Champions Day at Ascot has attracted 21 horses who have won at Group 1 level. The highlight of the £4.3 million prize fund bonanza is the Champion Stakes for which 10 are declared but Ulysses will not run. Cracksman is the current favourite but on Derby form Cliffs Of Moher looks overpriced. The horse is trained by Aidan O’Brien who is just two winners away from creating a new record for Group 1 and Grade 1 wins in a calendar year. He could set a new best figure at Ascot this weekend.
The Champion Stakes is one of four Group 1s on the card which also features a Group 2 race (Long Distance Cup) and the richest mile handicap in Europe. The quality of the horses makes the concept a success but the date in the calendar has not been universally accepted as right. There are forecasts of high winds and heavy rain for this year’s renewal but such are the vagaries of the weather towards the end of October.
Three-year-olds get an age weight allowance of four pounds in the Champion Stakes which means Cracksman and Cliffs of Moher receive weight from the older horses. The former has a Racing Post Rating of 132 while the latter is on a mark of 128. Cliffs Of Moher beat Cracksman by a neck in the Derby. The horse seemed to have the race in the bag until Wings Of Eagles swooped late. The Champion Stakes is run over 10 furlongs while the Derby is a quarter of a mile further.
Wings Of Eagles has been retired which means in theory Cliffs Of Moher is the best three-year-old colt in training. Initially the Derby form did not work out well but on reflection it was a high quality contest. Capri finished sixth 3 lengths behind Cliffs Of Moher and went on to win the Irish version and the St Leger. Benbatl subsequently won at Royal Ascot and that horse was soundly beaten in the Derby.
Cliffs Of Moher has not built on that Derby run in three starts. Nothing went right in the Eclipse at Sandown but the horse has been well off the pace in races won by Ulysses and Decorated Knight on two recent outings. The horse will have to show the Derby form to get in the mix at Ascot. O’Brien could have run several in the Champion Stakes but must see something in Cliff Of Moher’s chances. Highland Reel also runs for the stable but as a five-year-old carries four pounds more.
Enable has shown that horses from the Classic generation can beat older runners in Group 1 contests. However, as a filly that horse also gets a sex allowance and there are no fillies running in the Champion Stakes. Cliffs of Moher will have to find something on form to beat Cracksman but in the Derby the colt showed he has the potential to be a champion and that could transpire at Ascot.
Barney Roy must improve on York form where beaten by Ulysses to win the race. The money has been for Poet’s Word who sparkled in a gallop this week. The horse is trained my Sir Michael Stoute who has decided to withdraw Ulysses so perhaps he knows something we don’t about Poet’s Word. Brametot should not be dismissed on his best French form but the other runners have no chance. In fact Maverick Wave could be a hindrance and get in the way.
O’Brien is arguably the best trainer in the world and targets the major races for his wealthy owners. Cracksman has been the better horse since the Derby but O’Brien could have prepared Cliffs Of Moher to win what is now the race that matters most, especially as it could help him equal or break the record for winners at the highest level in one year.