It started in sunshine and no amount of future showers ever threatened to dim the glow. For when Tom Queally set Frankel down to run it was starburst time.
We had seen it all before. If the Lord spares us we may see it two or three times again. But nothing should ever lessen the wonder as those white-socked forelegs reached out and forward into the Ascot turf and apparently able horses were left leaden-footed in his wake.
You needed to shut your eyes and open them again to make sure you were still standing there. You had to look at the big-screen replay to confirm the enormity of what we had seen. Racing is the simplest of sports – one horse trying to outrun the others. This one had not just done it – he had blazed a memory into the retina which it was reasonable to expect would never be bettered again. But he was still just a horse and here he was with us now, Tom Queally patting his neck, talking briefly to chief attendants Sandy Gauravaram and Mike McGowan before trotting on down in front of the looming might of the Ascot grandstand to let his horse take the plaudits of the still-buzzing crowds. They had never seen the like of it.
Across in his commentary box Willie Carson took a deep breath and in the BBC’s last Royal Ascot hit heights to match his former championship-winning prowess in the saddle. “We have started off,” Carson said, his voice measured, his awestruck tone utterly unfeigned, “with an un-believable performance. A performance that has never, ever been beaten on a racecourse anywhere in the world. This is the best racehorse that you have ever seen, I have ever seen, that anybody will ever see.” To adapt Shakespeare’s Macbeth “nothing in Carson’s BBC life so became him like the leaving it”.
Great horses give inspiration. This one had the seemingly impossible task of opening up the finest five days’ racing in the world with a headline act that would carry its song all the way to the weekend. No promoter in the world would risk such a thing. Frankel delivered and some more. On officially good to soft going he ran the straight mile in 1min 37.85sec, only 0.69sec outside the record, by far the best comparative time of the day; he was clocked at 42.73mph on the uphill third-last furlong. The Queen had come in her carriage. We felt he might still have won if he had pulled it. But most of all we felt a sense of gratitude – for being there and to those others who have brought us a horse of such delight.
The chief of these was absent; Prince Khalid Abdullah having been called back to Saudi Arabia in mourning for Crown Prince Nayef who died last week. But the assorted others wore that shared possessive grin of being part-owners of such wonderment. Steve ‘Yarmouth’ Dyble had been down at the start to see fair play, part of duties for Sir Henry Cecil that stretch back to the 1970s and Yarmy’s drinking days. McGowan doesn’t smile a lot but there was a radiance about him as he led Frankel back for a wash down while a jubilant Sandy collected his own trophy. Farrier Steve Kielt didn’t lose his grin even when trainer Bryan Smart spotted a missing racing plate and called out “that must be some horse, he has done it on three legs”. Shane Fetherstonhaugh is the solemn-faced figure who shoulders the massive responsibility of riding Frankel each morning. At Ascot on Tuesday, a rare outing to watch ‘his horse’ run, he did not have much to be solemn about.
Neither did Queally. Exactly a year before he had been putting a brave face on a wrecked race-plan as Frankel had pursued his over-eager pacemaker too soon, having only a shrinking three-quarters of a length left at the line. Now he was serenity itself as he said: “It looks like he’s getting better and I didn’t think that was possible. He settled, he travelled, he got everything else off the bridle and I was still sitting there. Then away he went – it was amazing. He ticked all the boxes, he did everything right. From my point of view he’s been flawless in the past but I couldn’t have asked for anything more. The biggest problem I had again was pulling him up. If he gets any better I will be pulling him up [a mile down the road] in Legoland.”
It was a time for smiles but it has to be said that at this stage Cecil’s was more of pinched relief than expansive happiness. Forty-three years of handling top-class horses has made him used to but not immune to the pressures of housing the animal all the public want to watch. He knows that any morning, any canter, any slip on the road crossing could be Frankel’s last. Remember the ‘is this the end’ dramas when Frankel banged a tendon? Only Cecil and his team can ever know the care that has been needed to get their champion to Royal Ascot.
Not content with getting Frankel there, and despite a continuing infection that would have kept the rest of us in our beds, Cecil appeared to accept something of a one-man mission to spread the word of what having such an animal represents. Interviewer after interviewer was taken into the tartan-curtained study with the model soldiers on the shelves and the moose antlers on the wall and treated with that disarming mixture of self-deprecating candour which seems to get more revelatory by the year. In the Ascot winner’s enclosure the whole circus started up again. Part of Cecil is as aloof and patrician as the stately homes that his forbears built. But the other side is the vulnerable, hopeless schoolboy who wants now to share the proof “that I am not completely useless”. It was a full hour before he had finished. The rightness of last year’s knighthood was never better displayed.
Mind you, there had been a floral display before racing even started as Cecil stopped off to get a white-rose buttonhole to match his shirt from Ann Scott’s flower counter at the entrance to the owners’ and trainers’ car park. Ann’s father John had started the tradition more than 40 years ago. In 1998 the Ascot Authority looked as if it had ended it when it tried to charge Ann for coming. Cecil was one of those who signed the protest letter. She has been here ever since.
So too has Jack Berry. Nowadays he is an indefatigable ‘giver’ as a charity fundraiser. Back in 1998 he was still a ‘taker’ – training three winners at that Royal Ascot, Rosselli in the Norfolk Stakes, Bolshoi in the King’s Stand, and Selhurstpark Flyer in the Wokingham. Two races before that Wokingham, Henry Cecil won the Edward VII with Royal Anthem. He would have liked Berry’s waistcoat. It was thick silk and had all those Ascot winners on it.
In 1998 David Nicholson still had the likes of Relkeel and Escartefigue in the stable. Now the Duke is much mourned but each Ascot Tuesday his widow Dinah summons us for a picnic where she shines our toppers for far too small a fee. It’s a place of real friendship not braying show. That’s why Princess Anne was there again this year.
Maybe it was Dinah’s champagne and the sunshine but none of the heroes who followed Frankel appeared to mind not being able to compete with the afterglow. The Hong Kong team who brought Little Bridge to win the King’s Stand could stand proud on the podium; so too the Brian Meehan stable after Kieren Fallon got Most Improved to live up to his name in the St James’s Palace and Irish trainers Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins with Dawn Approach and Simenon. Not that it stopped Bolger posting some cryptic comments when quotes arrived for Dawn Approach for next year’s Classics. The next day was worry enough but, as was the case all week, it seemed the storylines were being written with a hyperbole akin to Formula One.
When last checked, Royal Ascot’s Charles Barnett and Johnny Weatherby were cut from very different cloth and clothes size to Bernie Ecclestone but the diminutive F1 impresario would surely shake his head in envy as the Ascot duo piled one improbably perfect race upon another. On the Wednesday we had the Queen’s best horse Carlton House being outgunned by the former Aussie superstar So You Think. On the Thursday we had a beleaguered Frankie Dettori outmuscling his young Godolphin rival Mickael Barzalona in the Gold Cup and on Friday we had a Henry Cecil one-two in the Edward VII, a brilliant treble for John Gosden and William Buick and then, topping the lot, a Jubilee win for the Queen in the Queen’s Vase, with the Duke of Edinburgh popping up hale and hearty at 91 to hand the trophy to his other half. And all that came before Luke Nolen’s dramatic “brainfade” as Black Caviar held on for that heartstopping victory yesterday.
As a watcher there is sometimes so much on offer that you are not sure where or at what to look. When Ryan Moore cut up the inside to put Carlton House ahead in the Prince of Wales’s, it was as good a throwing down of the gauntlet as this game ever sees. The way Joseph O’Brien galvanised So You Think to take his rival made us wonder how we could ever have harboured those early doubts about ‘a boy doing a man’s job’. The way his partner buckled down to take his winnings past the £5 million mark (Black Caviar £3.9m, Frankel still just £1.67m) prepared us to think we might now be seeing the best of him, even if it did not ready us for Aidan O’Brien’s astonishing mea culpa, as he said of So You Think: “He’s one of those special horses and I’d like to say sorry to all the Australian people that I’ve made such a mess of it for so long. I was probably working him too often, too long and too hard. I was killing him by making him grind, but even so he was still very competitive.”
Such humility was truly uplifting but so too was the more assertive ‘old wolf still makes its kill’ determination with which Dettori pushed deep into Colour Vision as young Barzalona swept Godolphin’s other runner Opinion Poll up and past him in the Gold Cup.
In a great jockey such implacability can be an almost tangible thing. Of all the qualities to make a horse go faster, the power of will remains the strongest. At Ascot, in particular, Dettori should not have anything to prove but into his 40s and with an exasperating list of losers over the past few weeks, he could hear the baying of the pack. There was self-belief as well as showmanship as he cleared the way for his trademark flying dismount.
Dettori brought the spotlight back to riding and Friday’s treble for Buick showed the true heir to his talents. Buick may not yet, or ever, match the all-round invincibility that now makes Moore one of the great riders of this or any era but, modelled on Dettori for whom Steve Cauthen was the beau ideal, he can be considered a riding grandson of the great American. If Cauthen ever gets to watch the ride on Gatewood he can sit back with a grandpa’s pride. In the last 300 yards, without losing his rhythm, Buick switched the stick from the right hand to the left for one crack, switched back to the right for three and across to the left for a final three to get home in a three-way photo-finish. Whoever said the whip rules would not work?
At Ascot you can be both totally involved with the horses or not at all and both parties can still say they played their part. You don’t get closer than for the start of the Hunt Cup. Thirty horses to be loaded into their steel cages ready to be fired up the Old Mile for 100 seconds of lung-stretching effort. You have to be professional but not tense.
Dettori’s horse Invisible Man reared up absolutely to the vertical but only drew a huge grin from England’s favourite Italian – his mother was not a trapeze artist for nothing. Closest to us 21-year-old John Fahy looked old before his years as Prince Of Johanne was loaded in stall 33. Nine months earlier they’d won the Cambridgeshire. In a few minutes they double the trick.
Lynsey Bull was there with Stevie Thunder, the horse she looks after at Ian Williams’; he went in easily but has been prone to panic. He was four stalls away from us in 29. “Good Stevie, good Stevie,” Lynsey called, for all the world like a sister calming a younger brother before he launches off on a cycle slalom. The gates slammed open and we rushed to the car to hear Prince Of Johanne called the winner with Stevie Thunder close up in seventh. Lynsey owned a bit of Ascot too.It’s a kaleidoscope of a place – much like Frith’s famous ‘Derby Day’ painting of 1858 with better loos and less skullduggery. People come because they want a day out at the races. One of them always comes in a carriage. Down in the Silver Ring, most of them come in coaches and sensibly bring their food and drink with them. Quite a few of these were looking in the opposite direction when Ryan Moore drove the Queen’s Estimate out and ahead of her Queen’s Vase rivals. Later the picnickers would hear there had been ‘hats off for Her Majesty’ cheers as the filly came back in triumph.
In many respects the fact that there were so many different ways to enjoy it was not the least of last week’s triumphs at Royal Ascot.