Forget what is missing – it is time to relish Royal Ascot, the world’s best meeting

The Times, Tuesday 16 June 2020

This week Royal Ascot faces its greatest test. Can it maintain a hold on the world’s imagination as a mere racing event ?

For in the last 100 years no four, and now five days, have matched its mixture of being the longest and greatest social event of the year as well as doing exactly the same in horse racing. Stripped of the royal procession, the hats, the picnics, the drinking and all the associated madness, can it still excite? It should and it has to. 

For you will see horseracing in all its stark, beautiful and infinitely perplexing simplicity. Seven races each day during the week and eight on Saturday make a feast after the months of famine. But it will also showcase something in which Britain can still be the envy of the world. Royal Ascot has kept its history without needing to be ashamed of it. 

From Frankie Dettori riding the favourite Daarik in the opener to the hardened stayers slugging it out in the closing Queen Alexandra Stakes on Saturday, you will see the best trained talent on two legs and on four. With close up TV pictures you will see the power and speed and courage of the thoroughbred, Britain’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom. Without the distraction of crowds and cheers and fashion flim-flam, you can study the strength, balance and competitive calculation that is needed in the galloping card game that challenges a top jockey. For a start, look at Frankie’s end-of-toe perch in the stirrup iron and wonder how you control half a ton of athlete beneath. 

Of course, not everything in the racing garden is rosy. The oncoming recession is likely to take a heavy toll on owners, horses and racecourses too. Flat racing is hugely dependent on middle eastern money and on betting support tainted by excesses in other gambling products. But it remains an immensely thrilling and intriguing spectacle and the presence of bargain buy Sceptical,  a £2,800 Godolphin reject, as a Dettori ridden favourite in Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee shows that not all the firepower belongs to the big battalions.

Royal Ascot has also made huge strides in making itself more acceptable to a public whose attitude to the horse is very different from yesteryear and whose gambling interest can now be served by other sports. To comply with government guidelines and remove any remaining toxicity from the perceived blemish of Cheltenham, the game has gone to extreme, at times almost laughable pains of social distancing. It would be interesting to hear the medical rather than political justification for wearing a mask in open air space of the Ascot paddock let alone in the race itself and once a mask-free Premier League starts on Wednesday evening, the continuation will surely look ridiculous.

I first went to the meeting on an Under 25 Royal Enclosure pass in 1963 prompting a not entirely complimentary sticker on my mini-van starting “if you knew how much of an idiot you looked.” I have been every year since, have seen the great horses from Mill Reef to Frankel, great riders from Lester Piggott to today’s Oisin Murphy. But even confined to the screen this time, the anticipatory thrill remains. 

Maybe more than ever in this topsy-turvy year when the first day includes The Ribblesdale and The Edward VII Stakes normally seen as consolation races for the Oaks and Derby but now run as trials for those two classics to be run on the same day at Epsom on July 4th. If Mogul confirms himself as Aidan O’Brien’s Derby principal in the Edward VII, First Receiver could do something even more significant if he takes the Hampton Court on Wednesday. He would give the Queen a live chance at Epsom, 67 years since her Aureole was second on the Saturday of Coronation Week.

There is so much to look forward to. The pack of ‘speed balls’ that Wesley Ward has brought over from Florida, the chance of Pinatubo redeeming himself in the St James Palace, the string of impossible to predict handicaps, the ‘fourth time lucky’ attempt of top sprinter Bataash to finally do what we know he can in the Kings Stand on the opening day, and of course, Stradivarius going for a third consecutive Gold Cup. A statue of  four times winner Yeats adorns the paddock, the only horse before Stradivarius I have seen still snorting like a stallion after winning a Gold Cup. On the evidence of his run at Newmarket last week, Stradivarius still has plenty to snort about.

Amongst our ITV team’s valiant efforts to replicate some of the usual non-racing highlights  will be a virtual singalong to close each day as we normally do around the bandstand. On Wednesday this will be led off by tail-coated Andrew Lloyd Webber giving us those wonderful opening bars of ‘Any Dream Will Do’ on his piano. Since then there have been suggestions that members of the team may be called on to sing individual lines. I have been mugging up “A crash of drums, a flash of light , my golden cloak flew out of sight.”

But as yet his musical lordship has failed to ring. How cruel can he be?

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