June 13, 2024

Roaring Lion remains in Breeders’ Cup Classic mix after brave QE II victory

Trainer John Gosden entered Champions Day with a quartet of favorites dubbed the “four horses of the Apocalypse,” and three prevailed on Saturday’s blockbuster card at Ascot. Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) candidate Roaring Lion showed unflinching bravery in the Queen Elizabeth II (G1), while defending champion Cracksman ended his career on a high in the Champion S. (G1), and star stayer Stradivarius wrapped up a perfect season in the British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2).

Roaring Lion ranks as Europe’s leading three-year-old colt after a sequence of victories in the Eclipse (G1), Juddmonte International (G1), and Irish Champion (G1), but the son of Kitten’s Joy was set a different challenge on the cutback in trip for the QE II. The straight mile feature became his target, rather than the 1 1/4-mile Champion over his ideal distance, because of this past week’s rain that saturated the ground. Ascot’s round course was heavy in places, yet the straight remained soft. Reverting to a mile, for the first time since his fifth in the 2000 Guineas (G1), was the better option than getting sapped in the Champion.

Considering how Roaring Lion had to scrape home in the QE II, it’s just as well he didn’t try Cracksman in conditions made to order for his champion stablemate. The 2-1 favorite worked his way into contention from off the pace, but the combination of the ground and the shorter trip turned his progress into more of a slog. Regular rider Oisin Murphy tended him as cleverly as possible, and Roaring Lion responded with a display of class and grit. He wore down the 25-1 Century Dream, then held Aidan O’Brien’s 33-1 filly I Can Fly by a neck at the wire.

Century Dream was only a half-length away in third, followed by the 40-1 Stormy Antarctic in a race where every fancy but Roaring Lion underperformed. Recoletos, the 7-2 second choice, was in position throughout but couldn’t lift in fifth. Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) possible Lord Glitters made belated headway to grab sixth, but fellow Mile contender Lightning Spear never got traction in seventh.

Five-time Group 1 heroine Laurens ran as if over the top when fading to eighth of 14, and thereby went her chances of shipping to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup. Had connections not supplemented her to the QE II, but given her more time after her hard-fought Sun Chariot (G1), maybe things would have been different. Or maybe she simply would have regressed in the Breeders’ Cup rather than at Ascot. Thankfully, Laurens stays in training next year.

Roaring Lion’s final time of 1:42.48 reflects the state of the going.

“He (Roaring Lion) hated the ground and I was never on the bridle,” Murphy reported. “He was all heart in the finish as I was running on empty through the last furlong, having had to use him between the three and the two just to get him into the race. He was very tough in the finish.”

Gosden credited Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing for making the call to pitch Roaring Lion into the QE II.

“My reaction is that the owners were very game and brave to run because they had everything to lose and nothing to gain,” Gosden said. “Roaring Lion had won all those Group 1 races at a mile and a quarter on fast ground, and we brought him here today on soft over a mile.

“He has proven his class and his guts to get there, but I think he was hating every second of running on that ground. You could that see from his action and the way he was carrying himself – I would not work him on that ground.”

With Champions Day lavishly sponsored by Qatar’s QIPCO, it’s natural for Sheikh Fahad to showcase Roaring Lion on this program.

The burning question now is whether he’ll be even bolder in trying the dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Sheikh Fahad indicated that the Classic is still an option for the Kentucky-bred, but Gosden reportedly sounded less enthusiastic about the prospect. Less expected was word that Hong Kong in December likewise comes into consideration. In any event, Roaring Lion is due to retire to stud at Tweenhills in 2019, so the QE II might end up being his finale.

There is no such uncertainty about the retiring Cracksman, who restored his reputation in his Champion swan song. Last seen being upset by Poet’s Word as the odds-on favorite in the course-and-distance Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot, the Frankel colt has been kept under wraps awaiting soft ground. Connections finally got their wish after missing a string of targets from the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1) through the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).

Gosden also made an equipment change – adding blinkers – to address Cracksman’s increasing laziness. Sir Anthony Oppenheimer’s homebred got away with it in the June 1 Coronation Cup (G1), but his lackadaisical attitude cost him here on June 20.

Backers of the 5-6 favorite on Saturday were entitled to have flashbacks as Frankie Dettori was already busy in the saddle approaching the turn. This time, however, Cracksman found plenty. Powering down the outside upon straightening for home, he opened up by six lengths and clocked 2:08.79.

Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) candidate Crystal Ocean, who lost his left hind shoe, was best of the rest from unheralded Czech Republic-based Subway Dancer. O’Brien’s Capri, although only fourth, turned in a sneaky Turf prep over a trip too short for him. His stablemate Rhododendron, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) runner-up, has subsequently lost her way but took a step forward in fifth.

Dettori commented on what a difference the change in seasons made for Cracksman.

“He was very lethargic in the summer, like one of those ponies of your kids’ – you have to drag it everywhere,” his rider said. “Cool weather, autumn, a bit of rain and he was back to his best today. I was able to put him where I wanted him. Usually he makes my life difficult but today I had a beautiful position.

“As the race developed, the more and more he came on the bridle, and turning for home he actually couldn’t wait to go. When he accelerated – not many horses can do it – I was able really to enjoy the scream of the crowds in the final furlong and raise my arm in the last 100 yards.”

Cracksman emulated sire Frankel as the only two-time winners since the creation of Champions Day. Frankel has the distinction of taking two different races, the 2011 QE II and 2012 Champion to bow out as an unbeaten world champion.

O’Brien interrupted the Gosden show in the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1), where Rhododendron’s younger sister, Magical, may have run herself into the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf picture.

Backed into 5-1 second favoritism while Gosden’s Lah Ti Dar rated as the even-money favorite, Magical was coming off a 10th behind Enable in the Arc. The Galileo filly moved forward in this second try at the 1 1/2-mile trip, rolling past Lah Ti Dar to score by a length. Ryan Moore guided Magical to her Group 1 breakthrough in 2:33.28.

Gosden had to settle for the minor awards, as Coronet outfinished stablemate Lah Ti Dar. Although Coronet has been on the list as a Breeders’ Cup possible, she’s booked for the Premio Lydia Tesio (G1) instead. Another Filly & Mare Turf candidate, Godolphin’s Kitesurf, was a useful fourth for Andre Fabre. O’Brien ran a total of six in this race, with defending champion Hydrangea faring next best of the Ballydoyle squad in fifth. Luca Cumani’s God Given was a one-paced sixth in her likely finale.

O’Brien was non-committal about the Breeders’ Cup for Magical, winner of last year’s Debutante (G2) and this summer’s Kilboy Estate (G2).

“She’s had an injury already this year and she would have to be 100 percent if she went to America.

“We thought she was going to be a real contender for the Oaks (G1) at one stage, but suffered an injury beforehand.

“She ran well in the Arc and she was only just coming back to full fitness in that race.”

Gosden got Champions Day started on a winning note in the Long Distance Cup courtesy of Bjorn Nielsen’s homebred Stradivarius, like Cracksman piloted by Dettori. The even-money favorite had swept the Yorkshire Cup (G2), Ascot Gold Cup (G1), Goodwood Cup (G1), and Lonsdale Cup (G2) to earn a £1 million bonus, but needed luck as he was trapped on the rail turning for home. Once Moore could not keep front-running Flag of Honour glued to the fence, a seam opened. Stradivarius shot through to assert by 1 1/2 lengths, allaying connections’ concerns about the ground as well as his post.

“I said on Racing UK beforehand that the ground was one thing,” Gosden said, “but we are going to get put in the box from stall one and he’ll have to be Houdini to get out of it – well he did.”

Once clear, however, the Sea the Stars colt drifted in across the path of the oncoming Thomas Hobson, who had to check and alter course. The stewards allowed the result to stand after an inquiry, but handed Dettori a three-day careless riding suspension.

If the two-mile marathon doesn’t offer any Breeders’ Cup implications, neither does the British Champions Sprint (G1), at least not as of this writing.

The Richard Fahey-trained Sands of Mali, off form since being mugged in the Commonwealth Cup (G1) during the Royal meeting, found himself again to spring a 28-1 wire job. Under regular partner Paul Hanagan, the French-bred son of Panis held off Godolphin’s Harry Angel by a length while negotiating six soggy furlongs in 1:14.21. The Tin Man, the 2016 winner and 3-1 favorite, wound up seventh, and defending champion Librisa Breeze was 11th.

In keeping with the theme of the day, the human champions of British racing were recognized. Gosden clinched his third training title, Silvestre de Sousa was crowned champion jockey for the third time, Jason Watson was honored as champion apprentice, and Godolphin celebrated a 13th owner’s championship.