22 June 2003
Choisir comes from Broadmeadow, Newcastle, New South Wales, and to say he is broad would be an understatement. He is unique. He is the bulkiest horse I have ever seen at Royal Ascot. And if only the Wallabies could have played him at Melbourne they would have won by a landslide. He is a speed freak, doubling up Tuesday’s King’s Stand Stakes with yesterday’s Golden Jubilee and breaking the six-furlong track record in the process.
Before Tuesday the achievement was in coming here at all, and reporting had an element of patronising praise for Paul Perry for becoming the first Australian training team to saddle a Royal Ascot runner. After Tuesday’s five-furlong blitz there was astonishment. After yesterday’s ruthless outgunning of flying filly Airwave, it was little short of “shock and awe”.
It is impossible to exaggerate either the extent of this adventure in equine terms, or the physical bulk of the runner in question. For years now the Ascot Authority have often vainly beseeched overseas trainers to come and try their luck at the Royal Meeting. This Golden Jubilee Stakes, with American raider Morluc also among the 17 starters, was their justification. This is the world’s best race meeting, and it needs to draw the world’s best racehorses. Even if it turns out they come from Broadmeadow, a little track two hours up the coast from Sydney and not normally seen as the Ascot of the antipodes.
Choisir doesn’t stand on ceremony and, believe me, you would not want him to stand on your feet. He stands a good 16 hands 2 inches at his enormous chesnut shoulder, weighs the best part of 540 kilos, and the slab of squared-off muscle that purports to be his neck is something you would more likely see on a carthorse than an Ascot runner. As for his rump, imagine two giant apples with legs attached.
Walking round the still resplendent paddock yesterday he was the perfect rough `Aussie’ foil to the angled feminine elegance of the three-year-old filly Airwave, whose recent victory at Sandown had drawn superlatives all of its own. Despite what punters had seen on Tuesday, they hung on to the heroine they knew, Airwave starting at 11-8 favourite, Choisir being available at 13-2. It was to take just 1 min 12.32 secs to see the verdict.
This at the time (it was actually bettered 35 minutes later), was the fastest six furlongs ever clocked at Ascot and from the moment the gates whacked open it was easy to understand why. American horses are trained to be lightning-quick starters and, within 50 yards, Morluc had rocketed clear of his nearside rivals as if `Old Nick’ and not Gary Stevens was up behind the mane.
But out wide, the mauve jacket of Johnny Murtagh was already matching him as Choisir powered ahead of those beside him. Airwave had made her usual tardy start but Dane O’Neill looked sure to get the breaks when he wanted them. As Murtagh moved Choisir across to the grandstand rail, there was a moment when it looked as if the doors might get locked on the filly, but with a full furlong to run she was out and set down to race.
The beauty was never going to catch that beast. Choisir’s pace was just too much for Airwave. She hung to the right as she vainly tried to reduce the gap between them. A hundred yards from the line you knew she could not win. At the post Choisir had a comfortable half length to spare.
This Royal Ascot has had record crowds and betting turnover. The sun has shone and for five days you could legitimately delude yourself that at least in this corner all was well in the world. The last day may have lacked a Royal Procession, (the carriages were being polished for President Putin) but it had a great Hardwicke Stakes victory for the quirky Indian Creek and a rare dead-heat in the Wokingham Stakes between Fayr Jag and the Frankie Dettori-ridden Ratio, which lowered Choisir’s new best six-furlong time by 0.05 secs. Mark Johnston was a deserved leading trainer, Dettori just edged in as top jockey, but nothing in all this pantomime could match the massive beast from Down Under.
After the plaudits of the unsaddling enclosure, Choisir was led away for a wash-down by Lyle Weaver, the 67-year-old exercise rider who still races as a jockey back home. As you can imagine Lyle is not prone to pussyfooting. “This is a bull of a horse,” he said. “You can only trot and canter him at home. If he got another horse beside him he would bolt with you.”
The 32-hour, 15,000-mile journey that Lyle shared with the white-faced muscle pack beside him had only come about because the original plan to race in Singapore had been scuttled by the Sars virus. “Paul said did I want to go up to England with him,” said Lyle. “I said why not?”
When the soon to be septuagenarian jockey resumes his duties around the smaller ovals of New South Wales, he will have many wondrous tales to tell of his strange new companions up where they claim to have invented the racing game. He will talk of the huge open spaces of Newmarket and of his two extraordinary winning journeys to the My Fair Lady madness of Royal Ascot. Some of his listeners will sip their beer and think Lyle is spinning it. How soon before they realise that he and Choisir have actually just told the most extraordinary Royal Ascot story of them all?