Genuine passion and nearly 1,000 winners – the Queen’s lifelong love affair with racing

A sport mourns one of its most cherished and committed devotees

Thursday September 08 2022, 9.45pm, The Times

In our racing parish the grief will be as heartfelt and as hurtful as anywhere in the kingdom. For she loved what we loved and it has been like that from the end to the beginning. Only yesterday a filly called Improvise carried the Queen’s silks into second place at Epsom just as 69 years earlier her colt Aureole ran second there in the Derby. She is gone but our memories remain.

She was already steeped in the game by the time of her coronation in 1953. As a girl she had loved to accompany her father on visits to the royal trainers and to the mares and foals at the royal studs. In 1944 she was at Newmarket for the wartime Derby in her ATS uniform. In 1949, she was at Fontwell Park to cheer home her first winner, a chaser called Monaveen that she shared with her mother. There have been almost a thousand since and only a fortnight after Aureole’s Derby second, her horse called Choir Boy won the 1953 Royal Hunt Cup, the first of what was to be 24 winners at Royal Ascot.

A year later Aureole won the Hardwicke Stakes there as part of a stellar season which saw the Queen become champion owner, something repeated in 1957 when she led in Lester Piggott on Carrozza after the Oaks, her first classic winner. Since then, she has landed all the other classics, except for the Derby. The 2,000 Guineas with Pall Mall in 1958, the 1,000 Guineas and the French Oaks with Highclere in 1974, and the Oaks and St Leger with Dunfermline in 1977. But, for all the sport and the nation’s yearning, Carlton House’s third in 2011 is the closest she has got to the Derby since Aureole’s gallant effort four days after the Coronation.

To stay in love with racing you have to accept the setbacks and over the years the Queen has taken her full share of the twists that fortune can play. Back in the 1970s she lost the then-promising stallion Doutelle when he bled to death after tearing his throat with the rack chain, used to hold a stable door, and then the Goodwood Cup winner Magna Carta when he broke his jaw strung up on his hay net.

Worse still came in the 1980s when, for the Queen, events conspired to produce a whole decade of trouble. Every private stud yearns for one great mare from whom champions and Derby winners will spring and in 1981 they had found it when the big, leggy two-year-old Height Of Fashion won the May Hill Stakes and the Fillies’ Mile. But when the filly broke the track record in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes and Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum offered the then unthinkable £1.2 million — and the royal studs also having Height Of Fashion’s dam and half-sisters on its roster — this seemed an offer too good to refuse.

What ifs don’t make history but this sale did. For the money was used to buy the West Ilsey stables of Height Of Fashion’s trainer, Dick Hern, who with Dunfermline and Height Of Fashion’s dam, Highclere, had produced some of the Queen’s greatest of days. In 1988 Hern had a heart attack and a decision taken to replace him was not rescinded when he made a recovery a year later. By then Height Of Fashion’s now Sheikh Hamdan-owned son Nashwan was on a roll and the supposedly incapable trainer took him to win the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby in an all-conquering march to become horse of the year.

The decision had been taken with the best of intentions but the racing world took the Hern side and the Queen’s popularity suffered from her unswerving avoidance of public comment, something which in racing was exacerbated by the contrast with the Queen Mother’s merry march to the 100 mark. It became a poignant truth that it was only in these past 20 years that the racing world has come to fully appreciate the unique compliment they were being paid to have Queen Elizabeth II as a central player in their game.

What they came to realise was what hit me quite instantly when I attended a private party for her racing team to celebrate the great season of 1977. The Queen was not just in her palace, she was in her element too. She moved from one leathery handshake to another, from one Sunday best to another. Wary weather-beaten faces soon creased into smiles as they relived the golden moments that had brought them all together. There could be no tension because they knew she knew those memories had been theirs as much as hers. They knew, too, that she enjoyed the private moments at the stables every bit as much as the public triumphs on the racetracks.

Talking to her was an awestruck delight. She bubbled with enthusiasm at what a good year it had been and how good it was to see all those familiar faces around the room. She was small but only in stature, friendly but not overfamiliar. She talked of the future in that fingers-crossed way that only owner-breeders can.

That future would have its challenges and 20 years ago things had descended into something of a slump. In 2001 and 2002 the royal colours were carried by just 16 horses, who added a mere six winners each season. Last year the figures were 41 horses landing 36 races, making that 70th year of the Queen’s reign the most numerically successful yet.

The absolute highlight of this time was Estimate’s victory in the 2013 Ascot Gold Cup at the royal meeting. As in so many other great moments down the years, the pictures of the Queen cheering home her winner are some of the happiest images of all her wondrous reign. Those of us lucky to have shared that part of our interest hold on to them as a special salve in the nation’s grief.

A week ago at Salisbury a big, handsome but very inexperienced two-year-old called Circle Of Fire got the hang of things in the final quarter-mile and stormed home under Ryan Moore, the man who won that Gold Cup on Estimate and who the Queen continued to call “my jockey”. In the unsaddling enclosure afterwards racing manager John Warren made one of those discreet but very direct calls that were the supreme privilege of his job. The horse had done it well, anything was possible, we could even dream of the Queen and the Derby next year.

At Goodwood on Tuesday a two-year-old filly called Love Affairs gave us the last of what were almost 1,000 royal winners. Now all our dreams are over, the longest love affair in British history has run its course and racing will shed the saddest but most grateful of tears.

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