Trainer Aidan O’Brien is sure not to go home empty-handed after Champions Day – regardless of what happens at Ascot on Saturday, the master of Ballydoyle will officially be honored as this season’s champion trainer on the British flat. Less certain is whether the festivities will include a new record for Group 1 wins in a calendar year, as O’Brien’s stars must overcome both adverse conditions and the might of Godolphin.
Currently with 24 Group 1 victories to his credit in 2017, O’Brien needs just one more to tie the late, great Bobby Frankel’s mark of 25. He’ll have one more chance before the Champions Day action, in Saturday’s Caulfield Cup (G1) in Australia, where Johannes Vermeer is favored on the week turnaround from his excellent second in the Caulfield S. (G1). The son of Galileo will have to prove he’s as effective at about 1 1/2 miles, an open question after his odds-on loss in the Ballyroan (G3) two back at Leopardstown. Two of his beaten rivals from last Saturday are eligible to improve on the stretch-out – Jon Snow and Bonneval. The same can be said of Ventura Storm, best of the rest behind Winx in the Turnbull (G1), in which Humidor was a lackluster third. And Amelie’s Star, in with just 112 pounds, merits mention off her dynamic score in the Bart Cummings (G3).
Depending upon the overnight result in Melbourne, O’Brien could enter Champions Day still at 24, or equal with Frankel and going for a new all-time record. He’d ardently wish that the Ascot opener, the two-mile British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2) were elevated to a Group 1, since Order of St George is heavily favored on the step back up in trip off a fourth in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). Unlike a couple of other Coolmore standard-bearers on the card, Order of St George has no fears of rain-softened ground, as evidenced when he captured the 2016 Ascot Gold Cup (G1) and trounced Torcedor and Mount Moriah in the September 10 Irish St Leger (G1). Indeed, the conditions will help his cause for revenge upon Big Orange, who denied him in the Gold Cup here this summer. Sophomores Stradivarius and Desert Skyline already own big wins over their elders in this division. Stradivarius upset Big Orange in the Goodwood Cup (G1) prior to a close third in the St Leger (G1), and Desert Skyline, ineligible for the St Leger as a gelding, gained compensation in the Doncaster Cup (G2). Defending champion Sheikhzayedroad, most recently third in the Doncaster Cup, hasn’t won since 2016 Champions Day. The Queen’s Dartmouth has the class to factor if rebounding from a clunker in the Irish St Leger, while the progressive Duretto takes a class and distance hike but handles the soft well.
The Coolmore versus Godolphin battles commence next in the British Champions Sprint (G1), the rubber match between Coolmore’s Caravaggio and Godolphin’s Harry Angel. Caravaggio prevailed in their first clash in the Commonwealth Cup (G1) at Royal Ascot, over this same six-furlong trip, but Harry Angel emphatically overturned the form in the July Cup (G1) at Newmarket. Not only did Caravaggio lose his unbeaten record that day in a disappointing fourth, but his summer doldrums continued with an even worse sixth in the Prix Maurice de Gheest (G1). O’Brien pinpointed a shoeing issue as the root cause of the trouble, and Caravaggio was much more himself when taking the Curragh’s Flying Five (G2) on desperate going. Harry Angel has not been idle either, dispelling qualms about heavy ground when bolting up in the Haydock Sprint Cup (G1) last out. Has the Richard Hannon trainee simply surpassed Caravaggio at this point in their careers? Or can a healthy Caravaggio regain his former status? O’Brien has three others engaged, longshots Washington DC, Alphabet, and Intelligence Cross.
Not to be lost in the shuffle is The Tin Man, the defending champion who also garnered the Diamond Jubilee (G1) during the Royal meeting. Although subsequently dismissed by Harry Angel in the July Cup and at Haydock, the Ascot specialist may find a bit more back in Berkshire. The four-year-old filly Quiet Reflection, last year’s Commonwealth Cup and Haydock victress, put herself right back in the game with a convincing score in the Renaissance (G3) over Alphabet. Diamond Jubilee and Haydock Sprint Cup runner-up Tasleet and Maurice de Gheest hero Brando are others who can make their presence felt.
O’Brien relies principally upon Hydrangea in the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1), but it’s a venture into unknown territory over 1 1/2 miles. She fits on her latest form, having edged hotpot stablemate Winter in the Matron (G1) and just missed to Rhododendron in the Prix de l’Opera (G1), but she’ll be facing a few serious opponents at their optimal distance. John Gosden has plenty of firepower with defending champion Journey (who nearly won in 2015), a gallant second to the streaking Bateel in the Prix Vermeille (G1) in her latest; Coronet, winner of the course-and-distance Ribblesdale (G2) who was runner-up to Enable in the Yorkshire Oaks (G1) and a creditable fifth versus the boys in the St Leger; and outsider The Black Princess. Last-out Prix de Royallieu (G2) scorer The Juliet Rose; Epsom Oaks (G1) fourth Horseplay; Left Hand, winless since the 2016 Vermeille; Alyssa, who shortens up after her new career high in the Park Hill (G2); and O’Brien’s longshot Wild Irish Rose round out the contentious field.
The Queen Elizabeth II (G1) pits top older male miler Ribchester, representing Godolphin, against O’Brien’s dual classic winner Churchill, who like Caravaggio has lost something of his luster, and rising star Beat the Bank from the Andrew Balding yard. Softer going won’t inconvenience Ribchester, hero of the May 20 Lockinge (G1) and the September 10 Prix du Moulin (G1) on rain-affected courses. He also figures to get a good set-up with pacemaker Toscanini and newly visored Thunder Snow, himself a forward type who goes well on this kind of ground. Ribchester, runner-up to retired O’Brien celebrity Minding in this race last October, broke Ascot’s course record over the straight mile in the Queen Anne (G1) at the Royal meeting, and trainer Richard Fahey is plotting a turnaround for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).
Churchill, Europe’s champion two-year-old colt of 2016, briefly held the status of leading three-year-old miler through victories in the 2000 Guineas (G1) and the Irish equivalent on yielding ground at the Curragh. But that position was dented by a poor fourth in Royal Ascot’s St James’s Palace (G1) over the round course. Subsequently stepping up in distance, the Galileo colt was readily dispatched by Ulysses in the Juddmonte International (G1) and was only seventh, admittedly with a spot of trouble, in the Irish Champion (G1). Reverting to a mile makes sense, if Churchill can find his old form in his likely swan song. He’ll be accompanied by his usual sidekick Lancaster Bomber, the Woodbine Mile (G1) runner-up who’ll dislike the going, and Sir John Lavery, who enjoys it but faces a tall task after being drubbed by Beat the Bank in the Joel (G2).
Once-beaten Beat the Bank is one of two in here for Balding, along with Here Comes When, who upset Ribchester in the Sussex (G1) in brutal conditions. Given how blustery Ascot is forecast to be, Here Comes When will be in his element. Andre Fabre has a prime threat in Al Wukair. An eye-catching third to Churchill at Newmarket despite a frustrating trip, the Al Shaqab runner comes off his Group 1 coup in the Prix Jacques le Marois (G1), beating Thunder Snow, and now adds cheekpieces. Gosden’s fillies Persuasive and Nathra were respectively second and third to Roly Poly in the recent Sun Chariot (G1), and William Haggas pitches Sea of Grace, the French 1000 Guineas (G1) runner-up, in against older males. Also entered are Lightning Spear, third to Minding and Ribchester here last year; Zonderland; and seven-furlong specialist Breton Rock.
The eponymous Champion S. (G1) has a Coolmore versus Godolphin angle with Highland Reel taking on Barney Roy, but both need to pull out all the stops against Gosden’s raging favorite Cracksman. Much improved since his near-misses in the Derby (G1) at Epsom and the Irish Derby (G1), the Sir Anthony Oppenheimer homebred has looked different class in the Great Voltigeur (G2) and Prix Niel (G2). Cracksman could have run a placing in the Arc – as Gosden later admitted – but instead skipped the Chantilly showpiece dominated by stablemate Enable. Now the son of Frankel cuts back to 1 1/4 miles, but the testing conditions will likely put a premium on stamina.
Boggy ground is particularly against O’Brien star Highland Reel, who reportedly swerved both the Irish Champion and Arc due to unsuitable going. Hero of the Prince of Wales’s (G1) over his favored fast surface during the Royal meeting, Highland Reel hasn’t been seen since finishing fourth on softish ground here in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1). The reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) champion needs to get in a run ahead of Del Mar, and even if he’s unlikely to handle the going well enough to win, it’s worth it fitness-wise to line up. O’Brien will also be represented by Cliffs of Moher, the Derby near-misser who’s failed to hit the board since Epsom.
Barney Roy, who earned rave reviews for his Guineas runner-up effort after almost going down in Newmarket’s “Dip,” took a leap forward in the St James’s Palace. Hannon stretched him out to 1 1/4 miles for the Eclipse (G1) at Sandown, where inexperience may have cost him by the length of Ulysses’ whisker. In their rematch in the Juddmonte International, Barney Roy wasted too much energy chasing Cliffs of Moher early and wound up third to Ulysses and Churchill. Set for this engagement, the Godolphin star can regain the winning thread with a more typical trip.
Ulysses opted out of the Champion, with Sir Michael Stoute wisely saving him for the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but the yard still has a mighty chance with Poet’s Word. After a stakes breakthrough in the Glorious (G3) at Goodwood, the progressive four-year-old came within a half-length of glory in the Irish Champion, and he’s entitled to go one better.
Brametot, who turned the French 2000 Guineas (G1)/French Derby (G1) double, was most recently a solid fifth in the Arc. The Jean-Claude Rouget runner was trying 1 1/2 miles for the first time that day, and stands to benefit by reverting in trip. Compatriot Recoletos, third in the French Derby, just captured the Prix du Prince d’Orange (G3). Desert Encounter, third in the Eclipse at 50-1, comes off a score in Newbury’s Legacy Cup (G3), while Success Days will get his ground – albeit in a very tough spot – and he won’t control proceedings as Godolphin’s rabbit Maverick Wave promises to roll early.
If O’Brien doesn’t break Frankel’s record on Champions Day, he’ll have a few to go to war with the following weekend. The Taj Mahal is up against it versus Winx in the October 28 Cox Plate (G1), but the Ballydoyle brigade will loom large in the Racing Post Trophy (G1), and O’Brien is usually well represented in the Criterium International (G1) and Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1) October 29.