In Louisville, there is an entire week of parades, parties and fireworks in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby. In Britain, on the other hand, the days before the most valuable card of the year are traditionally marked with concerns about the going and, more often than not, the scratching of big-name runners because the ground is too soft.
Kameko, the 2,000 Guineas winner, is the latest example. He has been ruled out of a much-anticipated Champions Day head-to-head with the unbeaten Palace Pier and now be rerouted to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland in early November instead. The going at Ascot is currently soft, heavy in places, and while little rain is expected before Saturday’s card, there is next to no chance that it will dry out significantly either.
“We’re not expecting much rain after tonight,” Chris Stickels, Ascot’s clerk of the course, said on Wednesday, “so I’d expect it to be soft [on Saturday] but maybe heavy in places on the round course. At this time of year, unless you get a really strong breeze and a bit of bright sunshine then there’s really not much drying. We’ve had nearly 120mm of rain in October already, so it’s not going to dry significantly.”
Ascot has had as much rain in October this year as it did 12 months ago, when the meeting survived thanks only to the fallback option of shifting it to the hurdles course. That, at least, has been avoided this year because September was relatively dry. But this will still be the fourth Champions Day in a row staged on soft going or worse, and the eighth – out of 10 in all – run on good-to-soft or worse.
Which is, of course, only to be expected when a card which is, in theory at least, a celebration of everything that is good in British Flat racing is scheduled for Ascot in the middle of October, a fortnight after most of us – including plenty of the horses - have started wearing our winter coats.
The reasons for Champions Day’s scheduling are historic and also the result of British racing playing catch-up after jurisdictions elsewhere (hello, Ireland) nabbed the more obvious slots in September. The old Festival day at Ascot in late September was too close to the Arc, and so Champions Day ended up sandwiched between Longchamp and the Breeders’ Cup, a meeting which is usually run in California in decent weather.
That is not the case this year with the meeting scheduled for Keeneland in Lexington, where temperatures will be low and heavy rain is an ever-present threat. But Kameko’s connections have still opted to take the chance, diminishing Champions Day in a year when betting turnover is the only way for racing to plug the huge gap in its finances.
Palace Pier is now as short as 4-6 for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and promises to be one of two odds-on shots on the card for John Gosden and Dettori, with the outstanding stayer Stradivarius a general 8-11 chance for the Group Two Long Distance Cup.
Bookmakers will be braced for a wave of win doubles at combined odds of around 7-4, while Dettori’s presence aboard Mishriff, the 3-1 second-favourite for the Champion Stakes, will not escape the attention of punters either. Odds-on shots tend to depress turnover and as a result of Levy payments being calculated according to bookies’ profits, they only contribute significantly to the sport’s income when they are beaten.
There are still plenty of big-name attractions on the card, including Hollie Doyle’s first realistic tilt at a Group One winner aboard Dame Malliot in the Fillies & Mares. But the loss of Kameko not only leaves a hole on the race card, it will put one on the balance sheet too. In this of all years, that is something that the sport can ill afford.
Thursday’s best bets and racing tips
Jumping takes centre stage on the turf this afternoon, including Carlisle’s welcome return to the schedule with an eight-race card on decent ground. That should mean that the climb to the finish rack is a little less demanding than usual.
Carlisle 12.20 Gortroe Joe 12.50 Glory And Fortune 1.20 Blakeney Point 1.52 Loughan 2.26 Court Dreaming 3.01 The Navigator 3.36 Honourary Gift 4.11 No Risk Des Flos
Lingfield Park 1.30 Qasbaz 2.00 Vino Victrix 2.35 Bartat 3.10 First Smile 3.45 Chocoya 4.20 Physics 4.50 Roundabout Magic 5.25 Narjes
Wincanton 2.10 Songo 2.45 Lake Baikal 3.20 Celestial Force 3.55 Twin Star 4.30 Lillington 5.05 Double Court 5.35 Seaside Girl
Southwell 4.40 Kraka 5.15 Northern Charm 5.45 Jebel Dukhan 6.15 King Of Stars 6.45 Exalted Angel (nap) 7.15 Thawry 7.45 Xcelente 8.15 John Clare
Chelmsford City 5.00 Eagles Dare 5.30 Desert Empire 6.00 Letmelivemylife 6.30 Sidereal 7.00 Jean Baptiste 7.30 Lord Neidin (nb) 8.00 Tie A Yellowribbon 8.30 Sonnetina
Glory And Fortune (12.50) could be the answer to an intriguing handicap chase early on the card in which several promising sorts make their debut over fences. Tom Lacey’s string is in good form and his five-year-old, a bumper winner at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day 2019, showed more than enough in four runs over hurdles last season to give him an obvious chance here at around 7-2.
Honourary Gift (3.36) also looks big at around 5-1 later on the card, but the best bet of the day could be Exalted Angel (6.45) on the Fibresand at Southwell this evening. Karl Burke’s gelding has finished second and then first – in an excellent time – on his two starts on the surface to date, and though he has been off the track since his win in mid-March, that was his first run for 195 days so he clearly goes well fresh.
Lord Neidin (7.30) has an obvious chance at Chelmsford City’s evening meeting, while Sidereal (6.30) should go close earlier on the same card.