Is it time for Champions Day to ‘come home’?

It’s 13 years since British racing’s powers that be trod on tradition and moved the Champion Stakes to Ascot, but yet another wet October day in Berkshire suggests the old-timers knew best.

Frankie Dettori plays up to the crowd after Champion Stakes success aboard King Of Steel. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


It was the moment the British Champions Day marketing team had been dreaming of all year: Frankie Dettori flying triumphantly from King Of Steel’s back as the cameras clicked in the Ascot paddock, capturing the Champion Stakes hero and his leaping jockey’s goodbye.

But it wasn’t goodbye, Dettori’s retirement back-flip last week meant the narrative around the long-planned career farewell had to somersault as well. Instead of a big send-off, Champions Day became like an over-egged end of term presentation to a retiring old schoolmaster, who everyone knows will likely rock up again next term on the supply teacher roster.

There was still the inimitable theatre Dettori always brings to such days; the horses were heroic; winning connections enjoyed moments they will cherish; the sport was thrilling at times and World Pool’s march towards indispensability rolled on. Yet Champions Day, not for the first time, failed to satisfy.


Don’t misconstrue, it was heartwarming to see a tough mare like Poptronic get her ideal wet conditions and give her jockey Sam James a first Group 1 win in the fillies and mares race; same for the other northern-trained, long-odds, soft-ground lover Art Power and his rider David Allan, another man enjoying a Group 1 first; and Dettori’s tactical brilliance was a joy to witness on Trawlerman in the two-miler.

But are we really supposed to believe Big Rock could have gone from three-time Group 1 runner-up – 0 for 3 in the grade – to stretching them out in the G1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes like they were three-mile steeplechasers? It was a cracking run and a fantastic visual, but he was clearly the only genuine top-notcher in the field that hadn’t gone over the top and also had a natural relish for that testing rain-soaked ground.

Similarly, King Of Steel was brave and showed again his exciting potential for next year, but the likeable Derby runner-up was 0 from 4 in Group 1 races before Sunday. Sure, he had gone close, but the field he defeated on Saturday was bare bones championship class, all things considered.

Big Rock was in a race all of his own in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. (Photo by Glyn Kirk/Getty Images)

Let’s face it, a wet late-October day down Swinley Bottom way was never meant to be the time or place for champion flat racers. There are sound and sensible reasons for why the race programme evolved as it did before the British Champions Series rejigged British racing’s back-end for a new launch in 2011.

For decades before that, Ascot’s traditional late-season Group 1 fixture was the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and it was held, for good reason, a month earlier than the current spot, in late-September. Meanwhile, the Champion Stakes fixture was at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course, as it had been since inception in 1877, and was staged in mid-October, usually a couple of weeks after the ‘Arc’, and a week earlier than the current Ascot version.

Ascot’s own traditional October fixture did not have a championship contest. Its feature races, very sensibly, were Group 3, no higher. It was held in early October, usually the weekend before Newmarket’s Champion Stakes, and it was known as a day to pitch your soft ground lovers towards.

Ascot’s autumn ground, particularly on the round course, is not and never has been, an ideal surface for deciding champions. Those wise heads in days long past knew this. Newmarket, on the other hand, is naturally well-draining – there’s good reason for it being British racing’s main training centre – and can offer up a sound racing surface even when the October rains fall heavily, as they did at Ascot last week.

In the past 13 years, the only time Champions Day has seen good ground was the very first in 2011 when Frankel reigned in the QEII and Britain had an unusually warm, dry ‘Indian summer,’ which stretched through October to November. Since then, the going has always been good to soft or wetter, with soft or heavy coming up eight times.

Frankel earns a hug from Tom Queally after a Champion Stakes victory in the superstar's fourteenth and final race. (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

Contrast this with the Newmarket Champion Stakes from 1998 through 2010: no heavy ground at all, only one year with soft going, and six years when it was good or good to firm. And looking at the September QEIIs of the past, the 13 editions at Ascot prior to 2011 had soft or heavy going only three times, the going was good three times and good to firm on four occasions (it was also good ground in 2005 when switched to Newmarket).

Last week’s rain at one stage raised fears that the fixture might not even happen, and it went ahead with the round course races switched to the tighter, inner course used for hurdle races.

One top jockey with a wealth of experience shared with Asian Racing Report his opinion that if the amount of rain Ascot received landed on Newmarket, the free-draining ground would likely have been good to soft. And even if it had been soft, the soft going at Newmarket is not as sapping as soft at Ascot.  

This was all talked about and debated 13 years ago when the initiative was trumpeted, and the ‘traditionalists’ were either branded Luddites and scoffed to silence, or taught to accept that a big end-of-year multi-Group 1 extravaganza was the way forward for the sport’s new narrative; convinced that Ascot, positioning itself to the fore as Britain’s premier racecourse – York puts it in the shade, for what it’s worth – with its gleaming new grandstand, was the place it should be.     

Interestingly, the model that seems to be working best in the world these days is the JRA’s approach of having one Group 1 as the focal point of a race day, rather than jamming one card with multiple championship contests; but Japan is a different beast.

    Sign up

    By entering your email, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

    Whatever the Ascot Champions Day cheerleaders say, in the last 13 years, when taken overall, the Champion Stakes and the QEII have been poorer contests for being at Ascot in late October: a few too many wide-margin winners on the soft, quite likely exaggerating some horses’ superiority, and the Champion Stakes field size has dipped to an average of 9.4 runners as against 11.8 runners for the preceding 13 years at Newmarket. 

    Champions Day at Ascot has had some fantastic races, but it has not improved the sport, nor has it delivered on making it more appealing to the disinterested majority, it’s simply given us a different package with its own flaws.  

    While there was always the factor of a horse being over the top in its preparation come October, the softer going at Ascot muddies the waters even further for Asian bettors in particular who are so important to the World Pool product.  

    World Pool is a fast-spreading factor around the major British race days and the money it brings to the host racecourses is coveted highly. But last weekend’s Champion Stakes slog through the wet contrasts with the upcoming G1 Tenno Sho Autumn, in which a strong hand of Group 1 horses, including a bona fide champion and two Classic winners racing at four, will clash at Tokyo on a surface which in any given year would be sound, ‘good’ ground; that is what Hong Kong interests playing via World Pool expect when they bet.

    Japanese superstar Equinox faces a crack field in the G1 Tenno Sho (Autumn). (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

    There is no ideal fix, but there is a more satisfactory way than what we have: a logical move to Newmarket two weeks after the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, taking the Champion Stakes home.   

    For the sport’s fans and for British racing, a Newmarket Champions Day would enable the best horses to turn up and race on decent ground. The fields should be deeper – remember Kalanisi beating Montjeu in a 15-runner affair? – and the outcomes overall would be more satisfactory. It would surely help World Pool players remain engaged and satisfied with the product long term.

    That might seem harsh on Ascot, a front-runner in advancing World Pool, especially as Newmarket got Future Champions Day as a softener in 2011, but, you know, ‘for the good of racing’ and all that. Ascot still has its Royal shindig in June when the ground has a chance of being the perfect fast the Asian World Pool punters love, just as the old timers framed it.




      Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

        Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing