Going looks good for Yorkshire’s champion Ascot raid

theIR racing odysseys may have taken them in opposite directions, but Brian Ellison and William Haggas have much in common as they look to upset the odds on Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot.

Both are incredibly proud of their Yorkshire association despite contrasting upbringings – Ellison, a proud squat-like working-class Geordie, counts Malton as home while Harrow-educated Haggas took his White Rose roots to Newmarket where he has enjoyed Classic success.

Both trainers are already enjoying record-breaking seasons – Ellison’s Flat runners recently eclipsed the £500,000 prize money mark for the first time in his 25-year career while Haggas has already set career-best scores this season with 90 winners and more than £1.6m of prize money.

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Both are due to saddle horses today with proven form – Ellison’s Top Notch Tonto steps up in class to tackle Europe’s top milers, including 2000 Guineas hero Dawn Approach, in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes while the Haggas-trained Mukhadram reappears in the 10-furlong Qipco Champion Stakes.

Both head to Ascot in the belief that they have nothing to lose – and everything to win – after a week of heavy rain at the iconic Berkshire track guaranteed testing conditions that may not suit some of the more renowned Flat racing stars of 2013.

First up is Top Notch Tonto whose chestnut coat is a near-match for his racing colours, and who has been a revelation since being switched by owner Keith Brown to Ellison’s stables when East Yorkshire trainer Ian McInnes received a three-year ban for “reckless disregard” of horse welfare.

Brown, a property dealer, paid £70,000 to supplement his three-year-old in today’s race after much soul-searching last weekend – but he believes it is a worthwhile gamble because first prize is £300,000.

“Top Notch Tonto is not only a very flashy boy, he is also a very useful, talented individual. He has won on good ground but is better on soft or heavy – that’s the only reason we’re going to Ascot,” said Ellison, whose stable was buoyed by Montefeltro’s win in last Sunday’s Irish Cesarewitch under young claimer Robert Tart.

“He has only had four runs for us, winning the first by a nose and losing the second by a short head. His third run was very impressive when he won the Group Three Superior Mile at Haydock – which was our first Group winner.

“He was ante-post favourite for the Cambridgeshire but was withdrawn as the ground was unsuitable.

“He ran in a Listed race at Redcar the following week and even though the ground wasn’t as soft as he would prefer, and he was dropped back in trip, he proved what a classy horse he is, winning with plenty in hand.”

Those last two wins came in the hands of Dale Swift, the unsung jockey who was in the saddle when the Ellison-trained Moyenne Corniche sprung a surprise in the 2011 Betfred Ebor at York.

Now 61, Ellison freely admits that the 115-rated Top Notch Tonto is the classiest horse that he has trained as he seeks a first Grade One on the Flat to equal hurdler Marsh Warbler’s win at the highest level at Chepstow in January 2011.

He says he was inundated with calls from top jockeys wanting the ride, but has stayed loyal to Swift because of the rider’s winning rapport with Top Notch Tonto.

It was the same with Stormy Weather, who prevailed at Wetherby under young conditional Nathan Moscrop – Ellison says staff will graft even harder if they know there is the prospect of a big race ride.

“It is going to be tough, the more rain the better,” concedes the trainer who has been given hourly weather updates throughout the week from an owner who lives near Ascot.

“Yet, on his rating of 115, he’s not far off some of the main contenders. The horse is well, he thrives on his work, and you don’t get too many chances to run in a Group One. He loves his racing and will give 110 per cent.”

The more likely winner is the Haggas-trained Mukhadram, whose opponents in the Qipco Champion Stakes for middle-distance horses include Aidan O’Brien’s Derby hero Ruler Of The World and French raider Cirrus Des Aigles, who narrowly lost the corresponding race 12 months ago to the late Sir Henry Cecil’s equine legend Frankel.

The mount of two-time champion jockey Paul Hanagan, the front-running Mukhadram had two epic battles in defeat against Al Kazeem – this month’s Arc sixth – at Royal Ascot and in Sandown’s Coral-Eclipse before winning the Sky Bet York Stakes.

Off the track with a foot abcess that might explain why Mukhadram hung badly at York in the closing stages, Haggas – son-in-law to legendary jockey Lester Piggott – is confident, although he would not want the ground to be any softer than forecast.

Unlike York when he could barely bring himself to watch the race because Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum’s colt was expected to win, the pressure will be on others.

“He’s fresh and he’s in good shape. I couldn’t be happier,” Haggas told the Yorkshire Post. “He’s well able to win a Group One race. Whether it is today, or not, we’ll see. The challenge for my team will be beating this year’s performance in 2014.”

Haggas begins the day by saddling Harris Tweed for his father Brian, who lives near Ilkley, in the Long Distance Cup. He says he will be pleasantly surprised if his horse finishes in the first three in a race that features the reappearance of the Queen’s Ascot Gold Cup heroine Estimate.

Father and son’s enduring regret of 2013 is that they withdrew the soft ground specialist from York’s Ebor – and then unexpected rain dramatically changed conditions on the Knavesmire.

“He won at Glorious Goodwood, and then at Goodwood on Ebor day. This has been the plan but I’ll be surprised if he’s in the first three,” said the trainer with characteristic realism.

Haggas then saddles Fury in the closing race for apprentices. This horse is likely to be aimed at next year’s season-opening Lincoln handicap at Doncaster, but the trainer says the next generation of jockeys must be supported.

He accepts the criticism of the timing of Champions Day, and that a weekend at the end of September might provide better going. The downside is that it would clash with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and diminish the quality of racing. “I love everything about it, and we have to get behind British racing,” said Haggas. It’s a sentiment shared by Ellison who offers this blunt assessment: “If you’re not in, you can’t win it.”