Let’s get the crowing over first. The returns from our Twelve to Follow over jumps last season were somewhere well south of disappointing but for those who kept faith the Flat season is bringing handsome recompense. Almost immediately, Hugo Palmer’s Labrega won at Haydock at 9–2. Then, in the very first race at Royal Ascot, the Queen Anne Stakes, Eve Johnson-Houghton’s Accidental Agent flew home under Charles Bishop, named as the jockey to follow this season at a whopping 33–1. ‘Stand by for a shower,’ said the emotional trainer after landing not only her first Royal Ascot winner but also her first Group One.
Accidental Agent was named after Eve’s grandfather John Goldsmith, a brave and much-decorated hero in the second world war Special Operations Executive, and was owned and bred by her mother Gaie. ‘She’s the little person crying somewhere,’ said Eve. And so she was, while also predicting that her absent husband Fulke, himself a trainer of ten Royal Ascot winners, would be shedding a few tears at home. Eve was quick to praise her young jockey: ‘Charlie and the horse have grown together. In fact, we’ve grown together. He bollocks me and I bollock him.’ Sadly, though, Charlie may have overdone the celebrations: he missed his rides on the final day of Ascot after failing a breath test.
This was the happiest Royal Ascot I can remember. These days the stiffness has gone: it is a championship racecourse where the best compete fiercely, but it keeps a smile on its face. We all wanted to see Sir Michael Stoute become the winning-most trainer at the Royal meeting, passing the late Sir Henry Cecil’s record of 75. In 2017 he drew a blank but on the second day he won, both with Poet’s Word and Expert Eye, an enigma of a horse whose victory was yet another tribute to his skill. Typically, Sir Michael, a teddy bear of a man who prefers to dodge any roving spotlights, immediately paid tribute to his old friend: ‘Henry did most of his training when it was a four-day meeting, so I’ve had an advantage.’ With the deft touch they have nowadays, the Ascot authorities had a personalised saddlecloth, emblazoned with 76, ready to be presented to him with the race trophy.
They had another ready for Frankie Dettori when he rode Stradivarius to victory, this one marking the fact that the popular rider’s sixth Gold Cup victory was his 60th winner at the meeting. The affectionate and effective partnership between trainer John Gosden and the effervescent Italian is a joy to behold and Gosden’s post-race comments, following significant victories with Calyx, Without Parole and Stradivarius, invariably added enjoyment. Of the last-named he declared: ‘He’s not very big, he’s got white legs and a white face. He looks like a mini Trigger. I could see Wyatt Earp riding into town on him.’ When Frankie had to work himself out of trouble to win on Monarch’s Glen, he noted: ‘Frankie got tucked away in a pocket on the inside but hasn’t lost it yet, the old boy.’ Dettori is getting a little conscious about his age; after Stradivarius’s victory he warned the media: ‘I’ve got six Gold Cups, 60 Royal Ascot winners and I’m 47 — don’t get the numbers mixed up.’
The most impressive victory of the week was another first Royal Ascot win for a lady, the formidable Jessie Harrington. The one-time eventer has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Champion Hurdle and the Irish Grand National but she is no mean handler on the Flat too. Alpha Centauri was blown back into the winner’s enclosure on a wave of Irish pride after she had demolished the field in the Coronation Stakes by six lengths in a course record. A leading owner beside me declared: ‘Derby-winning trainer John Dunlop once told me that there is nobody in racing who knows more about horses than Jessie Harrington,’ and he was right. The filly, already winner of the Irish 1,000 Guineas, is named after the nearest star system to ours and she could well become a shining light in racing’s firmament. Asked about the difference between triumphs at Cheltenham and Ascot, her trainer replied that while both were special, ‘It’s over quicker on the Flat, which is good. Over jumps they have to go a longer distance and over obstacles which gives you a lot more heart-in-mouth moments.’
Racing, though, isn’t just about the people: it is crucially about the horses and there was plenty more emotion, perfectly captured by the impeccable ITV coverage, when Tom Dascombe’s Arthur Kitt, owned by Betfair founder Andrew Black, won the 7f Chesham Stakes. Arthur Kitt’s mother Ceiling Kitty, who won the Queen Mary Stakes in 2012, lost her life giving birth to him. His owner revealed that the colt himself had to be resuscitated several times while a foster mother was found and he began life with a badly twisted leg. It is a wonder that he has been able to race at all.