For the third straight year, Magical looms large on Champions Day at Ascot, and trainer Aidan O’Brien is once again considering Saturday’s festival as a possible stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup. The blockbuster card, featuring four Group 1s, includes a few others entertaining Breeders’ Cup races at Keeneland.
Magical’s victory in the 2018 British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes (G1) set her up for a superb second to Enable in the Turf (G1). Last year, the Galileo mare conquered males in the 2019 Champion Stakes (G1), and plans called for another Breeders’ Cup venture until she spiked a fever.
Now the 5-year-old Magical is back for a title defense in the 1 1/4-mile Champion. Unlike the past two seasons, when she was rebounding from unplaced efforts in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), this time Magical enters straight off her repeat victory in the Irish Champion (G1). There she had the satisfaction of gaining revenge on Ghaiyyath, who inflicted her only loss of 2020 in the Juddmonte International (G1) two back. The pair could meet again in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland.
O’Brien left two more Turf candidates in the Champion, Japan and Serpentine, but as expected, took out a key contender in Mogul, who reportedly will head directly to the Breeders’ Cup. All three were entered in the Oct. 4 Arc, but had to scratch due to contaminated feed that risked a positive postrace test. Japan, winless so far this campaign, exits a better-than-appears fifth in the Irish Champion, while Epsom Derby (G1) shocker Serpentine was a warm-up fourth to Mogul in the Grand Prix de Paris (G1). With Ryan Moore obviously aboard Magical, Colin Keane picks up Japan, and Serpentine gets William Buick.
Trainer John Gosden fields the main market rival to Magical, French Derby (G1) hero Mishriff, who extended his winning streak to three in the Aug. 15 Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2). Although that would have made him a proper Arc contender, Gosden preferred to keep the still-developing sophomore at his proven trip, and pointed for this race all along. Jockey Frankie Dettori could find consolation for Enable’s retirement if Mishriff can topple Magical.
Gosden’s second entrant is no second-stringer, for Lord North upset Japan et al in the course-and-distance Prince of Wales’s (G1) during the Royal meeting. The improving son of Dubawi has run only once in the interim, placing third to Ghaiyyath and Magical in the Juddmonte International. James Doyle maintains his partnership with the Breeders’ Cup Turf possible.
Not to be overlooked is French raider Skalleti, who beat future Arc winner Sottsass in the Aug. 15 Prix Gontaut-Biron (G3) and just repeated in the Prix Dollar (G2) over Arc weekend. Pierre-Charles Boudot again rides the win machine with a 12-for-15 lifetime mark.
Addeybb, runner-up to Magical here last year and to Lord North in the Prince of Wales’s, will appreciate having his preferred soft going. Yet his Group 1 wins came in Australia earlier this year, and the William Haggas veteran is still looking for his first major on home soil. San Donato, third to Persian King in last year’s French 2000 Guineas (G1) on heavy, was most recently third to Addeybb in the Doonside Cup at Ayr.
Extra Elusive, in career form in August with scores in the Rose of Lancaster (G3) and Winter Hill (G3), retreated to third in the Legacy Cup (the old “Arc Trial”) (G3) at Newbury in his latest. Sophomore Pyledriver takes a more dramatic cutback in distance after a third in the St Leger (G1), but appeared a true 1 1/2-mile type in his Great Voltigeur (G2) and King Edward VII (G2) victories. Likewise the 8-year-old Desert Encounter has scored his signature wins in the past two runnings of the Canadian International (G1), and he wheels back from a second in the Oct. 9 Cumberland Lodge (G3). His only prior attempt in this race was a fifth behind Cracksman in 2017.
Queen Elizabeth II Stakes
Gosden’s Palace Pier is the odds-on favorite in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (G1) down the straight mile. A perfect 5-for-5 in his career, the Kingman colt beat Pinatubo in the St James’s Palace (G1) here on the round course and handled heavy going to add the Prix Jacques le Marois (G1). Stablemate Nazeef, a course-and-distance winner of the Duke of Cambridge (G2), has since turned a double at Newmarket in the Falmouth (G1) on the July Course and the Sun Chariot (G1) over the Rowley Mile.
O’Brien’s Circus Maximus also sports a victory here in the Queen Anne (G1), but he’s had to settle for minor awards since then. Second to the brilliant Mohaather in the Sussex (G1) and a distant third to Palace Pier in the Marois, Circus Maximus was another well-beaten third when trying to repeat in the Prix du Moulin (G1). It would be no surprise if the Galileo colt, who was fourth in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), takes another swing at Keeneland. (That’s exactly where Kameko is going after connections opted to skip Champions Day.) O’Brien also has a couple of longshot chances in Royal Dornoch, capable of outperforming his odds if everything goes right, and the feast-or-famine Lancaster House.
French invader The Revenant warrants respect after his runner-up effort in last year’s running, where Group 1 veterans Veracious and Lord Glitters were fourth and eighth, respectively. The Revenant returned from a nearly year-long layoff to defend his title handsomely in the Prix Daniel Wildenstein (G2) on Arc weekend. Century Dream, seventh in the 2019 QEII, was a much closer third in the 2018 edition. The Roger Varian pair of Roseman and Jersey (G3) scorer Molatham, as well as Godolphin’s reborn Dark Vision, have dark horse prospects.
British Champions Sprint
After breakout wins in the Hungerford (G2) and Haydock Sprint Cup (G1), Dream of Dreams is hotly favored to complete the hat trick in the British Champions Sprint (G1). The Sir Michael Stoute trainee missed by inches in the past two runnings of the Diamond Jubilee (G1) at this course and distance, but he’s a different animal now.
Breeders’ Cup Mile contender One Master just turned an unprecedented three-peat in the Prix de la Foret (G1) on Arc Day. The drop back to 6 furlongs here has worked before for the William Haggas mare, as in her runner-up performance in this race last year. O’Brien’s hope, Lope Y Fernandez, is another who could use the British Champions Sprint en route to stretching out for the Mile at Keeneland. A Group 1 bridesmaid so far, the Lope de Vega colt has been knocking on the proverbial door.
July Cup (G1) star Oxted, on the other hand, is in the mix for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1). The lightly raced 4-year-old has won both starts this campaign and continues to have upside. Glen Shiel and Art Power, respectively second and fourth in the Haydock Sprint Cup; the progressive Sonaiyla, third in the Flying Five (G1); the streaking Happy Power, who shortens up from a new top in the Challenge (G2); and the unexposed Onassis and Starman all add intrigue. At the opposite end of the career spectrum, The Tin Man makes an incredible sixth appearance in this race, although the 2016 hero hasn’t hit the board in his other attempts. Fellow old stager Brando, comebacker Cape Byron, and Speak in Colours are other chances in the 17-strong field.
British Champions Fillies & Mares
Dame Malliot, third to Breeders’ Cup-bound Tarnawa in the Prix Vermeille (G1) last out, hopes to hit a high note as Ed Vaughan concludes his training career. The Oppenheimer homebred excels in these conditions, having beaten males in the July 9 Princess of Wales’s (G2) at Newmarket and finished a close third in the Preis von Europa (G1) to Donjah (also in the Breeders’ Cup discussion).
Vermeille fifth Wonderful Tonight came right back to land the Prix de Royallieu (G1) on Arc weekend, propelling herself to favoritism in this spot. Gosden’s Frankly Darling returns to the scene of her Ribblesdale (G2) success, while older stablemate Mehdaayih gets a 1 1/2-mile opportunity for the first time since her coup in last summer’s Prix de Malleret (G2).
Ralph Beckett is also double-handed with recent Princess Royal (G3) scorer Antonia de Vega and Lancashire Oaks (G2) heroine Manuela de Vega. Joseph O’Brien has an intriguing entrant in Thundering Nights, the Snow Fairy (G3) winner and Blandford (G2) third who could relish the step up in trip. His father’s two are Vermeille fourth Laburnum and Passion, who had been third in both the Irish Oaks (G1) and Ribblesdale before trying even longer distances. Irish Oaks heroine Even So was sixth in the Vermeille, while Varian’s sophomore duo of Gold Wand and Cabaletta have shown flashes of promise.
British Champions Long Distance Cup
Star stayer Stradivarius aims to regain his crown that he lost in a desperate photo to Kew Gardens a year ago. But the Gosden ace has taken a different route this season, a detour through Paris with an excellent second in the Prix Foy (G2) and a creditable seventh in an Arc that didn’t set up for him. Now Stradivarius returns to his comfort zone in the marathon ranks, yet it could be worth remembering he was beaten here in 2017 too.
Dermot Weld dispatches two-time Irish St Leger (G1) queen Search for a Song, who takes her first test over two miles. This is also uncharted territory for Irish St Leger runner-up Fujaira Prince; sixth-placer Sovereign, last year’s Irish Derby (G1) upsetter and runner-up to Enable in this summer’s King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1); his Ballydoyle stablemate Broome; and soft-ground aficionado Morando.
Spanish Mission has no stamina questions after his star turn in the Doncaster Cup (G2), although the going might be softer than preferable. The dour Mildenberger has the class if able to move forward second off the layoff. Proven at the distance, if not the class level, is Ballydoyle’s Dawn Patrol who just garnered the Loughbrown (G3).
The Long Distance Cup (G2) kicks off Champions Day at 8:20 a.m., with the Champion Stakes anchoring the Group 1s at 10:40 a.m. (all times ET). It’s worth sticking around for the 6TH and final race on the card, the Balmoral Handicap (11:15 a.m.), which can yield a horse or two to follow for 2021.