By Andy Stephens
Any horse able to run "faster than the wind" will be something of a banker at Ascot on Saturday when gusts of up to 55mph are forecast.
Organisers of QIPCO British Champions Day will despair but the elements are out of their control and, given what has passed before this year, it is almost wholly appropriate that extreme weather will play a part in the £4.3 million finale to the Flat season.
Royal Ascot was unbearably hot; Goodwood was almost washed away; flash floods struck on the first day of the Ebor meeting at York and the Sprint Cup at Haydock was staged in conditions perfect for staying chasers.
There is no finer sight than watching a thoroughbred click through the gears on fast terrain under blameless blue skies but true champions - both equine and human - find a way to overcome adversity and this promises to be a Champions Day where imposters will, quite literally, be blown away.
The Met Office suggest there could be another 10 millimetres or so of rain to fall on ground that is already soft before racing gets under way and Ascot falls in an area under a "yellow warning for wind" with gusts of up 45 to 55 miles per hour predicted.
Winning ugly might just have to be an option for the fastest sprinter in the world, Harry Angel; the best miler in Europe, Ribchester; and most talked about non Group One winner, Cracksman. Normally, any of the trio would have the stage to themselves but the stars come thick and fast on Champions Day over distances ranging between six furlongs and two miles.
Enable, Ulysses and Winter are notable absentees, while injury cut short the career of Derby winner Wings Of Eagles. It means the overall cast is inferior to last year, when Almanzor surged effortlessly clear of Found in the QIPCO Champion Stakes and Minding shone in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Those two races were officially rated among the top ten ran anywhere in the world but this time, perhaps with the exception of the Sprint, candidates for top billing are thinner.Almanzor was too strong for Found in the Champion Stakes at Ascot last year (PA)
No horse on show is rated higher than 125 but that is not to say there is a lack of quality - how can there be when there are 21 Group One winners at the party? Between them, they have scooped 40 races at the highest level.
To have the winners of this year’s 2000 Guineas, Irish 2000 Guineas, French Derby, French 2000 Guineas, Lockinge, Queen Anne, Coronation Cup, Prince of Wales’s, St James’s Palace, Sussex, Jacques Le Marois, July Cup, Sprint Cup, Diamond Jubilee Stakes, Commonwealth Cup, Prix Maurice de Gheest, Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup, Irish St Leger, Prix Vermeille, Matron, Prix Jean Prat and Prix du Moulin all under one roof is something to savour.
Not all of those races were won by a horse trained by Aidan O’Brien, though it times this season it has felt like a one-man show.
O’Brien’s haul of 24 Group One victories this year has been great fun to follow, even though the trainer himself seems to be finding it something of an ordeal.
The master of Ballydoyle, who turned 48 on Monday, is rarely comfortable in any interview (though is generous with his time and polite to a fault) and always deflects praise away from himself.
If he passes Frankel’s record, and it seems inevitable he will either on Saturday or the weeks ahead, then he will regard it as an achievement for the 180 staff employed at Ballydoyle plus the many more who operate at Coolmore.Ribchester is among the multiple Group One winners in action (PA)
O’Brien has half-chances in the four Group One races on the card. That is all he seems to need just now but six of his past 11 wins at the highest level have been achieved in races for two-year-olds and there remains none of them on Champions Day.
The icing on the cake for the meeting, first staged in 2011, would be a top-level race for juveniles instead of the handicap which annually brings down the curtain. The Racing Post Trophy, run at Doncaster next week, would slot in superbly.
GROUP ONE WINNERS IN ACTION ON QIPCO BRITISH CHAMPIONS DAY:
Big Orange (1) Gold Cup; Order Of St George (3) Gold Cup (2016), Irish St Leger (2015 and 2017); Sheikhzayedroad (1) Northern Dancer Turf Stakes (2014); Stradivarius (1): Goodwood Cup.
Brando (1) Prix Maurice de Gheest; The Tin Man (2) Diamond Jubilee Stakes, British Champions Sprint (2017); Caravaggio (2) Commonwealth Cup, Phoenix Stakes (2016) Harry Angel (2) July Cup, Sprint Cup; Quiet Reflection (2) Commonwealth Cup (2016), Sprint Cup (2016).
Bateel (1) Prix Vermeille; Journey (1) British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes; Left Hand (1) Prix Vermeille (2016); Hydrangea (1) Matron Stakes.
Here Comes When (1) Sussex Stakes; Ribchester (4) Lockinge Stakes, Queen Anne Stakes, Prix du Moulin, Jacques Le Marois (2016); Al Wukair (1) Jacques Le Marois; Churchill (4) 2000 Guineas, Irish 2000 Guineas, National Stakes (2016), Dewhurst (2016) Thunder Snow (2) Prix Jean Prat, Criterium International (2016).
Highland Reel (6) Coronation Cup, Prince of Wales’s Stakes, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2016), Breeders’ Cup Turf (2016), Secretariat Stakes (2015), Breeders’ Cup Turf (2015); Barney Roy (1) St James’s Palace Stakes; Brametot (2) Poule d'Essai des Poulains, Prix du Jockey Club.