Brough Scott charts Elizabeth II’s lifelong passion for racing – and her hopes for Royal Ascot
The Platinum Jubilee rightly celebrates the Queen’s 70 years on the throne but an equal wonder is that for all of those decades, she has also been in the saddle. At the beginning, the Queen was even riding at Ascot.
Few album pictures of her younger years show her in a happier light than those in which she is cantering up the course on race-day mornings with her guests from Windsor Castle. Nor, in recent times, has there been more unfeigned royal exhilaration than those shots of the Queen cheering her filly, Estimate, to victory in the 2013 Ascot Gold Cup.
The context of that first image is crucial, not least for how inconceivable it seems today. There is our youthful monarch riding through unguardedbystanders and up the famous Ascot straight utterly at ease with the horsepower beneath her. Here is someone who very obviously loves the horses for what they are as much as for what they do. Racing would never have a better friend.
How much closer could we and they get in those seemingly more innocent 1950s and 1960s. There were no heavy-duty police cordons as the tweed-capped and head-scarfed royal party rode out of Windsor Park and onto the course. No worries about turf damage as the dozen riders raced impromptu past racing’s most royal winning post.
Today’s clerk of the course would have kittens but just think what an impact such a sight would have this week. Prince Charles’s mounted appearance at Trooping the Colour reminded us that he is a hugely experienced horseman and while he might plead senior years, his two sons can still cut a dash in the saddle and his niece, Zara Phillips, is one of the country’s leading equestriennes. Come on, guys, this could be the week to follow in grandmother’s hoofprints.
But the Queen’s interest has always been in much more than the riding. Last week, the racing author, Julian Muscat, related how a 12-year-old Princess Elizabeth had corrected the royal bloodstock adviser on the breeding of one of the mares at the royal stud. Any present-day discussion with the Queen’s trainers or jockeys will showcase her deep knowledge of the horses of which they have but temporary charge.
Her connection goes back, quite literally, from generation to generation. In the case of Constitution, a two-year-old who ran second at Newbury on Thursday, it does a direct seven-dam leap to the mare Feola, who was bought as a yearling in 1934, was a success on the racecourse and an even greater one at stud.
One Feola daughter, Hypericum, won the 1,000 Guineas in 1946 for King George VI and was granddam of Highclere, who did the same thing for the Queen in 1974. Another, Angelola, bred Aureole who ran second in the Derby four days after the Coronation.
You can bet that the Queen can recite those connections swifter than they are put to this page, and it is easy to see how the fascination and indeed the mental exercise of this equine genealogy keeps the royal mind so abreast of rather heavier issues.
But this is no harping back to the glories of the past, although there were plenty in those early days. Choir Boy became her first Royal Ascot winner a fortnight after the Coronation Derby, Aureole won there the next June and helped the Queen become champion owner, a feat she repeated in 1957. Rather, what is truly remarkable is how the Queen’s racing commitment is now bigger than it has ever been.
What’s more, the royal racing fortunes have surged back from a slump. Twenty years ago, the royal colours were carried by only 16 horses who added just six wins to the tally. Last year, the figures were 41 horses landing 31 races, making that 70th year of the Queen’s reign the most numerically successful yet.
This week, our 96-year-old monarch celebrates her greatest hobby by having ten horses entered at Royal Ascot, two at Ripon, one at Nottingham and another running for the first time over hurdles at Uttoxeter on Wednesday. And to think that you used to be thought ambitious if you ordered a new suit in your seventies.
The Ascot runners show no signs of being there just for the royal beer. Reach For The Moon, whose grandam Phantom Gold won Royal Ascot’s Ribblesdale in 1995 under Frankie Dettori, is hot favourite to win the Hampton Court Stakes under the same rider on Thursday. King’s Lynn has a good each-way chance in Saturday’s Platinum Jubilee Stakes, as do a string of others — most notably the neatly named Naval College (by Dartmouth out of Sequence), a Michael Stoute improver having his first handicap run in the King George V Stakes on Thursday.
Suddenly, as the pulse quickens, you see one of racing’s abiding attractions. These may be the Queen’s horses but by following and backing them they become yours too, just as they already also belong not only to the trainer and jockey but also very much to the groom who looks after them every day, and indeed to the stud hand who foaled them. Ownership can be something shared.
Despite all this week’s top hat, My Fair Lady flummery, we should not forget how much of a societal leveller racing can be. It has taken me down a mine and into Buckingham Palace — the mounted piece of coal from the former visit sits proud on my desk to this day. In both places, what really struck was the unfussy welcome because of the interest shared. The gathering in the larger room was for all those connected with the royal stables, and the lasting impression was of the smiling lady at the centre of it all, who was as delighted to be in their company as they were in hers.
This week, the Queen may not be there in person but for Ascot, and for racing, the unique effect of that smile should keep us galloping on.
Queen’s runners at Ascot this week
King’s Lynn (3.40)
Career-best to win group two race at Haydock last month; could improve
Perfect Alibi (3.05)
Showed a good attitude at Newbury and this step up in trip should suit
Naval College (3.05)
A well-named son of Dartmouth, he makes his handicap debut
Saga and Kiteflyer (5.00)
Saga disappointed here last time but his previous run is solid; Kiteflyer was below-par at Ripon
Reach For The Moon (5.35)
One-time Derby hope; missed Epsom but still has great potential. He will be a warm favourite
Has run just once since a breathing operation and shaped well. Fair chance
Just Fine (3.40)
Promising reappearance at York last month; could be more to come
Has had to work hard to win her past two starts; needs to improve
Spring Is Sprung (6.10)
Gelded since a below-par third at Southwell
King’s Lynn (4.20)
Runs in the King’s Stand Stakes on Tuesday