Five full-on days, the first two alien to Ascot, for the elements and the atmosphere, as an outdoor sport became an indoor pursuit, to the belly of the space-age stands, when the rain fell and fell, before Frankie Dettori, with electricity running through him, became the power-generator for the whole week with his own Thursday thunderstorm, single-handedly changing the dynamics of the mood and the meeting, sharing the stage, and top billing, by the end of the week by Blue Point.
Any review of Royal Ascot 2019 starts and ends with one rider and one horse, Dettori and Blue Point, the stars of the show, the way history will remember the fixture, but with the quantity and quality so high through the week, it’s worth taking a deeper dive, retrospectively, to pull out some of the distinct themes and hidden gems from the meeting.
FIVE THEMES OF ROYAL ASCOT 2019
1. OLDER IS BETTER
Five was the magic number. Of the twelve open races through the week, eight of them were won by five-year-olds, including heavy-hitters Blue Point, Stradivarius and Crystal Ocean, while Roger Varian’s renowned patience has well and truly paid off with Defoe and Cape Byron, a coming-of-age season for both.
Blue Point couldn’t have done what he did last week as a three - or four-year-old, incomplete then compared to now, machine-like in his mode, and Crystal Ocean has needed all his time to climb the Group 1 mountain, powering up by the month, the pair of them benefiting in (slight and subtle) different ways from the time to mature. But Stradivarius was the real headliner for the power of keeping horses in training, the type he is – a stayer – meaning commercial considerations aren’t near so pressing, his standing making his defence of the title not just an eventuality but an event, a story worthy of the biggest stage, and a script that was delivered faultlessly in full.
Time and again, the week proved the worth of the older horses, the power-play pillars who propped up the meeting.
2. THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Royal Ascot races, from the entry stage to the off time, only decrease in dimensions…usually. But the surprise packages of the week brought about Royal ripples that only come from left-field pebbles being thrown into an unsuspecting pool. The distinguished double by Blue Point was never mooted nor mentioned, up until the curveball of his confirmation on Thursday for the Diamond Jubilee. The narrative was organic and the conclusion orgasmic.
Odds of 10/1 for an O’Brien-Moore production tells its own story of the shock value of Circus Maximus, unfathomably supplemented into the St James’s Palace Stakes, a dramatic detour from his SatNav but one that worked out very well, boosted by blinkers.
The Royal Meeting is so well defined and refined that, from a long way out, the fields are fairly well fleshed out and the markets fairly well snuffed out, but 2019 taught us that a surprising approach can be a successful one, something to bear in mind for when the programmed process starts all over again in 2020.
3. REVVED-UP REAPPEARERS
Loosely linked to the element of surprise, there was a time when any horse returning from an absence into the boiling-hot cauldron of Royal Ascot could be dismissed, or at the very least put to the back of the queue in the long line of horses to dissect and digest. Not any more, not if this year is any guide.
Freshness suddenly looks as much a positive as a negative, in light of the Duke of Cambridge, taken after an eight-month absence by Move Swiftly, and, more so, the high-intensity Hunt Cup, won by Afaak on his first start of the year, by a nose from Clon Coulis (who had herself been off since mid-April). And it was only last season that Bacchus derailed Dreamfield in the Wokingham on his reappearance.
The art of fitness is a craft of trainers, and, at a meeting where qualification often means laying it all out, there’s sometimes an edge in arriving under wraps, a necessity in some cases, though it may become a design in the future, increasingly so.
4. THE JOHNSTON JUGGERNAUT
Of all the trainer tributes for the meeting, Mark Johnston deserves special recognition. The top line of the weekly report is good in itself, with two winners, and even more notable than doing it in a two-year-old race (Queen Mary, with Raffle Prize) was doing it two years running with the same horse, Baghdad, all the more of an achievement given that horse’s serious injury in between.
Equally impressive by Team Johnston was the sheer number that ran well, given the sheer number he ran. Of his 28 runners across the five days, as many as 15 of them performed up to their rating, which is some going considering the competition. Everything is in place for the traditional Johnston July winner whirlwind.
Remembering Raffle Prize, it was only her head – literally a head – that prevented a Wesley Ward winner with Kimari. The American assault was deemed a failure because of the blank, and because of the background, one of big wins from small numbers, but that very background is still very relevant for next year, as is Kimari’s close shave. Royal Ascot wouldn’t be Royal Ascot without the Wesley drag-racers, and it’s imperative he brings batch after batch in the future.
5. ABSENT STARS STILL REFLECTIVELY SHINING
It’s one week of the year and, naturally, not every horse who should be there can be there, for one reason or another. Two that spring to mind are the John Gosden duo of Enable and Calyx, the former finding Ascot coming too soon and the latter sidelined by a setback. But the result of the Prince of Wales’s Stakes - in which Crystal Ocean beat Magical with Waldgeist in third – served as a sharp reminder for just how able Enable is, as she decisively dealt with all three of them at various stages last autumn.
Also, the Commonwealth Cup winner fostered the ‘what if’ factor for Calyx, who’d overcome Advertise (and a difficult draw) at last year’s Royal Ascot. Things conspired that this wasn’t their time to shine, but others reflected great light on the pair of them, suggesting the season may still belong to one or both of Enable and Calyx.
Those were two who didn’t make it, but plenty did make it who couldn’t do themselves justice due to developing forces, well worth compiling a hit list for future reference, and here are just five from the week that caught the eye in that regard.
There’s an element of her being asked to run before she can walk, but she can certainly run. Sixth (of 25) in the Queen Mary, when second home in the unfavoured group, having done the hard work over there, was the latest in a line of promising performances against the odds, only a matter of time before she’s making a bigger breakthrough. She’s entered in the Weatherbys Super Sprint, fast enough for it, and Richard Fahey has won the race in three of the last six years.
Considering the company, fast-tracked to the Windsor Castle, his single-figure price (8/1) was meaningful, and he was in the process of showing why when brought to a virtual standstill before the final furlong. His finishing position of tenth did him a disservice, and his future is still very bright, with the right trainer in Karl Burke to plan a profitable path through the second half of the season.
Though at 40/1 for the Britannia, Glorious Lover’s previous form suggests he’s a well-handicapped horse, and he looked it for a good way, threatening to play a bigger part before his stamina seemed stretched on his first go at a mile, fading into ninth. His name is on one of the many high-value handicaps over seven furlongs, still a sense of unfinished business about him.
Four of the first five in the King George V Handicap were drawn 18, 19, 20 and 21. Sinjaari originated from stall 22, but the experiment by James Doyle to chart a wide course didn’t work out well, taking its toll on him in the finish. All the reasons why he was at the top of my handicap hit-list ahead of Ascot remain relevant, easy to give him a pass for what happened.
Cliches are such because there’s a truth to them, and there was a very obvious ‘Group horse in a handicap’ in the Wokingham in the shape of Cape Byron, for whom the next stop is the July Cup. But there looks another. What top-weight Vanbrugh did for a long way suggests he’s in that mould too, forcing the pace in the group that came off second-best, when covering the middle two furlongs in a smidgen over 22 seconds. Such speed will get him far another day.