The participation of arguably the biggest and brightest star on Qipco British Champions Day will hinge on raceday conditions at Ascot, after trainer John Gosden stated he will have to be satisfied with the course on Saturday morning before allowing champion stayer Stradivarius to chase an 11th consecutive success.
Odds-on favourite for the Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup, Stradivarius overcame soft ground to win the same Group 2 contest last year and looks likely to face similar conditions again should he get the green light from Gosden to run at one of British racing's showpiece fixtures.
Dettori and Stradivarius, photo Liesl King
The three races at Ascot scheduled for the round course – the Long Distance Cup, Champion Stakes and Fillies & Mares Stakes – are almost certain to switch to the course's inner track to ensure racing takes place under the best possible underfoot conditions, and that probable switch could be crucial where Stradivarius is concerned.
"We'll have to wait and see what track we'll be on," said Gosden on Monday when asked about the five-time Group 1 winner's participation. "And the most important thing I can do is see how it is and walk the track on Saturday morning, as I did last year, and make a final decision."
Ascot's outer track, which would normally be used for the fixture and for all others on the Flat, remained waterlogged in places on Monday, while the inner track, left unwatered through the summer, is good to soft, soft in places despite the deluge that has seen 140mm of rain at Ascot since September 21.
So saturated were conditions on Sunday morning, long-serving clerk of the course Chris Stickels described conditions as "the softest and wettest I've ever known them" and little had changed after he surveyed the track on Monday afternoon.
"We've had 6mm since yesterday lunchtime," said Stickels at 3pm on Monday. "The ground remains heavy on the straight course and heavy, waterlogged in places on the round course. The inner round course is a mixture of good to soft and soft."
Considering the forecast for the remainder of the week, races on the round track could be abandoned as early as Wednesday according to Stickels, allowing a switch to the inner track – which is essentially the hurdles course – to be sanctioned well in advance of Saturday.
He added: "So far it hasn't been as wet as it could have been today. Tomorrow it's due to be a bit drier, with only an odd isolated shower, and then further rain Wednesday and showers Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
"I've walked the track this afternoon with Richard Linley [BHA senior inspector of courses] and he agrees with me that we're heavy, waterlogged in places and, if we don't see any improvement by Wednesday morning and the forecast remains the same, he would be happy for us to abandon the races on the round course and move to the inner at that point, and we can do that within the BHA general instructions."
Despite more rain forecast, Stickels believes the inner course is in a good position to cope and does not anticipate the ground on that track to deteriorate past soft based on the current forecast, while its configuration should not pose an issue either.
He added: "It's taking the rain exceptionally well at the moment and it would take a bit for it to go soft all over at this stage.
"The mile and a quarter and two-mile starts will move a little. There's more of a run to the Swinley Bottom bend with the mile-and-a-quarter start, so that's probably a bit better.
"The radius of the bend turning into the straight on the inner Flat course is 140 metres. On the existing track it's actually a tighter bend at 138 metres."
Regarding the straight course, already described as heavy, Stickels said: "The straight course is taking the rain at the moment. It's a very free-draining surface and takes it very well. At the moment it's fine and I don't have any major concerns but obviously it's heavy ground."
Mekong team going for gold
Speculation over the participation of Stradivarius saw his grip at the head of the Long Distance Cup market loosen a little on Monday, with Ladbrokes going 8-11 (from 1-2).
The main movers against Stradivarius on Monday were Royal Line, Dee Ex Bee, Withhold and Mekong, whose owner Philip Newton described on Monday as "entered and there to run".
The Sir Michael Stoute-trained four-year was a general 25-1 shot before Monday's five-day declarations but ended the day around half that price, with bet365 the last firm holding out at 16-1.
Mekong has not been seen since finishing tenth in the Sky Bet Ebor and Stoute shelved a run in the Listed Prix Scaramouche earlier this month.
"The cards haven't quite fallen for the horse this year and the race at Saint-Cloud was an option where the deck might have played our way," said Newton, who also bred the son of Frankel. "But we decided that travelling him over and bringing him back meant we were maybe going to compromise having a real shot on Saturday."
Nor is Newton is among those who will be overly concerned by the weather.
He said: "Mekong is effective on everything: he goes on fast ground and has shown that he can go on soft ground as well. He has been very lightly raced this year and that's the trouble with the Ebor. You get seduced by the money and as a consequence, instead of the normal sort of programme you might have had, we thought we’d have a good shot at the Ebor."