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Why British Champions Day is ‘like the FA Cup final’

A collective gasp rolls around Ascot as superstar Stadivarius and popular jockey Frankie Dettori lose their crown after a gritty fight to the finish.

Long-distance specialist Stradivarius was on a roll of 10 straight wins, but this is sport and the unpredictable nature adds to the drama of British Champions Day.

It’s the showpiece climax to Britain’s flat racing season, a final chapter for its many narratives, a festival atmosphere for about 30,000 racegoers and the most valuable day of racing in Britain with prize money of more than $5.2 million.

“What we want this day to be like, for racing, is the FA Cup final,” Rod Street, chief executive officer of the British Champions Series, told CNN Sport inside Ascot’s parade ring.

“We want it to be an event that people really look forward to every year.

“For them to think, ‘I’m going to come to that,’ because the racing is going to be brilliant, the atmosphere is going to be excellent and it feels like a real celebration of the sport.”

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Royal patronage

Now in its ninth year, British Champions Day — the culmination of the 35-race British Champions Series — has become a well-established part of the racing calendar. It attracts Europe’s top horses, riders and owners, including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, a racehorse owner herself and an avid racing fan.

The John-Gosden-trained Stradivarius has been one of the standout horses of recent seasons but his defeat by a nose to Kew Gardens in the two-mile Long Distance Cup passes the baton, even if it deprives some of the fairy tale finish they crave.

Bringing together another popular thread, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Magical, three times a runner-up to double Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe heroine Enable and fifth this year, clinched her most lucrative title yet with victory in the Champion Stakes.

“You don’t necessarily want the same horses winning all the time, you want excitement, and that’s sport,” Simon Bazalgette, the recently departed group chief executive officer of the Jockey Club, told CNN Sport.

‘Special occasion’

Bazalgette played a key role in getting the British Champions Series off the ground in 2011, with strong financial support from QIPCO Holding, one of the biggest private investment companies in the gas-rich Gulf nation of Qatar.

“The flat season in the UK didn’t have a defined beginning, middle and end,” said Bazalgette, who was succeeded by former Sky and BT Sport executive Delia Bushell at the Jockey Club, which owns 15 of Britain’s best known race courses.

“But every sporting competition needs a season, and a climax. So we looked at how that could be created, and on the back of that, we created British Champions Day.”

The creation of the British Champions Series, which consists of some of the sport’s biggest races, including the 2,000 Guineas, The Derby, Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood, wasn’t without controversy.

“In 2011, it was a break in tradition,” Street said. “This is an amalgamation of races from other racecourses. Because racing is quite traditional, there was quite a lot of push-back, and a lot of people who said, ‘It can’t done,’ or, ‘It shouldn’t be done.’ But we’ve got to a place now where the industry is really behind it, we’ve shown we can create a special occasion.”

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‘Enjoying the atmosphere’

Billed as “The Ultimate Raceday,” British Champions Day has a celebratory feel to it, complete with a fanzone, an opening ceremony, a military band, autograph signings by famous jockeys and an after-party headlined by Basement Jaxx.

“I don’t go to races like this very often, only for special occasions,” said Louise Billington from Harrow, who was lining up to try and win a race scarf by sprinting against an imaginary Stradivarius over a 10-meter track next to the parade ring.

Billington, who was attending a friend’s 60th birthday party at Ascot, had never been to British Champions Day before.

“We are really enjoying the atmosphere,” she said. “I’ll put a few bets on, but I don’t study form. Having said that, I’ve got a few recommendations.

“We really want to get the scarf,” added her friend, Lynne Reilly, also from Harrow. “Our friend is a big racing fan, she loves the horses and it was her choice to come here.”

‘A day of huge importance’

There were also huge banners showcasing Irish rider Oisin Murphy, who was presented with the champion jockey award – for riding the most winners throughout the season – by Britain’s heptathlon world champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

“I’m both relieved and delighted that I managed to do it because I set my stall out to be champion and it has been a lifelong ambition,” said Murphy, who stood on 217 victories at the start of British Champions Day and who at 24 is the youngest Champion Jockey since 2006. “It’s been super.”

Street said he was proud of Champions Day’s status and its impact on racing.

“It is a day of huge importance,” he said. “It has come a long way.”

“This is the culmination, this is the richest day in the country in terms of prize money. It has the highest number of group races on any one day. It has a real international flavor, in terms of attracting horses from France, from Ireland and this year, Japan with Deirdre. And it’s all about making sure that Britain’s position in the equine racing world remains as important as it has been for many, many decades.”