Talking Horses: Champions Day promises much despite Starman retirement

The news on Monday morning that Starman, the July Cup winner, has been retired after suffering a setback in training was a disappointing way to start the run-in to Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday, not least as Ed Walker’s sprinter missed the Royal meeting in June due to soft going but, thanks to the vagaries of the British weather, seemed likely to get much better ground at the same track in mid-October.

Starman is Europe’s top-rated sprinter this season thanks to his convincing success at Newmarket in July and on Sunday evening he was the 4-1 favourite for the Champions Sprint. While the Ascot card will be the poorer without him, though, in many other respects, the 11th Champions Day promises to be one of the best to date.

That owes much to the current spell of settled, dry and warm(ish) weather, which is a sharp and unseasonal contrast to situation for much of the first 10 years.

The first Champions Day in 2011 was run on good ground, and the going was good in 2016 too. Apart from that, the ground for Britain’s richest day at the races, with around £4m on offer to crown the champions of the summer code, has been: soft, soft, heavy, good-to-soft, soft, soft, soft, soft.

That includes the 2019 renewal, when the round course was waterlogged and three races were switched to the hurdles track instead. None of this is any great surprise, of course, given the original decision to stage the meeting in mid-October, but it does add to the anticipation in what seems likely to be one of the two or three years in every decade when Champions Day is run on decent ground.

On the track, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes arguably shades the Champion Stakes as the race of the day, with the unbeaten Group One-winner Baaeed – who did not see a track until early June – expected to take on Palace Pier, Alcohol Free and last year’s winner, The Revenant, among others.

And for the first time since the Flat jockeys’ title was switched to its current Guineas-to-Champions Day format at the behest of its Qatari sponsors in 2015, the championship could yet be decided on the final afternoon.

As the betting suggests, it remains an outside possibility, with the defending champion, Oisin Murphy, top-priced at around 1-3 to retain his crown as he heads into the final week with a 148-142 lead over William Buick. But it is close enough for the odds to shift abruptly in the space of a few hours, not least on a day like Monday when Buick has eight booked rides, including six forecast favourites, at Wolverhampton’s afternoon meeting, before Murphy heads to Kempton for six on the evening card.

Both riders have taken an almost identical number of rides over the season so far – 672 for Murphy versus 676 for Buick – and however the title race eventually concludes, there will have been plenty of races like the minor novice event at Goodwood on Sunday when a short-head or nose between the pair of them will have made all the difference.

It was Buick who came out on top on Sunday, as Charlie Appleby’s Secret Image, a 5-1 shot, just did enough to repel Murphy on the 11-10 favourite, Electress. Is it too much to hope for an equally tight finish to the title race itself, perhaps even on a sunny afternoon, as the champions are crowned at Ascot on Saturday?

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