Mighty Minding steals the show
Will Hayler reflects on the major talking points from Champions Day, from magical Minding to 'unallowable' substances.
Ryan Moore rides Minding to success on Champions Day
It was an excellent Champions Day card and nobody's fault that not every race was ultimately won by the horses who will be crowned champion at the end of the season – does that really matter in any case? But the star of the whole show for me was Minding, who shrugged off the effects of her busy campaign to win the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
Going into the race, plenty had questioned whether she would still have the pace coming back to a mile having shown herself to be so fully effective at both 10 and 12 furlongs earlier this season. In the event, it wasn't tactical genius from Ryan Moore that won the race (although it was by some chalk his best ride of the day) but the sheer speed produced by Minding between the two-furlong and furlong pole that saw her leave Ribchester on the deck with an almost unforeseeable sucker punch.
Ribchester, who had pulled fiercely for his head in the opening stages, and Lightning Spear, were closing fast towards the winning post and Minding had given her all by that stage – I'd be amazed if she runs again this year, as she finished with nothing in the tank – but watching a replay of the race confirms just how good she was.
Lightning Spear was ridden with typical patience by Oisin Murphy to pick up the pieces but despite being a rock-solid performer at this level, even his fast closing fractions were no match for Minding's pace. She doesn't look in any way complicated and I don't imagine for one minute she won't go on to win plenty more races at four.
Josephine Gordon is far too switched-on not to realise that the path from being crowned champion apprentice rarely goes straight to top-flight success as a professional for years to come.
However, she impressed in every interview I heard her do yesterday, and although her stated goal of riding 100 winners in 2017 is a laudably ambitious one, I certainly wouldn't want to be sure she won't achieve it.
Gordon says she plans to stay in Britain over the winter and continue to build up her contacts on the all-weather, riding out wherever required, and taking the opportunities that might come when those above her in the jockeys' championship standings are in action elsewhere in the world, or enjoying some rest time.
With 50 winners during the truncated season of the jockeys' championship and a hatful previously on the all-weather, Gordon has performed almost every expectation already in 2016, but the most notable statistic is that she has ridden for well over 100 different trainers this year, including some significantly big names.
Yes, things are going to get tougher, but the decision to spread her net as wide as possible looks entirely the right one so far. With her claim intact, she might even succeed where Tom Marquand failed and win back-to-back apprentice titles next year.
When your luck's out
With the BHA maintaining that the spot-checks employed at the stabling yard at Ascot on Saturday were entirely routine and had been repeated at various other meetings in Britain throughout the year with the identification of barely a single offender, it can only be put down to coincidence that when they decided to implement a rigorous search of everyone going in and out of the area ahead of one of the biggest days of racing of the year, they uncovered three offenders.
The errors made by the stable staff of French trainers Jean-Claude Rouget and Francois Rohaut are, to some extent, more understandable, although given that any trainer with runners in Britain agrees to have made themselves aware of the rules and be bound by them, they cannot expect to be treated any differently when the BHA call disciplinary hearings into events.
Hugo Palmer was up in arms about some of the initial reporting into the misdemeanours of his stable staff in also attempting to bring prohibited substances into the stables, and with a degree of reason, as it rapidly became clear that this was clearly a matter of accidental misdemeanour rather than mal-intent. That said, the cold fact is that it shouldn't have happened and he will no doubt be assuring the BHA that he'll be taking steps accordingly.
Could things have been managed differently so as to avoid the possibility of taking attention away from the performances on track with talk of 'allowable and non-allowable substances'? Not really. For the good of the horse, British racing must be proud of its food-and-water-only raceday policy and continue to try and lead internationally.
And it must be equally proud that when bad news needs to be delivered, the information is available almost immediately on the BHA's own Britishhorseracing.com website rather than being discreetly distributed down the line.
In support of Champions Day
It's not hard to find sticks to hit British Champions Day with, if you're so inclined – and some still are.
But at the same time, there's also plenty to admire about the occasion, and from which other racecourses might want to learn a lesson or two.
The decision to try to recognise the stable staff who had played their part in the successes of some of this year's biggest Champions Series winners was spot-on, even if the flag-carrying ceremony in which they were involved didn't quite work. Stable staff have a story to tell from which the media, racegoers and followers of the sport are all too often disconnected.
Another good idea is the inclusion in the racecard of a potted biography of a number of the leading jockeys in action on the day – the ongoing popularity of the autograph area before racing confirms that there is a genuine demand among young racegoers to meet the faces behind the names. Knowing a little more about their stories can only help.
Racing must not be afraid to innovate. David Ashforth wrote recently in the Racing Post about the possibility of staging a race over four furlongs or even shorter, investigated by the racing authorities quite recently but parked in favour of bigger priorities. Why couldn't that be done as the sixth event on the Champions Day card instead of the Balmoral Handicap?
The popularity of the post-race party in Ascot's cavernous grandstand is a challenge to health and safety, but also to those who don't believe the event attracts a markedly different audience to any other raceday; there is a distinct 'fun' element to proceedings before, during and after racing. See it and you'll believe it.
Indeed, the number of people staying behind for several hours after racing (easily 3-4,000) will surely keep the bean-counters at Ascot happy, even if they might like to consider putting on a couple more additionally-timetabled trains back to London and/or providing some temporary lighting on the path to the station which becomes both precarious and a bit intimidating in the pitch-black.
That's the thing about Champions Day though. Some things have worked, some things haven't, but it remains a work in progress and all the while the crowd keeps steadily going up (while the number of free tickets given away, just as importantly, keeps steadily going down).
This year's renewal produced arguably the deepest fields yet for the five Group races on the programme, and although not every horse was able to reproduce their best form deep into October in a season that for some started back in Dubai in March, the nature of sport dictates that not every star will shine on the biggest occasions.
It's not perfect, but there's a great deal to cherish about Champions Day.
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