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Chris McGrath: The Flat's Rip Van Winkle complex

Inside Track

Two's company, three's a crowd, and four is an all-comers' championship horse race.

Such, at any rate, is one dispiriting inference available from the fact that just four runners are set to contest the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot today. It is barely a month, after all, since Sea The Stars was opposed in the Juddmonte International Stakes at York only by Mastercraftsman and his two pacemakers.

As it happens, Mastercraftsman has again been declared here, but only as a contingency against Rip Van Winkle, his stablemate, succumbing to his chronic foot problems at the 11th hour. At least this time we have colts representing four different stables, none of them pacemakers. And, in contrast with York, where all four runners came over from Ireland, three are actually stabled in Newmarket.

None the less the turnout will assuredly be seized by some as damning evidence that the "Racing For Change" project should get stuck into the British Flat calendar with both feet. And I don't know about you, but that makes me very twitchy.

It is certainly true this meeting lacks éclat. And there is promising scope for amalgamation with the best of Champions Day at Newmarket; likewise, for alternating venues after the fashion of the Breeders' Cup.

But it is remarkably naïve to imagine, as some do, that you could so devise some imperative target for top-class Flat horses. For the British calendar, however improved, must cohere organically with the international one. Horses trained on these shores already have their own, local Breeders' Cup. It is staged at Longchamp next Sunday, when six consecutive Group One races set an impossible standard even for a card bringing together the QEII, Dewhurst and Champion Stakes.

With that in mind, any new showcase would have to fit its environment. It would be idiotic to imagine that champions could be routinely tempted away from the Breeders' Cup, which enables stud prospects to round off their careers by wowing the American market, so the timing is critical. Horses would need time to regroup for an exacting transatlantic journey, and the assault on a fresh peak.

With Longchamp and the Breeders' Cup carved in tablets of stone, the British would have to stage their jamboree either at a time when they would have to accept losing horses to those meetings; or much earlier, which would take the Dewhurst into unfeasible territory, and pit the Champion Stakes against an identical race at Leopardstown.

Take today's big race. Its stature is such that it became the automatic target for Rip Van Winkle after his breakthrough in the Sussex Stakes. But both Rip Van Winkle and Delegator have had their hides tanned by one champion with an overseas agenda, in Sea The Stars; and Aqlaam by another, in Goldikova.

Such reservations invariably prompt the same rebuke. Racing, it is said with a sad shake of the head, is so conservative. Proposals for change are always greeted with cynicism. But why should the word "conservative", in this context, be so pejorative? Its use is akin to the way the word "liberal" has become the shock tactic of choice against any Democratic candidate for the White House. For whatever else it does, Racing For Change must accept that we have much worth conserving.

It is bad enough for well-meaning but credulous outsiders to make clumsy extrapolations from entirely different sports. But constant reference to a superior "narrative" in jump racing discloses a still more basic misapprehension.

The programme for top-class jumpers almost exclusively concerns horses trained in Britain and Ireland, with a desperate focus on Cheltenham in March. Once a Flat horse enters the elite, however, its programme has no frontiers.

Never mind that the Flat season achieves far deeper momentum and dimensions, by starting off with the gripping annual adventure of the Classics. And never mind the much more meaningful participation, throughout, of the French, both as hosts and participants. The fact is that the most lucrative and prestigious opportunities, later on, beckon in America, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Dubai. Even if we had the resources to supplant them, which we don't, they have got there first.

Trainers duly tend to give their best horses a midsummer break. As it happens, Sea The Stars himself has been a conspicuous exception. John Oxx has given him a very old-fashioned campaign, and in the process shown the enduring merit of the traditional programme. First the colt proved himself champion of his generation, at both a mile and a mile and a half; and then he sought to measure himself against his seniors, too, albeit they have tended to get out of his way. Either approach, regardless, outstrips the "story" of the jumps season.

By all means, let us achieve a greater sense of occasion in the closing chapters of our Flat season. But let us not treat that endeavour as an occasion to take leave of our senses.

Ballydoyle's flagship set fair for QEII cruise

For once, Aidan O'Brien has felt no need to guarantee the pace in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot today. But Rip Van Winkle (4.15) showed in the Sussex Stakes that he could manage perfectly well without his struggling escort, taking over at halfway and gambolling clear.

Delegator made an excellent start for Godolphin last month, also at Goodwood, but that was a sprint finish and he barely seemed to last the mile round this stiffer track at the royal meeting. In giving Aqlaam such an unmerciful hiding at Deauville, meanwhile, Goldikova has shown he will do well to replicate his subsequent Group One breakthrough.

The renewed stand-off between Ballydoyle and Godolphin in the big race is replicated by the next generation, both at Ascot today and at the Curragh tomorrow. You'll Be Mine (3.05) is bred to be top class and has made a persuasive start in maidens, but both superpowers can be eclipsed by John Gosden, on precisely the same account, with High Twelve (2.30).

The key test comes at the Curragh, however, where St Nicholas Abbey (3.55) can follow in the prints of Sea The Stars by winning the Juddmonte Beresford Stakes.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Rasaman (5.00 Chester) A little disappointing at Ayr last week, but worth another chance from a handy draw – not least with Earlsmedic, otherwise tempting back in a visor, marooned on the outside.

*Next best

Alsace Lorraine (1.55 Ascot) A big field and strong gallop should draw upon reserves yet to be fully explored by this very well-bred filly, unlucky at Goodwood last time and previously impressing with her finishing flourish over the same track.

*One to watch

Tamasou (A J McCabe) looks an improved horse for a change of yard, beating a subsequent winner at Kempton earlier in the month and looking ready for the step up to a mile when rallying well back at the same venue on Wednesday.

*Where the money's going

On the 13th anniversary of his "Magnificent Seven", Frankie Dettori is 15-8 with Totesport to have no winners at Ascot today. He is 7-4 to ride one, and 11-4 for a double. A treble is 7-1 and four or more 33-1.