THE TIMES, 24 July 2021
A great race needs to ask big questions. When the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes was first run in 1951, it set two challenges. Could that year’s Derby winner confirm himself against both his peers and his elders? And could a horse race play a major part in a summer of national renewal? Today asks the same questions and the first will be easier to answer than the latter when the race was seen as such a shining part of the national mood that it was had that year’s ‘Festival of Britain’ written into its name.
In 1951 Arctic Prince had trounced a massive 33 runner field at Epsom but his efforts to repeat it against what remains a record 19 runners at Ascot were hampered by injury and he was way out of the numbers behind Supreme Court. Barring physical misfortune this year’s Derby hero Adayar should have a much better shot to hit a chord which has rung gloriously down the decades.
In 1961 it was the magnificent French Derby winner Right Royal who proved invincible against the previous year’s Epsom star St Paddy. In 1971 little Mill Reef left his elders floundering and followed up doing the same in the Arc that October. In 1981 Shergar and a 19-year-old Walter Swinburn were temporarily trapped on the rail but went through to success and their later ill-fated immortality. In 1991 Derby winner Generous put a record seven lengths between himself and the second Sanglamore. In 2001 Galileo completed the Epsom-Ascot double, and ten years ago it was his son Nathaniel who held off the previous year’s Derby scorer Workforce in a race which saw Frankie Dettori sent to hospital after a hideous accident to the Godolphin horse Rewilding.
Having vivid, and from 1971, first-hand memories of all these does not fill me with yearnings for yesteryear, but with appreciation of the task Adayar now faces. He looked a good racehorse at Epsom but today, he has to prove it. He may have just five – not Supreme Court’s 18 rivals – but they are quality enough to test him. His contemporary Lone Eagle comes off an impressive second in the Irish Derby. The outsider Broome is a multiple Group winner trained by Aidan O’Brien. Globe-trotting Mishriff has got an incredible £10m in the bank and the Royal Ascot star Wonderful Tonight looks the best filly in Europe bar Broome’s classic stable mate Love whose 18-month unbeaten run makes her a worthy favourite.
The race also refutes the idea that the present-day thoroughbred is somehow inferior and more cossetted than the tough old warriors of the past. The thoroughbred racehorse may have a limited gene pool for any physical development, but advances in nutrition, nurture, veterinary knowledge and training disciplines have brought improvement which the clock can confirm. As for toughness, this year’s field have already appeared 58 times in five different countries and Love ran seven times as a two year old.
What remains an enigma is how and when to measure maturity in the equine athlete. The assumption that the thoroughbred does not reach its peak until it is a four-year-old and that a female is inferior to the male means that Mishriff and Broome will have to carry four pounds more than the fillies Love and Wonderful Tonight and no less than 11 lbs more than their juniors Adayar and Wonderful Tonight. It may be a way of bringing the generations together, but it should temper claims to greatness. Grundy’s defeat of Bustino in the 1975 King George may have been the most implacably thrilling flat race many of us have ever seen but beating his older rival by just half a length in receipt of almost a stone was in effect proof of actual inferiority.
Adayar is a beau ideal of the big handsome racehorse. He lifted the spirits at Epsom and his battle with Love and the others should do the same to the 14,000 or so on the track and the million plus watching on TV. The race having a material effect on the national mood as the 1951 running undoubtedly did is a quite different matter from a very different time.
Post war Britain was a pretty grim and grey place, and the racecourses added a greenness and a glitter to the quality of life. The centrepiece of The Festival of Britain was on the newly built South Bank of the Thames across from what was still a badly bomb-damaged city. Horseracing was still a central part of the national psyche and fifth behind Supreme Court was the grey Colonist II owned by Winston Churchill who would become Prime Minister again in October.
Yes, these were different days, and it is easy to look back and rage against the dying of the light. Better to relish the challenge that Adayar faces today which will still involve every bit as much power and courage and indeed beauty as it did when Supreme Court ran home 70 years ago.