Greatest race meeting of them all embraces new era

The Times, 15th June 2021

Bob Dylan has never come to Royal Ascot but his most famous anthem could ring true this week. Time was when references to women at the meeting were confined to who would win the Ribblesdale and silly puns about “flighty fillies in fashion”. But if Hollie Doyle wins Friday’s Sandringham Stakes on the Queen’s horse Companionship, there will be smiles, not shock. Even at Ascot, the times they are a-changin’.

It is a cause of celebration that punters have long stopped bothering about Doyle’s gender. They laud her because she has repaid them with more winners this year than any other jockey. They will prick up their ears when they are told that, on Friday, Companionship is set to carry a mere 8st, at which weight Doyle, 24, is a match for any rider on the planet. And nobody gets within 20 lengths of the owner.

If ever there was an example of how to move into the modern era without losing the strengths of tradition, it is the astonishing old lady who has reigned over us for the past 69 years. To say Her Majesty is a marvel is serious understatement. On Friday she took the train to Cornwall to charm the G7 leaders. On Saturday she presided over a special version of Trooping the Colour. On Sunday she hosted the president of the United States and today, at 95, she is likely to be present to watch her King’s Lynn take on Battaash in the King’s Stand Stakes at what, do not forget, is her own racecourse.

There will be no royal procession, because of the pandemic. But you can be sure that when the Queen goes to see her horses in the paddock she will be as warm and informed as in the days when she and the Windsor Castle guests would gallop up the Ascot straight of a morning.

Looking at King’s Lynn, she will not only be admiring the prick of his ears and the sheen of his coat. As his breeder she will remember his dam, Kinematic, winning at Chester in 2014, and recall the brilliant promise of his grandam, Spinning Top, and her victory on debut at Lingfield, before injury cut short her career two races later when favourite in the Pretty Polly Stakes at the Curragh. Her horses are the work of a lifetime — and what a lifetime.

In many ways Britain is unrecognisable from the drab, socially rigid greyness of that immediate postwar era, and Ascot’s development can be seen as a metaphor of our changing times. It may have once been the ultimate of social gatherings but in many respects it, and British racing, was old-fashioned in the worst of ways.

To think that there was no photo-finish until the late Forties, no race commentary until the Fifties and no starting stalls until the late Sixties, which had all been in use in the United States before the war. The exclusivity of the Royal Enclosure is now a statement of style rather than an assertion of pedigree, and if you opt for the general grandstand you can visit the paddock without facing the tunnel beneath the paths of the privileged. The new grandstand was completed in 2006 and it is hard to think why non-Royal Enclosure racegoers put up with that dreadful tunnel for so long.

Royal Ascot still sets its standards but it now wears a welcoming face more necessary than ever as racing’s grip on the interest of the nation continues to erode with the years. To that end its greatest achievement has been to enhance its status as the greatest race meeting of them all. Forget about all the royal and social connections — no other nation puts on five consecutive days of the highest class of racing as Ascot gives this week.

Nowhere else gives you the mix of top classic horses, seasoned handicappers, dour stayers, flying sprinters and super potential two-year-olds — two today brought from Florida by Wesley Ward — that we will see through to Saturday. Human and equine personalities have an impossible job against football and the Euros, but Doyle and her fiancé, Tom Marquand, are the most admirable of players, as is the present champion, Oisín Murphy, and the master that is Ryan Moore.

But all of them are likely to be upstaged by a 50-year-old jockey and a colt who, in horse terms, is equally aged. If Stradivarius forgets his future stallion duties and buckles down with Frankie Dettori to win a fourth consecutive Gold Cup, the cheers will be heard in the top tower of the Castle.

By the way, you can still get 20-1 about Companionship on Friday. If she wins, even my tipping will be a-changin’.

Going to Ascot? Here’s what visitors can expect this year

How many people can attend?
Having been chosen as part of the government’s Events Research Programme, the meeting has special dispensation to welcome 12,000 people each day — the biggest attendance at a racecourse since the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.

What will be different once they’re inside?
The smaller enclosures will be closed but the main two — the Royal Enclosure and Queen Anne Enclosure — will operate largely as usual. “It’s going to look and feel, for those that are here, quite normal,” Nick Smith, director of racing and public affairs at Ascot, said. There will, however, be no royal procession at the start of each day.

Does that mean the Queen is not attending?
No. It has not been confirmed but she is expected to be at Ascot at least on the days when she has a runner. Last year was the first time she missed a day at the royal meeting since ascending to the throne in 1952.

What about the racing?
There are seven races each day — it has traditionally been six but that was expanded last year to provide more opportunities in the Covid-ravaged schedule. The extra races have been retained.

Who are the names to look out for?
Wesley Ward brings a typically competitive crop over from America, while the usual suspects — Aidan O’Brien, Charlie Appleby, John and Thady Gosden — ought to compete for leading trainer honours. The top jockey is likely to be Frankie Dettori or Ryan Moore

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