracking good meetings throughout the season yet not one of them mirrors what is achieved at Cheltenham. The flat season does not ‘weave its magical way’ to Champions Day. No horse is trained all year with Champions Day in mind unless, of course, injury has prevented it from taking in the big races throughout the summer.
Champions Day has the feel of something contrived; invented by the marketing department more for the sake of money and publicity than clarity. No horse will truly be crowned ‘Champion’, even though the five divisions of the season-long Qipco Championship will have winners ascribed to them, though the names of those horses will in quick time be forgotten. Or at least in reference to the Qipco Championship.
For starters Enable will not be there and no one doubts that she is the true champion of 2017. If Cracksman wins the Champion Stakes by ten lengths he will not be crowned champion; he will still lag behind his illustrious stable-mate. If Harry Angel wins the sprint then yes he will be the leading sprinter of the year. But what if The Tin Man or Quick Reflection wins? Does that make either of them a champion?
Since 2011 Champions Day has been labelled the ‘end of season highlight’ which, as it is the final big pay day of the season, I suppose it is. But it pales by comparison to any of the five days of Royal Ascot. Or indeed any one day of any of the big festivals throughout the season. And there will be no significant overseas raiders, destroying any comparison to the Breeders Cup, the meeting it was supposed to mimic. I very much doubt if Champions Day is much talked about in countries other than Britain and Ireland. You might have thought £4-million in prize money would have tempted foreign competition. But no, it remains very much a home-grown event. I doubt if £10-million on offer would tickle the fancy of owners and trainers from abroad.
In 2012, to give the day the greatest endorsement possible, Frankel won the Champion Stakes. He drew a crowd of 32,000. That is in the ball park of Cheltenham Festival attendance. Unfortunately no horse anywhere near his calibre – if that could be likely – has graced the day since. And I dare say 32,000 will remain the top attendance for a very long time into the future.
On Saturday the racing will be exciting and perhaps memorable but the only champions on parade will be human and we can see them in action every day until the end of the season. They have even made the crowning of the Champion Jockey into a controversial topic as it likely that Adam Kirby or Luke Morris will end the year having ridden more winners than Sylvester De Sousa. It is plainly absurd to not include every race of the flat turf season when deciding who is champion, while including every all-weather race during the period that decides the championship.
What is required is the well-intentioned Qipco Championship Series to fade into history. The races that fall under its umbrella will still remain, as they did before the Series came into being, with, hopefully, the Qipco name prefacing race-names that reflect the overarching title of the day. The Qipco Six-Furlong Championship. The Qipco Mile Championship. The Qipco 2-mile Championship. And so on and so forth.
Personally I do not see the point of a Champions Day that does not set out to attract the true equine champions of the season. To my way of thinking there is plenty enough prize money at the top end of the pyramid. It is the lower end that needs bolstering and that £4-million the high and mighty will trouser on Champions Day might achieve a greater benefit for racing if it were spent on prize money at racecourses that we never see on the television. £4-million pound would finance a heck of a lot of £20,000 handicaps.
The day comes to a conclusion with a concert by George Ezra, whoever he happens to be.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.