An absent friend was the toast of Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot as Noble Mission, trained until his death last year by Sir Henry Cecil, scrapped his way to a famous Champion Stakes victory.
Lady Cecil was close to tears even before the race began and her face a study in raw emotion as it concluded so thrillingly on an occasion that will always be associated with the farewell triumph of Noble Mission's unbeaten brother Frankel in 2012.
"It's just a fairytale," said the widow of a racing legend, champion 10 times and trainer of 25 English Classic winners. "It means so much to us. When he died I kept the licence to feel closer to him."
Most of the huge crowd expected to be saluting the remarkable Cirrus Des Aigles, the winner of this race in 2011 but even better remembered for forcing Frankel to engage top gear at his retirement party the following year.
But as the old French favourite faded tamely – and uncharacteristically – Al Kazeem, formerly a regular partner of winning jockey James Doyle, threw down a dogged challenge and the result was in doubt right up until Noble Mission, almost as if recognising the significance of the moment, made one final thrust to take it by a neck.
Doyle said: "I knew it was Al Kazeem as soon as I saw his head alongside and I know what a good horse he is, but this fella is unbelievable. He just relaxes in front now, and I was able to save a bit for the finish."
Beaten jockeys in the opener called the ground "not very nice" and "like a ploughed field", which did not augur well for Britain's richest-ever race meeting, but last week's deluge was welcome news for mud-lovers and that definitely includes Noble Mission, who with this third Group One win has proved himself a champion on soft ground.
Richard Hannon and Richard Hughes had a frustrating Future Champions Day on Friday and took another knock when favourite Night Of Thunder failed to reel in old rival Charm Spirit in the QE2 Stakes.
Spirit, who gave veteran French jockey Olivier Peslier his third success in the race, was one of Night Of Thunder's many big-name victims in the 2,000 Guineas, but trainer Freddie Head said: "He is a much better horse now. I was worried about the tough Ascot mile and the ground, but he's a great warrior."
This day began with a new staying champion in the Long Distance Cup as Dermot Weld's Forgotten Rules took a giant step up to beat a top-class field including the last two winners of the Ascot Gold Cup, Estimate and Leading Light.
Forgotten Rules is now favourite for the Gold Cup next June, but Weld warned: "He would only come back for that if there was some cut in the ground. That's important for him."
The Queen was in a huge crowd to see Estimate come last in her final start, a downbeat end to a memorable racing career. Bad news for Doyle came when stewards gave him a seven-day ban and fined him £10,000 for using his whip above the permitted level on Noble Mission.
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