Sue Montgomery: Winkle can prove a champion in tracks of the great Brigadier
Saturday 25 September 2010
Try this for a narrative to explain to a racing rookie what's going in the main race at Ascot this afternoon.
The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, traditionally the acknowledged finale to the elite mile programme in Europe, is seen as a showdown between the three-year-old Makfi and the four-year-old Rip Van Winkle. So victory for either would make him the champ? Possibly. Or possibly not.
The trouble is, the two other major players in the division are absent. Makfi's contemporary and old rival Canford Cliffs, who beat Rip Van Winkle in another top-flight race in July, is nursing a mild infection in his stable in Wiltshire. And the five-year-old Goldikova, bogged down in very soft underfoot conditions when losing her unbeaten record for the campaign to Makfi last month, has a different and more lucrative agenda, the pursuit of an unprecedented third Breeders' Cup Mile title in Kentucky early in November.
Today's contest very often is the decider, though, and has provided some thoroughly memorable performances through the decades, from Brigadier Gerard, Warning, Selkirk, Mark Of Esteem, Dubai Millennium, Observatory and George Washington, to name but a few. But the champion is not always the horse who wins a given race on a given day under given conditions, even though that race may be billed beforehand as a championship. The retrospective overview of end-of-season ratings generally settles the hierarchy.
Fast-forward to the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes 2011. It will have a new, later slot in the calendar as part of the brave, marketed world envisaged by those who have charged themselves with the task of presenting the top-end sport to a wider audience by dismantling and reassembling the end-of-season programme. Its purse will be upped from £250,000 to seven figures and it will, like four other contests on the card, be styled as the last leg of a season-long seven-race series, a device that will allegedly simplify the story threads of the season. At least the money will be a considerable lure. But the top end of the sport is no longer parochial but global and the new venture's timing, mid-October, will shoehorn it between next weekend's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting, with its six consecutive Group Ones, and the Breeders' Cup meeting in the States, hugely valuable in terms of both its purses and, for winning colts, stallion potential in the American market.
It could be regarded as naive to imagine that it is possible to devise an imperative domestic target, even with a £1m tag, for the best horses against the bigger international picture, which also includes later opportunities in Japan, Hong Kong and Dubai. It may prove hard to explain to a new audience that, actually, British Champions Day has as much meaning as the World Series.
In a year and three weeks' time the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes will be one of two Group One contests on the day, the other being the 10-furlong Champion Stakes, transferred from Newmarket. The mere two furlongs difference between the two races could need a fresh set of explanations. Which would have been the target for, say, Brigadier Gerard, a top-level winner from a mile to 12 furlongs? Or Dubai Millennium? Or, indeed, Rip Van Winkle?
Last year, in a four-horse field on fast ground, the versatile son of Galileo had no need of henchmen from Ballydoyle to help him. Today, dropping back from two top-class efforts over a mile and a quarter, he has the services of both Air Chief Marshall and Beethoven to keep the pace generous and testing and the Aidan O'Brien battle plan seems to be to take the race to Makfi, whose stamina is unproven beyond a mile. Rip Van Winkle (4.15) can become the third dual winner of the QEII, after Rose Bowl 34 years ago and the Brigadier himself.
As a return for losing the Champion Stakes, Newmarket will gain some of Ascot's most significant juvenile races, including the Royal Lodge Stakes and the Fillies' Mile, today's editions of which both feature young athletes perceived as some of next year's best Classic prospects. In the colts' race it will be a surprise if Frankel (2.30) does not consolidate his place at the head of the Guineas and Derby markets; the distaff contest is more competitive, as a Group One prize should be, and the value may be with Rip Van Winkle's stablemate Together (3.05).
Casamento can book his ticket to Dubai on a day to see the stars
Of the weekend's juvenile contests, the one with the richest history of signposting future talent is the Beresford Stakes at the Curragh tomorrow. The seven-furlong Group Two's recent winners include Alamshar, Azamour and, in the past two years, the peerless Sea The Stars and the enigmatic St Nicholas Abbey.
The most intriguing entry tomorrow is Casamento, a rare enough runner nowadays in Sheikh Mohammed's original maroon-and-white colours. The son of Shamardal, relatively cheap at 54,000gns, was sent off to Michael Halford in Co Kildare and has proved a revelation, running the highly regarded Pathfork to a diminishing head in Ireland's premier two-year-old race, the National Stakes, on today's course 15 days ago.
The downside to the shrewd Halford, who is as at home with jumpers as Flat horses, of his charge's emergence as a top player is that victory tomorrow would almost certainly ensure a ticket to Godolphin's winter quarters in Dubai for the colt.
Aidan O'Brien has won 10 Beresfords since his first runner 15 years ago; his first string this time is Factum, a Storm Cat colt who got off the mark on the all-weather at Dundalk.
Yesterday's opening of the three-day Ascot meeting gave the Clive Cox-trained filly Polly's Mark the chance to post her first win of the season in the Listed 12-furlong contest, although she probably owed it to the antics of the runner-up Ferdoos, who veered wildly as she made her challenge and still lost by a nose.
Turf Account: Sue Montgomery
Siberian Tiger (2.35 Haydock)
Goes on the ground, stays the trip and travelled well at Doncaster earlier this month, his first outing after a break, until lack of match practice told.
Foghorn Leghorn (2.55 Chester)
Returns to the scene of a decisive success two weeks ago and can defy a reasonable rise in the weights on a track where past experience often helps.
One to watch
Last on his comeback last month after being absent since May, Deauville Post (R Hannon) can be placed to take advantage of a still attractive rating.
Where the money's going
Sans Frontieres, now confirmed as a Melbourne Cup contender, has shortened to 12-1 with Hills for the Australian showpiece.
Chris McGrath's nap
Key Lago (6.05 Wolverhampton)
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