The Qipco Champion Stakes is the headline act on a stellar card at Ascot this afternoon and Magical can provide Aidan O’Brien with a belated birthday present by winning the last of the four Group 1s up for grabs.
The Galileo filly has danced every dance for O’Brien — who turned 50 last Wednesday — winning four of her eight starts in a busy four-year-old campaign that has seen her finish second on three occasions. Last time out, she paid the price for attempting to go toe-to-toe with old adversary Enable in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, fading late on in testing conditions to finish a respectable — if distant — fifth behind Waldgeist.
Given the Arc was only 13 days ago and conditions are again set to be stamina-sapping today it could be argued Magical has to be vulnerable.
However, there’s nothing of the calibre of the horses who finished ahead of Magical in the Arc in opposition today and though the mud-loving Addeybb will relish conditions, he lacks the class and reliability of O’Brien’s star filly. It’s also worth remembering that Magical bounced back from finishing down the field in the Arc to win the Fillies & Mares Stakes on this card last year.
Conditions were challenging that day, as they were when Magical went down on her shield to Crystal Ocean in the Prince Of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot last June, so she should handle today’s underfoot conditions, with the drop in trip from 12 to 10 furlongs likely to further aid her cause.
Obviously there’s a danger that this could be one trip to the well too many but O’Brien wouldn’t be sending her to Ascot if she hadn’t been showing him the right signs since her return from France and, against decent but not vintage opposition, she may not have to be at her very best to come out on top.
The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes sees O’Brien’s Magna Grecia make a belated return to action. The Invincible Spirit colt was a decisive winner of the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in May but pulled a hamstring when fourth in the Irish equivalent three weeks later.
Now, 147 days later, he makes his return but, even by O’Brien’s standards, it would be an incredible training performance to win a Group 1 as competitive as this one on his first start after a lengthy lay-off. That being the case, ready preference is for French raider The Revenant, a confirmed muddy marvel.
Trained by Francis-Henri Graffard, the four-year-old gelding is unbeaten in his last six starts, with his most recent success, a four-and-a-half length victory in a Group 2 run on testing conditions on Arc weekend, his most visually impressive. If he rocks up in similar form this afternoon, it’ll take a mighty effort to lower his colours.
The Qipco British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes looks at the mercy of John Gosden and Star Catcher is fancied to get the better of stablemate Epsom Oaksheroine Anapurna. Having won the PrixVermeille and the Irish Oaks on her last two starts, Star Catcher is seeking a Group 1 hat-trick and, while those successes came on good ground, she has twice won on soft this season so conditions shouldn’t be an issue.
O’Brien’s Fleeting has looked unlucky in several big races this season and it will be no surprise if she finishes better than anything else today but the probability is she’ll again leave it too late. The Qipco British Champions Sprint Stakes kicks off today’s action and while Commonwealth Cup winner Advertise is almost certainly the most talented horse in the line-up, he’s unproven on ground as deep as this.
In contrast, Hello Youmzain relishes testing conditions, something he proved when winning the Sprint Cup on soft ground last time out and Kevin Ryan’s charge is fancied to secure another top-level triumph. Providing he gets the green light to run after John Gosden walks the track ahead of racing, Stradivarius is impossible to oppose in the Group 2 Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup.
The last time the dual Gold Cup winner tasted defeat was in this race two years ago and there’s no obvious reason why that remarkable sequence of firsts should end today. If there is to be a huge upset — or if Stradivarius doesn’t run — it could be that Michael Stoute’s Mekong provides it.
The Frankel gelding doesn’t have the most consistent profile but he’s two from two on heavy ground and odds of 16-1 may underestimate his chances. The fiendishly tricky Balmoral Handicap brings events to a close and the tentative each-way vote goes to Biometric for the in-form Ralph Beckett team.
The selection has only once encountered ground with soft in the going description but on that occasion he won the Britannia Stakes at Royal Ascot and the hope is he can handle conditions that will be even more testing.
Ascot 1.35: Hello Youmzain
Ascot 2.10: Stradivarius
Ascot 2.45: Star Catcher
Ascot 3.20: The Revenant (Nap)
Ascot 4.00: Magical (NB)
Ascot 4.40: Biometric (each-way)