ROYAL ASCOT REFLECTIONS: LANDMARKS APLENTY
If ever a major racing festival needed a reminder that this game of ours is all about the horse, it was this year’s Royal Ascot. It was a meeting dominated by the human element – through the horse of course - with many people reaching career landmarks while our biggest stars failed to fire.
I’ve got to be honest, the latter point left me disappointed after a five-day occasion that failed to shake me on too many occasions despite the pre-race seismograph being active. That’s racing, I suppose, and much worse for those connected with leading fancies.
On Tuesday, Battaash and Lady Aurelia squared up in what seemingly promised to be an electrifying battle of speed in the King’s Stand Stakes, but both under-performed as Blue Point had the perfect set-up to score, in the end, a dominant victory. Battaash at least ran a race, showing his eye-opening early pace, but making-all up that stiff climb is never easy.
Lady Aurelia – the horse who has helped light up the last two Royal meetings – was a huge disappointment back in seventh and, like Battaash, didn’t produce her best on what was Blue Point’s day. The winner received a fine ride from William Buick who got a lead and cover just off the pace before producing his mount to win giving Sheikh Mohammed, Godolphin and Charlie Appleby another Group 1 success after their Derby heroics with Masar.
On Wednesday, arguably the meeting’s headline horse, Cracksman was another star name to be defeated in lacklustre fashion, in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes by the consistent and tough Poet’s Word.
Having gone to Ascot, you could feel the sense of disappointment around the track, although the race was saved from total misery with Sir Michael Stoute superseding the late, great Sir Henry Cecil’s Royal Ascot record of 75 winners. While melancholy about the defeat of Cracksman, it was somewhat uplifting to hear Stoute fondly remember one of my racing heroes in Cecil.
Speaking after the race, Stoute had the following to say of his great achievement while recognising another master of his craft, “Henry's (Cecil) record was formidable, because he accumulated those numbers when there were four days of Royal Ascot for most of his career and the five-day meeting hasn't been implemented for that long.”
"We are very glad it has happened and it is a great reflection on the staff. Last year at Royal Ascot, we had plenty of runners and had five beaten favourites, so I'm pleased to just win any race as we only needed one winner! I love the game and we have great staff and very supportive owners, so I'd like to keep going for a little while more.”
“Certain horses that stick out include, of course, Etienne Gerard who was our first winner and Shareef Dancer, who was a very expensive 1981 yearling and won the King Edward VII Stakes in 1983. Shareef Dancer was the first horse Sheikh Maktoum Al Maktoum gave me.”
Stoute’s Royal meeting would get even better when Expert Eye would go on to win the Jersey Stakes later that afternoon which was followed two days later by Eqtidaar winning the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup. It was another race to let down however, with both 11/4 favourite Sioux Nation and the highly-touted Equilateral both failing to run their respective races.
Still in its infancy after four years, the race had given us so much in the three previous winners – Muhaarar, Quiet Reflection and Caravaggio. The contest had maybe led me down the garden path of seeing something special. Sadly, that didn’t transpire.
The week finished on a downer, too, at least where one of the game’s sprinting stars is concerned. Harry Angel trailed in tenth of 11 in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes on Saturday after what can only be described as a near disaster in the stalls for the 5/2 favourite.
Having loaded second last, while waiting for the final runner to go in, Clive Cox’s stable star became extremely fractious, lifted his rear end and kicked out violently at the gates behind him. In this action, the Godolphin-owned colt saw one of his hind legs come to a rest on one of the sideboards in the stalls – an area where jockeys and stall handlers can stand – meaning, when the gates opened, he effectively jumped out of the stalls on three legs.
This led to the son of Dark Angel missing the break badly, and injuring himself in the process. After the race, the unbelievably classy and resilient Clive Cox had this to say, “It's a big shame it has happened and it has affected the whole day really. He has a nasty puncture wound, which we are concerned enough about. He was not sound behind when he came in - he wasn't dreadful, but he wasn't sound. I am just sorry for everyone and it's a shame, but I think we will be fine”.
This episode, on top of Australian raider Redkirk Warrior failing to fire, was another disappointment in a race that Aidan O’Brien’s Merchant Navy went on to win, for all, post-race when watching the replay, this was an exciting finish between the winner and French raider City Light.
There of course were highs, and Calyx was brilliant of the Coventry Stakes on the opening day. To win a race on what potentially was the ‘wrong’ side of the track in that style was extremely impressive for a horse so young. The sky’s the limit for John Gosden’s son of Kingman while a positive mention goes to Richard Fahey’s Vange who, in defeat showed fine early pace and a strong display of galloping to finish fourth when trying to make-all.
A day later, Expert Eye would go on to win the Jersey Stakes by four-and-a-half lengths, an incredible distance in a competitive seven-furlong Group 3 contest. The race set up nicely for his hold-up style, and he came home late under a well-judged James McDonald ride. The victory would be a first Royal Ascot success for his Australian-based jockey who is one of the world’s leading talents in the saddle.
The week’s feature race, the Gold Cup on Thursday, produced as good a renewal on paper as I’ve seen despite the race favourite Order Of St George not being at his very best. The gallant Torcedor led early in the straight as he tried to fend off the classy trio of Stradivarius, Vazirabad and Order Of St George.
He got the better of old foe and race favourite, but Stradivarius and Vazirabad swooped by late, and it was the former that battled on best to give John Gosden a first Gold Cup and Frankie Dettori a 60th Royal Ascot winner. It’s a race that I wish I got to experience on track.
One of the performances of the week came in a handicap on Gold Cup day, but as a backer of the runner-up in the Britannia Stakes, thankfully I wasn’t on track. Ostilio would essentially make-all under Champion Jockey Silvestre De Sousa despite running keen and win a competitive handicap readily from a progressive and well-handicapped horse. It was another landmark for a trainer, as Simon Crisford bagged his maiden Royal Ascot success.
So too did Jessica Harrington, win her first Royal Ascot race, when the grey filly Alpha Centauri shook the stands on the way to victory in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes on Friday. In her astounding six lengths success, the daughter of Mastercraftsman would smash the previous course record held by Barney Roy, beating a field which included all three 1000 Guineas winners from Newmarket, The Curragh and the French equivalent at ParisLongchamp.
It was another big race to add to Harrington’s impressive dual-purpose CV after she landed her first Classic this season – with Alpha Centauri – which includes three of National Hunt racing’s greatest prizes, the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle and the Champion Chase among many, many more big wins.
Other trainers to taste maiden Royal Ascot victories included Eve Johnson Houghton, Marco Botti, Ed Walker and Archie Watson.
Johnson Houghton won the opening Queen Anne Stakes with Accidental Agent, a son of Delegator, bred by her mother, Gaie, who they bought back for just 8,000 Guineas because “nobody wanted him”. It was also the trainer’s first Group 1 success. The winning jockey, Charles Bishop, was also winning his first Group 1 and Royal Ascot race.
The Group 2 Duke Of Cambridge Stakes went to Aljazzi on Wednesday, securing Marco Botti a maiden Royal success. The Italian has been training in the UK since 2006 so he’s had to be patient. The Newmarket trainer said, “We have been so close here so many times with horses like Dandino, Excelebration and Euro Charline and it is just nice to finally get one on the board. I am really delighted.”
In his eighth season as a trainer, Ed Walker got off the mark thanks to Agrotera who won the Sandringham Handicap under Jamie Spencer on Friday. Walker’s post-race words of “This means everything. The whole world is watching and it's so hard to win here” spoke volumes.
The talents of Archie Watson mean he’s only had to wait two seasons to win a Royal Ascot race. Soldier's Call fended off 27 other runners to win the Listed Windsor Castle Stakes on Saturday after the trainer’s Nate The Great finished second in the Chesham Stakes just two-and-a-half hours earlier.
There were also landmarks for frequent visitors of the Royal Ascot winners’ enclosure, Ryan Moore and American trainer Wesley Ward. Moore would win his 50th Royal Ascot race aboard Hunting Horn in the Group 3 Hampton Court Stakes while Wesley Ward would win his 10th, thanks to Shang Shang Shang taking out the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes, a simply incredible feat which sees him edge ahead of such trainers like Jim Bolger, Clive Cox, Ed Dunlop, Andre Fabre, William Haggas, Jeremey Noseda and John Oxx.