Friday June 23 2023,
What a race to set before a King. The famous scarlet and gold silks are buried at the back of the field as 19 runners thunder into the Ascot straight, Tom Marquand a little pumping dynamo as he tries to thread his way. He is closing but the outside is blocked. He drives inwards but there are still six horses fanned in front of him and the post is rushing up. Then the gap opens between the two leaders, Desert Hero stretches his chestnut neck and in the last three strides he has it by a head. He has put the royal into Royal Ascot.
There was no need for feigned regal enjoyment. This was as good as Flat racing gets. A handsome colt foaled at your mother’s stud whose two victories last year had even made him discussed as a Derby hope. But back in April trainer William Haggas said Ascot was the aim. A preliminary run over a shorter distance had got the horse ready and now was the time to give the monarch some real participation to go with those regal waves in the carriage procession.
One fourth place was the best three royal runners could do over the first two days of the meeting and on one of them Frankie Dettori got himself a nine-day suspension. No one expects the King to suddenly match his mother’s lifelong passion, but reports have suggested that he and the Queen are getting real enjoyment out of the whole tantalising process of racing’s snakes and ladders. Now we could see the effect of a winner.
Marquand was led back with sweat streaming through a smile that would light the darkest dungeon. Haggas strode over, beaming as wide as if he had hit a double century in his chosen sport at Lord’s. Marquand dismounted but as jockey and trainer started to debrief a ripple of applause began. The owners were here.
The plural is important. For while ruling monarchs have had racehorses for four centuries now, never before has the ownership been clearly stated as “HM The King & HM The Queen” and as their majesties came into the unsaddling enclosure it showed. This is clearly a hobby they can share and in which other members of the family get pleasure too. Here was the Princess Royal walking up with her expert horsewoman touch and here her daughter throwing protocol aside in celebratory embraces.
Time was when getting quotes from members of the royal family and indeed top performers in the racing game was either forbidden or close to getting blood out of a stone. But things are different now. “Think how proud our grandmother, the Queen, would’ve been,” Zara Phillips said. “To have a winner for Charles and Camilla and keep that dream alive was incredible. It’s a new excitement. Like all those owners that come here and have a horse here — having that dream, that hope, and then fulfilling it is incredible. The horses are the main game here, that’s why we get involved and love them and the competition, the adrenaline — it’s indescribable.”
Marquand was equally euphoric. “It’s one of the proudest moments I have had in the saddle,” he said, the smile ablaze in the face as the sweat ran down.
“That’s one of the proudest moments I’ve had in the saddle. I grew up watching horses like Estimate win for the Queen and to ride the King’s first Royal Ascot winner is unbelievable. It’s a dream.
“Racing has an amazing way of making things happen when they’re meant to. Wednesday was a tough day, in racing terms, but Royal Ascot is the pinnacle. Riding a royal winner at the royal meeting is so, so special. I had to thread the eye of the needle but Desert Hero was supremely game. As the Haggas team show time and time again, they just get it right.”
It was enough to send us all home happy but this was an afternoon that kept on giving. One race later Dettori was at his masterful best as he coaxed and drove the massively inexperienced Courage Mon Ami, trained by John and Thady Gosden, to win the Gold Cup for a ninth time. In extravagance at their royal good fortune the fates then followed victory for Ascot’s riding king with triumph from that queen of the turf Hayley Turner, driving home the 6-1 favourite Docklands to land the Royal Hunt Cup.
The world is full of woes but it is important to also celebrate great moments when they come. The winner’s circle on any day can be a place where you warm your hands on happiness. Yesterday was special because that happiness had the hand of history on it.