This really put the topper on it. After England’s cricketers had been whipped 4-1 in the 2002-3 Ashes Tour it was hard to think how British sporting pride could be humbled further. Then a big slab of a sprinter called Choisir made the 15,000 mile journey up from Sydney in that summer of 2003 and Royal Ascot would never be the same again.
It was not just the unique achievement of winning the five furlong (1,000 metre) Kings Stand Stakes on the Tuesday and doubling it up with the 6 furlong £145,000 Golden Jubilee Stakes on the Saturday, but the sheer brazen, well, Australianness of it all. If the old fashioned denizens of the Royal Enclosure wanted to stereotype owner-trainer Paul Perry and his team as brash, overhatted, ex-convicts and to sneer at Choisir’s bull-thick neck and strange gauze eyeshield that would just help the starting price. 25-1 was still on offer as the massive chestnut exploded from the starting stalls. His 16 rivals only saw the back of him.
This was the first Australian horse to ever win in Britain and it had been done at Royal Ascot. To do it once was extraordinary enough but to repeat the process four days later was truly incredible. Even then the British public could not really accept what they had seen and on the Saturday still preferred the elegant but rather hesitant-starting local filly Airwave. They made her 11-8 favourite with Choisir unbelievable hindsight value at 13-2,and when the race happened it took the Anglo/Oz rivalry almost to pantomime level.
The brutish Australian trailblazer stormed off in the lead while the willowy British madam was roared on by the 40,000 crowd as she unavailingly hunted the impostor down. Choisir clocked the line in I min 12.23secs, a new track record for the uphill Ascot 6 furlongs, and the more we looked the better the story became.
It transpired that not only had a triumphant Paul Perry backed his horse, Choisir had after all won Australia’s top sprint The Lightning Stakes in Melbourne that spring, but he had only come up because his original plan to race in Singapore had been scuppered by the Sars virus. What’s more all this was related to us by the leathery figure of Choisir’s exercise rider Lyle Weaver who at 67 was still racing as a jockey in his Native New South Wales and made Crocodile Dundee look a mere limp wristed snake fiddler. For Royal Ascot, indeed for British sport, it will have to remain one of the publicity coups of the century.
For an institution whose idea in the past of “public relations” was once memorably described by the late, great Roger Mortimer, as “the sort of thing disreputable M.P.s get up to with Guardsmen in St James Park”, it seemed a move of almost iconoclastic dimensions. You could almost hear the “yes, but” reservations being muttered by the traditionalists, but Royal Ascot has not just celebrated Choisir’s “downunder” breakthrough, it has trebled it. Australian runners repeated his sprint triumph, albeit with the Kings Stand Stakes only, in 2006 with Takeover Target, in 2007 with Miss Andretti and in 2009 with Scenic Blast.
It is a reflection on how far we have come from Choisir’s 25-1 breakthrough that both Miss Andretti and Scenic Blast started favourite, and from the comments of the latter’s jockey Steven Arnold in the unsaddling enclosure it was clear that the Royal Ascot trip has become one of Australian racing’s most coveted adventures. “This is the highlight of my career” said the tall, low-crouching Arnold, whose racing life started out at Pioneer Park in his native Alice Springs, “I have won big races back home but to come up here to such a great event and be on such a good horse just takes the biscuit.”
As with many mould breaking developments, the success of Ascot’s mining of the Australian sprinting scene was part inspiration, part perspiration and part quirky change of fortune. “The idea had always been to try and attract American horses over to the Royal meeting,” explains the International Racing Bureau’s Adrian Beaumont. “But they were wary of our low prize money and far stricter “medication” (anti-doping) rules. So in 2003 Nick Cheyne (Ascot’s then Director of Racing) went down to Australia to try and recruit their top middle distance horse Northerly. That didn’t work but whilst he was down there the Choisir connections agreed to tilt at the sprints, and the rest, as they say is history.”
That’s something of an understatement for the work that Beaumont’s team have undertaken in support of the current recruiting under Ascot’s Head of Communications Nick Smith and the establishment in 2005 of what is now the eight race Global Sprint Challenge starting with Australia’s Lightning Stakes in January and progressing via England, Japan, and Australia to close out with the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint in December. The first “Challenge” was won by the Hong Kong Sprinter Cape of Good Hope who took the Golden Jubilee in the Royal Ascot run at York while the old course was rebuilding, but since then the “Aussies” Takeover Target, Miss Andretti and Scenic Blast have held the ring amongst the world’s sprinters.
What Choisir’s breakthrough in 2003 highlighted is that sprinters are a much tougher and therefore more transportable commodity than middle distance horses and whilst Choisir was a full colt and Miss Andretti a mare, most sprinters are geldings like Takeover Target and Scenic Blast and therefore not locked in to protecting their breeding value. It should be noted that while Sea The Stars unique, unbeaten, 6 Group One winning season in 2009 set new standards for the thoroughbred, he only ran 9 times in his whole career. Compare that with Choisir’s 20 outings on the track, Scenic Blast’s 21, Miss Andretti’s 30 and the extraordinary little hustler that was Takeover Target’s 41.
Sprinters in every sense do not stand on ceremony and, as a delightful fillip to the staider images of Royal Ascot, their connections tend not to either. Nothing was ever going to be the same after Choisir but even that did not prepare us for taxi driver Joe Janiak and the little horse he bought for the “dogger’s price” of $1,250 (£500) and took on a four continent journey from the dusty oval of Queanbeyan near Adelaide all the way to Royal Ascot collecting no less than £2.5 million en route.
Four times Takeover Target came up to England, last year sickness prevented him running at Ascot, but in 2006 he was first in the Kings Stand and third in the Jubilee, in 2007 he was 4th in the Kings Stand and 2nd (beaten just a head) in the Jubilee, and in 2008 he was fourth in the Jubilee after being runner up in the Kings Stand to the first Ascot winner ever trained in Spain.
True there was a bit of unpleasantness when he was banned in Hong Kong after testing positive to a steroid legal in Australia but forbidden in the other territory. True also that these different standards rankled somewhat with European trainers who wondered whether Choisir’s astonishing bulk was only the product of hay, oats and water. But Australia’s acceptance of stricter steroid rules now make the Americans the only ones out of step in a process which logic dictates must surely be internationally integrated sometime soon.
So when top Aussie sprinter Nicconi comes up this year expect professional respect rather than envy or patronising to be the order of the day. Trainer David Hayes has never looked like the sort of guy to hang corks beneath his topper but what Choisir started 7 years ago should make us doff ours in appreciation.