Regular punters and racegoers, and those the marketing men are trying to attract, might be forgiven for twitching an eyebrow over Canford Cliffs' eleventh-hour defection from his eagerly awaited showdown with old rival Makfi in tomorrow's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. On Wednesday morning, the Richard Hannon-trained three-year-old had apparently left scorchmarks on the East Eversleigh gallops during his final warm-up for the Group One finale to the European mile programme, but just 24 hours later a routine veterinary examination produced a slightly abnormal result, and consequently his name was not among the eight confirmed yesterday for the £250,000 contest.
Canford Cliffs had been favourite for the QEII but, despite the fact that the French raider Makfi has been the horse for money in the betting this week, any sinister inferences will be drawn from yesterday's news only by conspiracy theorists. Horses do get sick, and however mild the infection Canford Cliffs is harbouring, the stress of intense athletic effort would do him harm. But his absence from what was billed as one of the pivotal clashes of the season is disappointing and unsatisfactory.
None feel those sentiments more than those closest to the horse, the Richard Hannons père et fils. Apart from the thrill of the competition and the kudos of a possible fourth top-level victory on the CV of a potential stallion, the first prize could have sealed a second trainers' championship for the Wiltshire stable. "Everyone here is absolutely gutted," said Hannon Snr, "and we realise that it could cost us the title. But the welfare of the horse comes first and you need to be 100 per cent to go into battle for a Group One. The result of the scope he had was marginal but he is now such a valuable commodity that you cannot take any chances and, having listened to veterinary advice, we had no choice but to pull out."
The intention is that the son of Tagula, third in the 2,000 Guineas and winner since of the Irish 2,000 Guineas, St James's Palace Stakes and Sussex Stakes, will remain in training next year; his only possible engagement left this term is the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs in November. "Kentucky has not been ruled out," added Hannon Jnr, "but at this stage I'd say it was a long shot."
Makfi, who won the 2,000 Guineas, flopped behind Canford Cliffs at Royal Ascot, then bounced back to beat the reigning divisional queen Goldikova at Deauville last month, is now odds-on for tomorrow's contest, and will be at home on easy ground should the forecast rain materialise. The Sussex Stakes runner-up, the four-year-old Rip Van Winkle, is now second favourite; he will be accompanied from Ballydoyle by Beethoven and their pacemaker Air Chief Marshall. Godolphin representative Poet's Voice is third-best in the lists, with the field completed by Bushman, Hearts Of Fire and Red Jazz.
The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes has, since its instigation in 1955, regularly proved the decider in establishing the season's champion over a mile. But in future it will no longer be the centrepiece of the three-day meeting that starts this afternoon, it will be part of a new £3m extravaganza at Ascot in mid-October, the most valuable day's racing ever held in this country.
Styled British Champions' Day, the occasion has been created and supported by various stakeholders within the sport to rival the two other high-profile end-of-season fixtures, Arc weekend at Longchamp and the Breeders' Cup meeting in North America.
The plans include the controversial and unpopular one of moving the 10-furlong Champion Stakes from Newmarket to Ascot; it and the QEII will be worth £1m each and backed up by the six-furlong Diadem Stakes, the Pride Stakes for females and the Jockey Club Cup for stayers – the last two-named are also currently held at Newmarket.
In a wholesale rejigging of the programme, in the face of disquiet from foreign racing authorities, the Suffolk course will next year host a two-year-olds card a week before the Ascot fixture, tagged Future Champions' Day. It will include the Dewhurst Stakes and Middle Park Stakes.
The Ascot finale is planned as the climax to a season-long series of races in five categories, for sprinters, milers, middle-distance performers, stayers and females. The trouble is, where horses are concerned championships cannot be planned. Just ask British Horseracing Authority chairman Paul Roy, one of the part-owners of Canford Cliffs.
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Stan's Cool Cat (3.55 Haydock) Proven over the distance and on soft ground and, after a pipe-opener last week on her belated seasonal reappearance, should appreciate the drop in class.
Right Step (2.35 Ascot) Not the most consistent, but is handily handicapped on his best form and has had a break since his last effort, when apprentice-ridden.
One to watch
Madawi (C E Brittain) Improved on his debut effort when fourth, making ground with every stride, in a valuable sales-related contest at Newmarket last weekend and looks more than ready for the step up to a mile.
Where the money's going
The lightly raced Galileo five-year-old Universal Truth, a winner over hurdles for Dermot Weld on the most recent of his nine outings, is Paddy Power's new favourite for next month's Cesarewitch, backed to 7-1 yesterday.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Ingleby Spirit (4.30 Haydock)