Powered by Blogger.

Monday 21 October 2019

John Francome

John Francome was christened “Greatest Jockey” by erstwhile Channel 4 colleague John McCririck and, while he wasn’t, numerically, the greatest jockey of all time, he was the third most successful in the history of National Hunt racing in Britain. His career total of 1,138 winners, which was a record at the time of his retirement in April, 1985, pales by modern standards, by the fact remains that Francome won the jockeys’ championship seven times; only Peter Scudamore and Sir Anthony McCoy have won more.

Certainly one of the finest jockeys this country has ever produced, Francome also became known for his frankness and relaxed, irreverent sense of a humour. He was never one to take anyone, including himself, too seriously. At a press lunch, he once dubbed Jockey Club stewards ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’ and variously claimed that he rode mainly for the money and that one of the reasons for his sudden retirement, at the age of 32, was that he was fed up with always being hungry.

Francome has the dubious honour of being ‘the best jockey never to win the Grand National’, but he did win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, once, on Midnight Court, in 1978. Trained at Uplands Stables in Upper Lambourn, Berkshire by Fred Winter – whom Francome joined, straight from school, as a 16-year-old apprentice and remained with throughout his career – Midnight Court was a well-fancied 5/2 chance by the time the ‘Blue Riband’ event was run, in April, after being postponed due to snow. Nevertheless, his easy 7-length win over Brown Lad came over something of a relief to Francome, after tabloid allegations of wrongdoing as a result of his friendship with bookmaker John Banks.

Another vintage Francome moment came in the Champion Hurdle in 1981. On that occasion, Francome rode Sea Pigeon, trained by Peter Easterby, who was sent off 7/4 favourite after winning the race the previous year. Although Sea Pigeon was an 11-year-old, in an act of derring do, rode him for a turn of foot, delaying his challenge until halfway up the run-in, before sprinting away to win cosily under hands and heels.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Looking ahead to Champions Day at Ascot

With the smell of autumn in the air and the days rapidly getting shorter, you could be forgiven for thinking that the high days of the horse racing season are behind us. True, the Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot and the Grand National are distant memories. But there is still one important event to come, and it’s at the most famous horse racing venue of them all.

A Royal Event

Champions Day is a relatively new meeting, having been created in 2011 to bring the British flat racing season to a dramatic conclusion. However, it is nevertheless steeped in history, as it brings together several historic races that were previously run at Ascot and Newmarket. 

The showpiece event is the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, a race that has been won by some of the most iconic names in the sport, and has always been the season-closer at Ascot. However, it would be reasonable to say that Champions Day really has two headline races, as the Champion Stakes has just as high a profile, and prior to 2011 was the main event at Newmarket. 

What’s happening this year?

This year, Ascot racecourse will be hosting Champions Day on 19 October. Gates open at 10:30AM, and then it is all action, with the following six races run between 1:30 and 5:00:

  • 1:30PM: British Champions Long Distance Cup

  • 2:10PM: British Champions Sprint

  • 2:45PM: British Champions Fillies and Mares Stakes

  • 3:20PM: Queen Elizabeth II Stakes

  • 4:00PM: Champion Stakes

  • 4:45PM: Balmoral Handicap

There is always a festival atmosphere on Champions Day, and this year will be no exception. If you decide to attend, stay around for the after party, which this year, will be headlined by the inimitable Basement Jaxx.

Past winners

The most famous winner in the eight year history of Champions Day is Frankel. The legendary gelding was a favourite in every sense of the word among horse race betting enthusiasts, with a career that saw him unbeaten in his 14-race career. That included winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at the first ever Champions Day in 2011 and coming back the following year to win the Champion Stakes and officially retire undefeated. 

Last year, Roaring Lion was a popular winner in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, winning his fourth Group One race of the season before retiring to stud at the end of the year. Tragically, it was not to be a long retirement and he died of colic in August of this year. 

The Champion Stakes has been won the past two years in succession by Frankie Dettori and Cracksman. Like Finkel before him, Cracksman bade a fond farewell to thousands of fans at the end of the race and retired a winner. 

The stuff of legends

In its eight year history, Champions Day has already been the scene of some of flat racing’s most memorable moments. A record 32,000 people turned out to see Frankel’s crowning glory, and the event has been well attended ever since. If you love flat racing, Champions Day is something you just can’t afford to miss.