“There is a reason they run the race.”

It is one of the most oft-heard phrases among Thoroughbred racing fans, so often heard it could seem a tired cliché…save for the fact it is true.

Great Britain’s Thoroughbred biggest racing day

Saturday was QIPCO British Champions Day. In European Thoroughbred turf racing, British Champions is to Great Britain what the Arc is to France, the crowning day on the nation’s annual racing calendar. And that is part of this year’s story.

This year’s Champions Day was held at Ascot, the racecourse famous for the Royal Ascot meet held for five days during the middle of June that hosts members of the British Royal Family.

But, like Paris in early October, Ascot can be infamous for turf gone soft for a different reason—over four months of racing wear. That, too, is part of this year’s story.

British Champions Day 2022 was one of the most eagerly anticipated Champions days in recent history. Not since 2012 when the legendary Frankel, trained by the equally legendary Sir Henry Cecil, ran to victory and forever into the hearts of British racing fans with his stirring farewell victory over Cirrus des Aigles, over soft mile-and-a-quarter turf, has any runner been mentioned as a challenger to his greatness.

Until this year and Baaeed.

The backstory on Baaeed

The son of Irish legend Sea The Stars, British-foaled Baaeed raced in the familiar royal-blue-and-white-shouldered silks of late owner Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Shadwell Farm. Sent to train under William Haggas, the bay colt did not campaign as a two-year-old. He became a favorite of Sheikh Hamdan, who would sadly pass away before the start of the colt’s racing career in 2021.

Following maiden and novice victories, Baaeed was stepped up to Listed class and won the Sir Henry Cecil Stakes. Jim Crowley had the reins for the first time in that race and would become his regular rider. Baaeed journeyed only once outside Great Britain, that for his first Group 1 test, winning in the 2021 Prix du Moulin at Paris Longchamp.

He ended his 2021 season last Oct. 16 with a victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (G1) at Ascot.

“He could be a world champion”

After that race, Crowley gushed in the complimentary argot of racing: “He’s just a beast. He keeps getting better and better. He could be a world champion.”

The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, which compiles the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, agreed. By year’s end, Baaeed had rocketed to sixth place in its rankings. The year’s top-rated Thoroughbred was American Breeders’ Cup Classic and Eclipse Award Champion Horse of the Year winner, the speedy Knicks Go.

Unlike Breeders’ Cup rankings and Eclipse Awards categories, the Longines rankings do not distinguish between dirt and turf runners. Baaeed was in heady company entering 2022.

A transatlantic challenge

Recognizing his rare gift, Haggas and Baaeed’s Shadwell Estate connections, now led by Sheikha Hissa, made the easy decision to race him as a four-year-old.

Bettors, too, recognized Baaeed’s rare gift and began his 2022 season by making him the 4-9 favorite in the Lockinge Stakes (G1) at Newbury May 14, where he showed Real World the new world by three lengths in their prep for the Queen Anne Stakes (G1) during Royal Ascot Jun. 14.

In that race, the prohibitive 1-6 favorite prevailed again over Real World and five other Group One challengers.

The Jun. 5 Longines rankings had seen Baaeed dash past swift American runner Life Is Good to claim the top spot in the world Thoroughbred rankings. He kept that place in the Jul. 10 rankings, but with a new and swifter challenger from the New World on his hooves.

Another race was on between two horses separated by an ocean and racing on different surfaces with comparable results, each was claiming uncontested victories.

Also unraced as a two-year-old, Flightline was ignoring opponents by multiple lengths at the same mile distance, but over dirt. The son of Tapit won by 11 1/2 lengths in the G1 Malibu Stakes, six-and-a-half lengths in the Metropolitan Handicap, the Met Mile (G1).

It was the same odds over the same mile with the same result for Baaed in the Sussex Stakes (G1) at Goodwood Jul. 27. That triumph moved Godolphin’s prized Modern Games, winner of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar, to the back of the class.

In a four-year-old season that copied the racing schedule of his own legendary sire, Frankel, Baaeed’s penultimate race was the Juddmonte International Stakes (G1) Aug. 17 at York. There he delivered his ultimate victory, a 6 1/2-length thumping of multiple-grade-winning Champion, Mishriff.


Over two seasons, Baaeed would reel off seven graded victories, including six Group 1 contests, in two countries over seven different racecourses, sometimes by open lengths, other times when challenged. Though trainer Haggas considered him a seven or eight furlong “miler,” his victory over Misriff was at 10 1/2 furlongs, proving he could, in “Field of Dreams” film parlance, go the distance.

A challenge now loomed for Flightline. Distance. To meet the challenge and prepare for greater challenges to come, he was entered in the $1 million, 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic (G1) at California’s Del Mar Racecourse.

Flightline responded to the challenge in a manner many claim has not been seen in a race since the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

On Sept. 3, Flightline emerged from a light Pacific Ocean mist cloaking him at Del Mar to claim his own status as a legend in the making, surely in America, perhaps the world.

If Baaeed was Great Britain’s racing reincarnation of Frankel in the minds of most Britons, Flightline now was thought by many Americans to be the near-literal reincarnation of their own Secretariat, having won his five unbeaten races by a combined 62 3/4 lengths.

The pair were not racing against each other, but against the legend of two heroes of the sport.

Baaeed’s challenge had been more than met. Flightline threw down a gauntlet of his own.

The IFHA agreed. In its Sept. 11 Longines rankings, Flightline snorted past Baaeed to claim the world’s #1 ranking with a rating of 139 to Baaeed’s 135. Flightline’s rating was the highest ever awarded a dirt horse. The pair’s closest competitor was nine pounds distant, Nature Strip with a still-high 126 rating. The ratings remained identical in the Oct. 9 rankings.

Flightline and Baaeed now existed in a parallel racing universe above the rest, a universe of their own creation, fashioned by their own historic accomplishments.

A choice now loomed for connections of Baaeed.

Across the Channel or home?

Europe’s most prestigious race is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), held annually the first Sunday in October at Paris Longchamp. The 1 1/2-mile Turf contest draws Europe’s best middle-distance runners. It awards the continent’s largest prize, 5 million euros, not to mention a handsome silver trophy of the race’s namesake monument with a jockey atop a racing horse.

Trainer Haggas first announced that he, in consultation with Sheikha Hissa, would aim Baaeed for the Oct. 2 Arc.

Then it began. Connections for Champion Misriff announced their charge would skip the Arc and opt instead for the Oct. 15 Champions Stakes (G1) at Ascot. Pyledriver, sixth with a 124 rating and ranking as the world’s third best turf horse, was scratched due to a minor injury. Other potential competitors withdrew from Arc consideration, opting instead for other Arc weekend races.

As the race neared and the distinguished competition diminished, Baaeed’s connections had second thoughts. Haggas finally announced a change in race plans. Baaeed would instead race in the Champions Stakes on British Champions Day, Oct. 15. It would be the final race of his distinguished, hoped-for unbeaten, career.

The reason announced by Haggas for the change was the likelihood of early rain in Paris, resulting in soft turf that had plagued recent Arc runnings and did not favor horses with a good turn of foot like Baaeed.

But the turf at Ascot was known for the same soft turf possibility after a long racing season, so there were likely additional considerations. The Champions Stakes is shorter at 1 1/4 miles, a distance Baaeed had proven he could handle. He could end his career at home before an excited, adoring crowd. “Home field” can be an advantage in racing, too.

But perhaps there was the underlying feeling that the diminished competition in the Arc would not stand the test of a legacy comparison between Baaeed and Frankel. Of course, he could not compete against the retired stud horse. Perhaps the next best option would be to take on one of his legacy competitor’s progeny, Adayar.

Foaled the same year as Baaeed, Adayar was sired in Ireland by Frankel. He was trained by Charlie Appleby for Godolphin. That racing stable is ironically owned by the late Sheikh Hamdan’s younger brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Adayar had started 10 times with only four wins, but was considered very competitive, having finished fourth in the 2021 Arc.

As the race approached, Mishriff was withdrawn and retired from racing. Still, perhaps winning over Adayar, last year’s 80-1 German victor, Torquator Tasso and others would be sufficient proof of Baaeed’s greatness. If it did not secure a position as being better at 11-0-0 than 14-0-0 Frankel, victory could spark a lasting debate among racing’s cognescenti and fans.

“It’s Showtime”

British Champions Day Saturday dawned clear and sunny. The turf was rated “good to soft in places.” Still, the Champions Stakes would not be run in the sudden downpouring rain Haggas did fear and that did occur on Arc day. The timing of the rain affected the Arc, allowing five-year-old mare, Alpinista, again ironically a daughter of Frankel, to triumph as the 3-1 post time favorite.

Much like Kentucky Derby Day in the U.S., racing fans and social gotta-be-theres filled the King George VI stand dressed in their finery and ready to cheer on their hometown heroes and heroines, most importantly Baaeed.

Retirements and rejuvenation can reign on Champions Day and they did on this one.

The day began with a festive farewell parade by beloved Champion marathon runner, “stayer” in European racing terms, Stradivarius, before his adoring public. The son of another legend, Irish Champion Sea The Stars, had already etched his own name in the stars. His distinguished 20-5-5 career included 35 starts at up to 20 furlongs—2 1/2 miles—a raft of graded victories, two Cartier Awards as Europe’s top stayer, and a record four consecutive Goodwood Cup (G1) wins.

Champion jockey to Stradivarius and numerous other champion horses, Lanfranco Dettori, was on hand with his longtime equine companion. Racing on this day and rumored to be retiring in 2023, this Champions Day at Ascot might be the last at this familiar venue for “Frankie,” to many, the international human face of horseracing.

If this was Dettori’s farewell, he made it a memorable one, with a dominating victory aboard Emily Upjohn in the Fillies and Mares Stakes (G1). He followed that by treating the roaring crowd to a second signature flying dismount in the Ascot Winners Circle after piloting Kinross to an equally dominating win in the Sprint Stakes (G1).

Dettori’s possible farewell served as a greeting of sorts for a new, young, female face in the Champions Day Winners Circle, Hollie Doyle. The British rider set a record for wins by a female flat racing jockey in Britain in 2019 and followed that by finishing fourth in the 2020 overall jockey rankings, the highest ever attained by a female rider.

Doyle, too, left her mark on Champions Day history, winning a third consecutive Long Distance Cup (G2) for Trueshan and trainer, Alan King.

Stradivarius, Dettori and Doyle would turn out to provide the day’s most festive moments.

“The ground, as simple as that”

A crowd of 35,000 filled Ascot this Champions Day and by Champions Stakes post time, they were in a frenzy, gathering what would be a momentous roar in just over two minutes. The roar began to mount as the nine competing horses approached the gates.

Baeed entered as the prohibitive favorite, Adayar the second choice.

The horses all broke cleanly. Crowley moved Baaeed off the rail and into a comfortable stalking position, where he would remain until completing the final turn.

Baaeed is a closer. Crowley preserves his energy for the final furlongs, then “pushes the button” and…

…nothing happened.

“The ground, simple as that,” Crowley would later say. “I turned into the straight and normally where he would be able to pick up…that kick which is normally there…just wasn’t there. It was heavy weather really.”

“Expectation is the root of all heartache”

That phrase is often misattributed to Shakespeare. But it really doesn’t matter who said it first. Its truth has been proven innumerable times under innumerable circumstances.

Like this one.

The sound of 35,000 people stunned into speechless silence has a deafening “sound” all its own. The silence that followed first Bay Bridge, then Adayar, then My Prospero, then—finally—Baaeed crossing the finish line at Ascot was more ear-shattering than would have been the crowd’s roar had Baaeed won. Even the race announcer fell silent before collecting himself to begin the call for the next race.

Baaeed lost?

It did not matter if it was because of weather, of turf pounded over months of racing, of moving the race from Newmarket, where it had been often run before allure of the glitz of Ascot, or the racing gods.

Baaeed lost.

A rivalry lost too

No doubt the connections of Flightline watched the Champions Stakes anxiously. One wonders how they felt. Jubilant because their chief competitor for world racing’s greatest honor was now vanquished? Anxious because of the realization the same fate could befall their hero, their expected legend, in the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Keeneland, the unofficial “birthplace” of American horseracing.

But it is possible they felt deflated, as the Sunday headline in The Guardian suggested:

“Champions Day falls flat as Baaeed flops at Ascot”

No one put that question to Flightline’s owners; to his trainer, John Sadler; to his jockey, Flavien Prat, who called Flightline “The best horse I will ever ride.”

Perhaps someone should have asked. More than a race was lost on Champions Day. The rivalry that determines champions, certainly legends, may have been lost as well.

On Nov. 5, an undetermined number of competitors will enter the gates to mount another rivalry. Eric Reed, the trainer of Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Rich Strike, has said connections are leaning to the Classic. Travers Stakes (G1) winner, Epicenter, vying for two Eclipse Awards as Champion Three-Year-Old Male and Horse of the Year, will certainly be in the running. Others of course.

But it won’t seem the same. Perhaps some will be running for an Eclipse Award, perhaps for a piece of the Classic’s $6 million purse, perhaps to increase their stud value, perhaps for reasons known only to those who choose to run.

The talk that now precedes the Classic will be about connections’ deciding Flightline’s future as a racehorse or a stallion next year. The outcome of the race will likely play a part in that decision.

Yes, indeed, it is true: “There is a reason they run the race.” As there will be on Nov. 5 at Keeneland.

If Flightline wins the Classic convincingly, the talk will surely turn once again to a comparison with Secretariat. No one, though, will compare him with Baaeed as two living G.O.A.T.s.

Flightline will have raced against himself and a myth.

It could have been so much more.

Feature image: Baaeed ridden by jockey Jim Crowley before the QIPCO Champion Stakes on QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot Racecourse, October 15, 2022.