There are many facets to Royal Ascot’s appeal. For some it is glamour, style and opulence. For some it is the betting opportunities afforded by large fields, for others an opportunity to pay tribute to a revered monarch and to share her obvious pleasure in its equine stars. What I love is the sheer intensity of the competition. The immeasurable kudos afforded to owners, trainers and jockeys of being able to say you have had a Royal Ascot winner ensures the fiercest effort from all concerned: there is no such thing as an easy victory at Royal Ascot.
Few this year will forget the spectacle of Frankie Dettori and the current champion jockey Oisin Murphy battling eyeball to eyeball through the last two furlongs of the Commonwealth Cup sprint on their mounts Campanelle and Dragon Symbol. As they flashed past the post a mere head apart, Dragon Symbol was in front but he had pushed Campanelle across the track and bumped him so the stewards reversed the order and gave the prize to Campanelle. When his valet put a consoling arm around him in the weighing room afterwards, Oisin’s response was: ‘There’s no room for tears in here. There are far worse things going on in the world. We’re in the entertainment industry and I’m steering these marvellous animals.’ He showed the quality of his professional cool by winning the very next race, the Coronation Stakes, on Alcohol Free. Oisin deserved consolation, but I was pleased too that by awarding the race to Campanelle the Ascot stewards ensured that trainer Wesley Ward went home to America with his 12th Ascot victory. Ascot is Britain’s centre of international racing and Wesley Ward has been a major contributor with his regular team of raiders since Strike The Tiger won the Windsor Castle Stakes at 33-1 in 2009.
The stewards were busy last week: the outcome of the Group 2 Hampton Court Stakes also had to be decided in the stewards’ room when Mohaafeth, ridden by Jim Crowley, came home 1¼ lengths clear of Roman Empire, whose jockey Ryan Moore had to snatch up his mount as Mohaafeth drifted right across him in the final furlong. The officials decided that Crowley’s failure to take early corrective action had not affected the outcome of the race and it would have been a tragedy if the talented Mohaafeth’s trainer William Haggas, who had taken the tough decision to pull the horse out of the Derby on race morning when the going changed, had been deprived of victory at Ascot when he clearly had the best horse.
But racing rules can work out in funny ways. Crowley was penalised with six days of enforced holiday for careless riding and kept the race. Oisin Murphy got a lesser penalty of four days for his offence but his mount was demoted to second place. Intriguingly the champion jockey, who has good contacts in Japan, had bought Dragon Symbol with his own money and sold him on to his Japanese owner.
A highlight of the Ascot week for me was the classy victory in the G2 Hardwicke Stakes of Wonderful Tonight, owned by music mogul Christopher Wright and trained by British-based Frenchman David Menuisier who candidly admitted beforehand that since the filly’s target this season is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in October he only had her 85 per cent fit for Ascot. Another was the way in which the iron horse Poetic Flare demolished the field in the St James’s Palace Stakes. Some trainers wrap Classic candidates in cotton wool but not the veteran Irish owner-breeder-trainer Jim Bolger, now nudging 80. He was running his teak-hard miler for the fifth time this season and having bred from the family since the 1980s he greeted victory with the simple comment: ‘I was expecting him to go and do that.’
Jockeys, too, thanks to fitness programmes and access to good dieticians, are definitely lasting longer. Poetic Flare was ridden by Bolger’s son-in-law Kevin Manning who is 54. Palace Pier, odds-on victor in the Queen Anne Stakes, was ridden by 50-year-old Frankie Dettori and although Frankie could not delight the crowd with a fourth Gold Cup win for the old hero Stradivarius, the worthy winner of that race too, Subjectivist, was ridden by 50-year-old Joe Fanning. Maybe in the Shergar Cup this year they should field a new team called the Veterans.
Frankie’s mentor in middle age, trainer John Gosden, now sharing horse-handling duties with son Thady, has trained many Royal Ascot winners but it hasn’t made him cynical. Asked if he was nervous about the 2-7 Palace Pier’s chances his reply was: ‘If you are odds-on like that it would be a bit odd if you weren’t nervous because the only thing around the corner is a banana skin.’ Ascot, let us remember, faced potential banana skins too. It was taking part, at considerable cost, in the government’s Events Research Programme to show that bigger sporting crowds can be safely managed. To the benefit of all in racing, they proved the point with style.