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May 28, 2017

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French equine pauper out for scalp of English prince at Ascot

PARIS -- Horse racing glories in the moniker "the Sport of Kings" but at Ascot on Saturday a pauper in the shape of Cirrus des Aigles has an outstanding chance of dethroning the prince of the track — Frankel.

The appropriately named Champion Stakes will be the battleground where French hope Cirrus des Aigles will bid to win it for a second successive year and inflict English superstar Frankel's first defeat in what will be his 14th and last race.

The odds are edged toward Cirrus des Aigles. Rain is set to make the surface soft, a situation that is least favorable to the remarkable Frankel. It will also be only the second time that the Henry Cecil-trained superstar has tackled 1 1/4 miles.

With racing being a sport and an industry that trades on blueblood pedigrees — despite many examples of the finest bred horses failing to emulate the achievements of their parents on the track — Cirrus des Aigles has bucked the trend.

While Frankel is the offspring of the champion flat sire Galileo, Cirrus des Aigles is the kin of Even Top, who is best known for producing talented jumps horses.

Win or lose on Saturday, Frankel is set for a lucrative career at one of owner Prince Khalid Abdullah's studs, which covers equivalently well bred mares. No such pleasurable future awaits Cirrus des Aigles. Being a gelding he will end his days lazily lolling in a paddock.

Despite these huge differences in background Cirrus has proved on the racetrack that natural talent can overcome any perceived deficiencies and, with the natural horsemanship of trainer Corine Barande-Barbe, he has got better with age.

The six-year-old — who because he is a gelding is barred from competing in certain prestigious races such as the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe — has collected 11 Group race wins since 2009, the same number as Frankel, but it was only last year he made an impact at Group One level.

His most memorable win came in the Champion Stakes where he edged, under a forceful ride by Christophe Soumillon, the outstanding former Australian champion So You Think and the great English mare Snow Fairy.

"He is a real battler, never knows when he is beaten but does occasionally need a reminder so he doesn't lose concentration," said Soumillon.

Soumillon, though, will not be on him on Saturday. Olivier Peslier replaced Soumillon this season. The last time out, Peslier guided Cirrus des Aigles to a nine length demolition of a quality field in the Group Two Prix Dollar earlier this month.

More impressive was that it was his first race for five months, after both a disqualification and injury. The gelding was disqualified from second place in the Group One Prix d'Ispahan for testing positive for an unspecified banned substance.

The win in the Dollar, his second in the race and 16th win in 46 starts with 21 placings for the princely winnings of almost 4.5 million euros, had 54-year-old Barbe cooing with pleasure and bearing a broad grin in what has been a trying season.

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