Unusually I had company for the racing on Saturday. Uninformed company, I admit, though the lack of specialist knowledge might make the following observation of more interest to those who believe ‘Champions Day’ to be a rip-roaring success story. Acclaimed as the flat season’s end of season highlight, the last day of the championship, if not the turf, season, with Ed Chamberlain wishing a fond farewell to Francesca and Jason, - it is Hayley I will miss the most - it made my reply to the question ‘I take it from next Saturday it will only be jump racing on television’ far more difficult to answer than if what was being discussed was the last day of the Premier League or the cricket season as next Saturday I.T.V. will be covering one jumps meeting and two flat meetings, with one more Group 1 for Aidan )’Brien to win still to come.
So much for making the flat season’s narrative easy for the non-racing public to understand.
Not that Silvestre de Sousa is not both a deserving and inspirational champion jockey. But that does not change my opinion one iota that the present way of determining the champion jockey is as bonkers as a pork pie lolly-pop. It is marketing straight out of the Bernie Ecclestone ‘How to make a formerly exciting sport as dull as the M4.”
My big gripe about ‘Champions Day’, though, even though the racing was of a level above the ordinary fare for a Saturday, was that no real ‘Champion’ was crowned. It was, supposedly, Britain’s big horse racing highlight, yet the connections of Ulysses considered the Arc and the Breeders Cup more inviting opportunities, with no takers from the U.S. or Australia, as happens with Royal Ascot. The problem with the ‘Champions’ concept is two-fold. Firstly there is no convenient place in the season for it to sit, with only October, when the ground will doubtless be testing and when the meeting faces stiff competition from both the Arc and the Breeders Cup, available. And secondly the notion that bracketing all the big group races together will entice connections to run their best horses more frequently is completely flawed as the big Group 1’s will always attract the same horses as before the Qipco branding.
I admit that the weather cannot be predicted, and the next five instalments of ‘Champions Day’ may take place under a blue sky and on top of the ground. But this is England in October and as often as not the ground at this time of year for a flat meeting at Ascot will be described with the word soft as its main constituent. The horses that went on the ground on Saturday provided either an awesome performance or exciting finishes but the finishing distances resembled heavy ground at the end of a 4-miler at Cheltenham.
Cracksman (Mr.Oppenheimer gives his horses brilliant names. Other owners take note.) was as impressive a winner as I have witnessed all season yet though he won the Champion Stakes no crown could be placed on his head. He was the closest we came to a Champion racehorse on Saturday, though he did not win any one of the five divisional championships up for grabs. Not that I.T.V. thought it important enough to display the final placings in the divisions. Which it wasn’t as no one in two or three years’ time will be able to remember the five horses that topped the Qipco championship league tables.
Also, if you must have a non-championship race on ‘Champions Day, why not have mile handicap qualifiers throughout the season with the final as the final event instead of the Balmoral H’cap, a worthy enough race but very much a spectacle on the lines of ‘after the Lord’s Mayor Show’ about it. In fact whether they keep faith with the Balmoral or take up my idea wouldn’t it better for this race to be the first race on the card, allowing the Champion Stakes to bring the curtain down?
As someone who believes the best marketing strategy the flat could implement is to give every possible incentive to owners to keep their top horses in training for as long as possible I offer this radical idea: schedule ‘Champions Day’ at the other end of the season, as a glamorous appetizer to the season to come, when there is no competition from horses races around the world. This idea would marry the previous season to the present and replace the traditional drab start with glitter and stardust about it. Perhaps the Saturday after the Grand National, with 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas trials instead of the Balmoral, or as well as. Perhaps £4-million in prize money would not be enough of an incentive to keep the previous season’s top milers, sprinters, stayers and middle distances horses in training. If it were to be doubled perhaps top horses from around the world might join the party.
The concept of a ‘Champions Day’ should be kept. Even arch misery-guts like me see the merit in it. It just doesn’t do at the moment what is said on the can. And that should addressed, not swept under the marketing carpet.
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.