Chris McGrath: Enjoy this superb showdown at Newmarket while you can – it won't be here next year
Saturday 09 October 2010
Even a grim, bitter laugh is better than no laughter at all.
And this little situation does introduce one pale beam of sunshine among all the mirthless clouds; among all the vain glory, and cultural vandalism; all the fat-headed misapprehensions, and ham-fisted extrapolations; the cheap insinuations that all resistance to the glorious revolution must be reactionary, mean and wrong.
We're constantly being told that Flat racing needs a better narrative. That's why these brazen interlopers are being allowed to bulldoze some of the most precious features of the British racing landscape, until it matches the brave new world depicted in their marketing textbooks. That's how they have come up with something called Champions' Day, at Ascot next year, to replace something called Champions' Day, at Newmarket next Saturday. Newmarket will instead be left with Future Champions' Day, focusing on the cream of the juvenile crop.
You might well imagine that this will include the big two-year-old races horse-traded from Ascot to Newmarket. But the Royal Lodge Stakes and Fillies' Mile will actually be run a fortnight prior to Future Champions' Day, which instead brings together both Newmarket's existing elite races for juvenile colts, the Middle Park and the Dewhurst, as well as the Cesarewitch, an ancient handicap for mature stayers, presumably intended to draw our attention to future champion hurdlers.
Now that they are shoehorned on to the same card, it will never again be possible for a horse to contest both the Middle Park and the Dewhurst. And that is where the black humour comes in. For barely a week after the new calendar was announced, everyone was suddenly abuzz with the prospect of the most exciting two-year-old showdown in years: Frankel, 10-length winner of the Royal Lodge, versus Dream Ahead, nine-length winner of the Middle Park. In the Dewhurst. On Champions' Day. Next Saturday. At Newmarket.
There are some, admittedly, who think that both colts might yet be turned over by Saamidd, winner of the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster. But that's the beauty of the existing narrative. It funnels graduating stars together, with a series of tests that allow fans and professionals alike to measure their development against that of past champions.
It won't be as gripping every year, but that's the whole point. The best stories are the ones you could never script. How the story is told is another matter. Existing aficionados are excited simply by the quality of the animals converging on the Dewhurst, but we can by all means embrace fresh interest by exploring the various subtexts: Dream Ahead, found in the bargain basement, is the big break for a talented young trainer; Saamidd is trying to restore a faded superpower; and Frankel – well, where do you start?
Anyway, those alarmed by the way things are going will permit themselves a certain bleak satisfaction should the Dewhurst live up to its billing, because it couldn't happen another time. It may yet be, of course, that some apparent no-hoper barges through and beats them all. And that, if we're not careful, is just the kind of disobliging behaviour that might some day drive these marketing cadets away from thoroughbreds – and then where would we find the dimensionless froth to tempt all these lovely young ABC1s?
Funnily enough the very fact that it will now be impossible, equally, to run a horse in both the QEII and the Champion Stakes should have led our groping reformers to the fundamental flaw in their vision. For by the time you get to the autumn, there do not tend to be that many unfinished bits of business among the elite performers on the domestic stage. The discovery of funds for a huge prize money boost in these two races – as welcome as it is startling – will doubtless concentrate a few minds. In both the public and professional marketing of horses that have already established their status in Europe, however, it seems hard to spot the fresh challenge.
Actually, that's very easy. It still comes from the Breeders' Cup. True, the Americans couldn't quite seduce the connections of Sea The Stars, after he won the Arc last year. His three-year-old career offered a pretty entrancing template for the narrative already available, in Europe, to a maturing three-year-old. The notion that he had "nothing left to prove" was only specious however, because of the availability of new horizons at the Breeders' Cup.
And remember that the Americans seem to be navigating an increasingly enlightened course. They have staged their last two meetings on a surface far more congenial to European competition than their own horses, and from next year are removing so many financial barriers to overseas raiders that it will become practically irresistible to run the winners of their "qualifiers".
That's proper innovation. That's a proper response to the menace of complacency. And, you'll note, they will owe any exciting dividends to the intelligent evolution of the industry itself – and not to the sort of unworthy compromise that betrays their core following.
Our rejoinder is the British Champions' Series, in which each "discipline" hilariously lacks precisely the integration and rhythm it purports to introduce – in treating the Ladbrokes St Leger, for instance, as part of a coherent sequence of historic Cup races already contested through the season by older stayers.
You don't know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe Dream Ahead could be renamed Dream On. You wish they would wake up and smell the coffee. Instead, you smell burning.
Masked Marvel has chance to reveal his true identity
Snagged between the Arc meeting and Champions' Day, this was already a low-key weekend before its main interest evaporated yesterday. St Nicholas Abbey was due to make his first appearance since the 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh tomorrow, but his name did not appear among the declarations.
"We decided he wasn't quite ready," trainer Aidan O'Brien said. "We'll sit on it for a week or two and see where we are. There is a good chance he might be around next year. He might run [this year], but only if we think it's beneficial with that in mind."
In his absence, perhaps the most intriguing animal on show this weekend is Masked Marvel, a handsome colt by Montjeu who justified his advance billing on his debut at Sandown last month. He meets several other promising colts in the Jaguar XJ Stakes at Ascot – a race sadly overlooked on the terrestrial schedule, highlight of which might instead be the graduation of the flourishing Redford to Group company in the Models 1 Bengough Stakes.
Redford is one of several good mounts for Richard Hughes today as he continues his plucky pursuit of Paul Hanagan in the title race, undaunted by the seven days of suspension he picked up at Wolverhampton a week ago. Both men are back there tonight. Hughes starts his ban on Champions' Day.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Descaro (2.45 York)
Has gone up 11lb for two wins since being raised in trip by his rookie trainer, the impressive David O'Meara, but really hacked up at Ayr last time and softer ground should present no problem.
Mayoman (5.45 Ascot)
Thriving sprinter who made it three wins in four starts at Redcar the other day, and certainly looks equal to a 6lb higher mark this time.
One to watch
Dimension (J R Fanshawe) may not have built immediately on a promising debut when hot favourite at Redcar on Saturday but made impressive ground before tiring in the testing conditions.
Where the money's going
The sponsors have cut Red Cadeaux to 12-1 for the Totesport Cesarewitch next Saturday. With Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh at Chepstow today, Paddy Power offers 8-1 against the pair having no winners on the card, and 6-1 that they have four or more.
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