Boris Johnson, Remainers might like to be reminded, does sometimes change his mind under pressure. Some years ago, as editor of The Spectator, he dropped the then weekly Turf column, as he told me, ‘to provide more room for politics at the front of the magazine’. Fortunately for me, so many readers protested at its absence that he reinstated it, although on a fortnightly basis. That is why sometimes, given the necessary interval between copy submission and publication, there cannot be coverage that might be expected, as with Royal Ascot this week.
At next year’s meeting, one thing will have changed: the newest event on the Royal Ascot card, the Group One Commonwealth Cup for three-year-olds run over six furlongs, staged only for the past five years, will no longer be open to geldings. It is a decision that caused a minor kerfuffle and which might seem at odds with our less discriminatory times. Geldings, after all, are responsible for the bulk of the racing we watch. Last Saturday I went through the 14 races staged at York and Sandown, the two biggest meetings of the day. Of the 186 contestants, 24 were fillies and mares. In York’s 20-runner JCB Handicap, 18 of the 20 runners were geldings. Of the 162 male horses involved across the two cards, no fewer than 127 were geldings, that is to say they had been castrated to reduce testosterone levels. In some cases, this is done to help maintain the quality of the gene pool for breeding purposes; in most cases, though, it is done because geldings are better behaved, easier to handle and less inclined to sit at the back of the class thinking dirty thoughts when their jockeys are calling for concentration.
Some have contested the Ascot ruling. French trainer Fabrice Chappet told the Racing Post: ‘It won’t change anybody’s ideas about cutting colts. If a horse that needs it isn’t gelded he won’t be winning a Group One. But it’s a shame anyway.’ The wise Henry Candy trained the gelded and talented Limato to be second in the Commonwealth Cup in 2015 and when I asked him for his thoughts at Sandown the response was robust: ‘If geldings are good enough, they should be able to run in anything. If Group One colts aren’t good enough we should all know about it.’ Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing and communications, says, though, that the Commonwealth Cup was only opened to geldings at the start to help build up the popularity of the race and while fields have averaged about 15, only two geldings have run. He points out that geldings are already banned from the other British Group Ones that are restricted to three-year-olds — stallion-making races such as the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby, the St James’s Palace Stakes and the St Leger.
Royal Ascot, the track recognised as Britain’s biggest contribution to the international racing circuit (though sadly we didn’t see so many Australian sprinters coming over this year), is all about the maintenance of quality but interestingly there seems to be something of a transatlantic divide on the question of geldings’ rights. The French, too, are pretty picky about which races they will allow to be contested by those who have had their cojones removed — an operation that is described, rather inaptly, as an ‘orchidectomy’ — but the more meritocratic Americans are not nearly so fussed. Between 1919 and 1956, geldings were prevented from contesting the Belmont Stakes, one of the three constituent races of the US Triple Crown along with the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But since then they have been free to contest all three. Geldings have won all three races, and the gelding Funny Cide, in 2003, collected two of the three legs of the Triple Crown. Kelso, Forego and John Henry, multiple winners of the American Horse of the Year award, were all orchidless.
Racing needs geldings to reduce the maiming, biting and kicking of jockeys, grooms and stable staff. It is no joke at all when half a ton of horse comes at you with nostrils flaring, teeth bared and hooves flashing, and the gelding process enables us to go on watching year after year characters like John Bridger’s Pettochside. In the parade ring on Saturday, the on-his-toes ten-year-old was the pick of the bunch, and neatly handled by young Cieren Fallon he finished a decent fourth. Since his first victory in 2012, Pettochside has won ten of his 69 races and been placed in 21 more. He may not be able to dream of enjoying heavenly fillies in some equine paradise, but quite clearly he is still enjoying himself and looks ready to win again soon.
On the subject of fillies, do keep an eye open for Ralph Beckett’s Nette Rousse, winner of the ten-furlong EBF Maiden Stakes at Sandown. She led all the way under champion jockey Silvestre de Sousa, then dug again to fight off a wave of challengers up the Sandown hill in truly impressive style.