It’s been over four-and-a-half months since horseracing became the first major sport in Britain to re-emerge from the gloom of a coronavirus shutdown, and as its Flat season nears a conclusion, the clouds are closing in once more.
Since the start of the summer, the sport’s most famous meetings, from Epsom to Ascot, the Guineas to Goodwood, have been staged in front of virtually empty grandstands, James Doyle one of many jockeys who has spent the year riding in a mask and leading horses into barren winners’ enclosures.
“I guess we've sort of gotten used to it in a way,” he tells Standard Sport, successful but stalled pilot events at Doncaster and Warwick the rare exceptions to what has become the norm. “But it is still a little bit deflating, especially at these big meetings when there's no crowds.”
Today’s introduction of stricter tier two Covid regulations in London coincides with, on its outskirts, the final one of those showpiece events for the year, Champions Day at Ascot, which though not officially marking the end of the Flat season, is considered its symbolic finale before attention shifts to the National Hunt campaign.
Doyle is not overly optimistic about the prospect of fans having returned by the time the Flat proper gets going again next year – “The way things are going at the minute, it’s hard to be positive” – but is at least hoping to end this one on a high as he partners the John Gosden-trained Lord North in the Group 1 Qipco Champion Stakes. The four-year-old is returning to the track where he put up one of the displays of the season in winning the Prince of Wales Stakes at the Royal meeting in July.
“That was an outstanding performance,” Doyle says. “He relaxed really well and picked them off in the straight, so the track and trip is certainly not going to be a problem. The ground shouldn't be any worry to him at all.”
The son of Dubawi faces a field headed by Aidan O’Brien’s filly Magical, who won the Irish equivalent of this race last month, but Doyle believes his mount could benefit from a light campaign, having not been seen since finishing third in the Juddmonte at York two months ago.
“He is coming in a fresh horse which I think could certainly be in our favour, especially in the testing conditions, to have fresh legs,” he says.
“His run at York was very good but I just felt the track was quite loose and I didn't feel he could get proper traction so I don't think he was seen to his best. I think Saturday's conditions are going to be much more to his preference.”
Traditionally, this afternoon’s meeting is also where the Champion Jockey title is handed out, but this year’s edition has been extended until November 7 because of the delayed start to the season, though William Buick is looking increasingly unlikely to reel in defending champion Oisin Murphy, who currently has an 15-winner lead at the top of the standings.
Not a million miles back, in fourth, is Hollie Doyle, who this week broke her own record for the most winners ridden by a female jockey in a calendar year, and her namesake – though no relation – believes she could well contend for the championship sooner rather than later.
“It's not impossible, is it?” Doyle adds. “She's done incredible things, she's raised the bar for female riders, breaking the record and then breaking her own record.
“And the thing is, she's getting these better rides now. You even look on Saturday, she's got some very nice rides, and she's performed well at the Group level which is important. It's not like she's just riding run-of-the-mill winners, she's having good winners and getting good opportunities at the top level.”
One queen of the turf who will play no part this weekend is wondermare Enable, who was briefly touted for a surprise Champions Day appearance before being retired earlier this week, following her failed bid for an historic third Arc in Paris.
She bows out an all-time great, having won eleven Group 1s and the hearts of racing fans around the world, including Doyle, who went toe-to-toe with her in two of the most thrilling races of recent years.
“I finished second to her on a number of occasions but probably got as close to her as anyone did,” Doyle says. “The thing that stood out about her was her tremendous will to win. In her second Arc [in 2018] she was getting pretty tired near the line and when I closed on Sea Of Class she dug deep and found a little bit more and really stuck her neck out.
“And then again in the King George [in 2019], on Crystal Ocean, she headed me and we headed her back and then she got back in front of us again.
“She was a star. The racing community used to really turn up to watch her run and it's a shame they didn't get to see her on the track this year in this country.”
QIPCO British Champions Day takes place at Ascot Racecourse today live on ITV from 1pm. For more info visit: britishchampionsday.com