British Champions Day
Qipco British Champions Day is firmly established as Flat racing’s glittering end-of-season championship meeting, with £4.2 million in prize-money making it the richest raceday in Britain. Yet it was first staged only in 2011.
Champions Day was not built from scratch, however. Up until 2010, two of the biggest late-season fixtures in Britain were staged at Ascot and Newmarket. By combining and reshaping these meetings – and providing a massive prize-money boost – organisers created Qipco British Champions Day.
The Champion Stakes was switched from Newmarket, where it had been run since 1877. It was worth £350,000 when won by Twice Over at Newmarket for the final time in 2010 but 12 months later it boasted £1.3 million in prize-money and was the most valuable race over a mile and a quarter in Europe.
The £1 million Queen Elizabeth II Stakes became Europe’s richest race over a mile. No venue switch for this one – it had been the highlight of Ascot’s old late-September fixture – but the prize-money increase in 2011 was not far behind the Champion Stakes as it had previously been worth £250,000.
These two races formed the foundation of Qipco British Champions Day but there were three other championship finals created by alterations to the racing programme.
Ascot’s Diadem Stakes became the Qipco British Champions Sprint, while the Jockey Club Cup and the Pride Stakes moved from Newmarket to become the British Champions Long Distance Cup and the British Champions Fillies’ and Mares’ Stakes.
The Frankel years
In its short lifespan, Qipco British Champions Day has been graced by many stars of the turf but there is one who towers above them all. Organisers could not have chosen a better season to launch the championship raceday, as years one and two coincided with the rise of the greatest racehorse of all time.
Frankel was unbeaten in his eight starts by the time he lined up for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Qipco British Champions Day in 2011 and had already gone some way to claiming his place among the greats with victories in the 2,000 Guineas, St James’s Palace Stakes and Sussex Stakes.
He signed off his three-year-old season at Ascot with a typically dominant success against the top milers Europe had to offer – but it was a year later that Qipco British Champions Day played host to one of the most celebrated days in the history of horseracing.
By now unbeaten in 13 races and recognised as the best of all time, Frankel returned to Qipco British Champions Day in 2012 for the final run of his career in the Champion Stakes.
A sellout crowd of 32,000 packed the four-storey Ascot grandstand to bid their hero farewell. What they witnessed was not Frankel’s most commanding performance but the victory was all that mattered on this historic afternoon – and he delivered for a 14th and final time as he overcame soft ground and a slow start to spark wild celebrations.
Amid the euphoria, his trainer Sir Henry Cecil was composed as he faced the media. Having been previously reluctant to measure Frankel against the greats, preferring to leave that judgement to others, Cecil could not help but let his guard slip this time. His voice a whisper due to the effects of the stomach cancer he had fought throughout Frankel’s career, he said: “He’s the best I’ve ever had, the best I’ve ever seen. I’d be very surprised if there’s ever been a better horse.”
The journey was over. The horse who so gloriously surpassed all those who went before him would race no more. And, eight months later, the trainer whose quiet defiance in the face of terminal illness had been a subplot throughout the Frankel story finally lost his battle with cancer.
But that Champions Day will never be forgotten. As Alastair Down, reporting in the Racing Post, wrote: “We know we have never seen the likes of Frankel and are all but certain that no members of preceding racing generations have either, and watching him and that genius Sir Henry Cecil yesterday at Ascot just made you grateful to your very marrow that their time has also been your time.”
Whipping up a storm
Had it not been for the positive headlines generated by Frankel at the inaugural Qipco British Champions Day, the new initiative could have been engulfed by a whip controversy that erupted in the full glare of the world’s media at Ascot.
The British Horseracing Authority had introduced strict new whip rules five days before Qipco British Champions Day which were fiercely opposed by jockeys and would ultimately trigger a PR disaster for British racing at the big meeting.
The new rules for the first time placed limits on the number of times riders were allowed to use their whip and stipulated that offending jockeys would lose their winning percentage of prize-money.
The tension between the BHA and jockeys that built throughout the week prior to the 2011 Qipco British Champions Day came to a head at Ascot when Christophe Soumillon fell foul of the new rules after winning the Champion Stakes on Cirrus Des Aigles.
The visiting French-based jockey was given a five-day ban and, more significantly, a fine of £52,000 for using his whip six times within the final furlong of the £1.3 million contest – one more than permitted. He reacted with fury to a decision he claimed “shamed British racing”.
“They have changed the rules five days before the race,” he added. “Why did they do that? It is amazing, I have never seen anything like it in my life.
“I tried to count, but I couldn’t see the furlong marker, you can’t do everything. You can’t look for the marker, look for other horses, count the times you use the whip and ride a finish.
“Never can a fine like this have been handed out in sport. I can’t accept it. I think the jockeys should get together because it is impossible to work this way.”
The jockeys did indeed get together and 48 hours later their representatives were around a table with the BHA for crisis talks amid strike threats from the riders.
Despite a raft of changes to the rules, the acrimony continued for several months, with high-profile Irish jockeys Ruby Walsh and Johnny Murtagh threatening to boycott racing in Britain.
It was not until the following March, one week before the start of the Cheltenham Festival, that the BHA and jockeys reached agreement on a final revision of the rules that returned greater powers of discretion to the stewards and significantly reduced the fines offending jockey would face.