Rain, trains, Frankie Dettori’s heroics, Blue Point, Stradivarius and the Queen’s wise words -- that was Royal Ascot 2019
The rain did its best to spoil the party and I personally had to wallow in one of the most trying weeks of my punting career, losing a pretty packet.
But it was still impossible not to be charmed, nay seduced, by the allure of Royal Ascot last week.
What a meeting it was. From the moment cock of the north jockey Daniel Tudhope triggered his remarkable four-winner week by guiding the admirable grey LORD GLITTERS to success in the opening race, the Queen Anne Stakes. To the moment champion jockey Silvestre De Sousa salvaged a barren week by punching CLEONTE to a poignant victory in the concluding race, the Queen Alexandra Stakes, for the King Power Racing project that was the brainchild of ill-fated former Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
In between the Queen Anne and the Queen Alexandra, we had, of course, many opportunities to marvel at Queen Elizabeth, who once again spent five long and loving days at the course she owns, revelling in the sport she adores.
She failed to make the winner’s enclosure this year, despite the best efforts of MAJESTIC DAWN to defy top weight in the Sandringham Handicap. But she did succeed in hitting the nail on the head with an event-defining message that appeared in the Ascot racecard on each of the five days. .
The Queen wrote: “Racing began at Ascot over 300 years ago and, while much has changed, the horses remain the stars, thrilling us with their beauty, brilliance and courage. The quality and depth of competition at the Royal Meeting has also continued to prosper.”
It was a timely reminder that the horses are what matter most in racing and, on an equine level, Royal Ascot 2019 delivered most of the goods we expected. Spearheaded of course by the two heroes of the week, BLUE POINT, who became the first sprinter since Australian powerhouse Choisir in 2003 to complete the King’s Stand Stakes/Diamond Jubilee Stakes double, and STRADIVARIUS, the loveable chestnut stayer who completed back-to-back triumphs in the Gold Cup.
It’s a shame that Blue Point has now been carted off to stud, although owner Sheikh Mohammed did reveal such in his TV interview immediately after the race and it’s worth remembering that the gelding bombed badly last summer in the July Cup, which would have been his next likely target.
Stradivarius will still be around for his next target, at Goodwood next month, and no doubt for a few more too judged by his smooth success. It was the highlight of a day on Thursday that will go down in Ascot folklore as one never to be forgotten. And we all know why that was.
Shamefully, I am almost 500 words into this piece already without having mentioned Frankie Dettori. At the age of 48, you’d have thought the Italian’s star would not be burning so brightly. But Gold Cup Day told us otherwise as he threatened to run through the card with an unprecedented six-timer to rival his ‘Magnificent Seven’ on the same track back in 1996. Of course, he was never going to manage it because his mount in the last, QUESTIONAIRE, had little or no chance of winning the King George V Handicap and, in fact, proceeded to disgrace himself by tailing off mulishly. But for a few brief moments, when Dettori shot TURGENEV two or three lengths clear approaching the final furlong of the preceding contest, the Britannia Handicap, the hairs on the back of the neck were almost uprooted amid fever-pitch frenzy among everyone watching.
Cruelty reigned, and reality returned, when he was caught by Ralph Beckett’s party-pooper, BIOMETRIC. But what an afternoon Dettori had treated us to. One to rival that ‘golden hour’ earlier in the year when jockey Bryony Frost and then owner Andrew Gemmell evoked tears of joy at the Cheltenham Festival. It was thorough proof that Flat racing can excite and delight with just as much gusto as Jumps racing. Few sportsmen in the country engage so charismatically with their adoring public than Frankie Dettori, and few milk that affection more effectively.
Twenty-four hours later, the Flat’s headline week even yielded its own Bryony moment when Hayley Turner became the first woman to ride a winner at the royal meeting since Gay Kelleway on Sprowston Boy in 1987. Turner, who hails from my Nottinghamshire neck of the woods, produced a peach of a hold-up ride on 33/1 shot THANKS BE in the aforementioned Sandringham to remind us that she is comfortably the best female jockey this country has unearthed.
Turner was of only 14 jockeys to triumph at the meeting. Indeed, of the 30 races, no fewer than 16 of them were landed by the trio of Dettori, who bagged his first Royal Ascot jockeys’ title since 2004, Ryan Moore and Tudhope. Between them, Dettori and Moore hogged an extraordinary number of 30 top-four slots between them. That’s a quarter of the total available.
Moore might have been denied his customary jockeys’ title, but only by a whisker after booting home seven seconds, and at least he still contributed to Aidan O’Brien picking up his ninth prize as top trainer in the last 13 seasons.
The genius of Ballydoyle has now trained 70 Royal Ascot winners and is only 11 behind the all-time leader, Sir Michael Stoute. The powers of the 73-year-old Barbadian are showing no signs of waning, however, as the wins of CRYSTAL OCEAN in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes and SANGARIUS in the Hampton Court Stakes underlined. Stoute’s expletive-ridden reaction, captured by the ITV cameras, when another one, DREAM OF DREAMS, got away in the Diamond Jubilee proved what it all still means to him.
O’Brien and the Coolmore owners’ operation had every reason to be pleased with their tally of five winners. But it’s worth noting too that an amazingly high number of O’Brien-trained favourites -- nine in total -- bit the dust. Then again, for a trainer not renowned for saddling the winners of Royal Ascot handicaps, he only went and dropped in the 1-2-3 (SOUTH PACIFIC, CONSTANTINOPLE and EMINENCE) in the King George V!
South Pacific came in at 22/1 and was one of five big-priced handicap winners that emphasised, along with the beaten Ballydoyle favourites, how difficult it was for punters throughout the week. Hard and fast rules such as never back maidens in the juvenile races and never back anything making their seasonal bows were blown apart by the likes of A’ALLI in the Norfolk Stakes, SOUTHERN HILLS in the Windsor Castle Stakes, AFAAK in the Royal Hunt Cup and MOVE SWIFTLY in the Duke Of Cambridge Stakes.
On top of that, Guineas winners PHOENIX OF SPAIN, HERMOSA and CASTLE LADY were all readily turned over, while many big-race trends were dumped on the scrapheap. JAPAN, surely O’Brien’s most impressive winner of the week, proved that it is possible to be placed in the Derby and still land the King Edward VII Stakes only 20 days later. The fast-improving DEFOE proved that 5yos can win the Hardwicke Stakes, and his stablemate CAPE BYRON proved that you can win the Wokingham Handicap on your first try at 6f and, what’s more, do it off a monster mark of 107.
The rain and the constantly changing state of the ground added to the head-scratching, and it bordered on the bizarre that Saturday’s action took place on genuinely fast ground only 48 hours after they had been sluicing through genuinely Soft ground. In fact, conditions were so damp and dank for the 2m4f Ascot Stakes that racegoers were treated to the rare sight, for the Flat, of two stragglers being pulled up.
Far from being pulled up, nor stuck in the stalls like ACCIDENTAL AGENT and ICKWORTH, were the trains. Rarely can there have been a story of such ignorant misinformation than the one propagated by the racing media, pre-meeting, that a train strike would bring travel chaos for racegoers. We all fell for it but, as it happened, South Western Railway still managed to run four trains an hour to and from London Waterloo, and problems were minimal. I have every sympathy for the RMT union who called the strike but, tactically, they got this one as wrong as Pierre-Charles Boudot on WALDGEIST in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes.
As the trains chugged, so the crowds flocked. Numbers were slightly down on the previous year, but that was no reflection of the way Ascot staged the show. It never ceases to amaze me how the course’s magnificent grandstand has evolved since those dark days when it was first unveiled and how magically the track makes expert use of every nook and cranny of its vast arena. There were nigh on 70,000 in attendance on Friday and yet it was relatively comfortable and amazingly easy to switch from paddock to viewing terrace and vice-versa for each race.Try saying that on Gold Cup Day at Cheltenham!
There are still those who scoff at the pomp and pageantry inevitably linked to Royal Ascot. Those who cannot stomach the need to gouge on fashion, food and drink. But such traditions are a small sacrifice to pay for the sheer excellence of the racing and the unique, feelgood atmosphere that pervades all five days. Royal Ascot really, is, as the slogan goes, like nowhere else.