Royal Ascot had a new slogan this year: “Like Nowhere Else.” It was meant to be used with moody music and a wondrous smile as another winner sluices home or the gilded carriages process by. But it could also be said with a muttered curse and a curl of the lip. Ask the unwitting, lycra- clad husband and wife team on a tandem bicycle (he in the front) who somehow got tangled up in the race day traffic. Even ask Ryan Moore.
For as he drove Aloft home for that record breaking 9th victory on Friday evening Ryan already had 19 often painful losers to rue on in his perfectionist way. He knows as well as anyone that for all its glories, racing at Royal Ascot is brutally demanding not just for the intensity of the competition but because of the actual contours of the course. From the stands it may look flat enough but on a horse it’s the slopes that you notice. In Swinley Bottom the grandstand looms like a distant ocean liner high on the brow of the hill and even as you swing for home there is still a hard pull to the post. You should try trotting up the straight mile. The Queen has since before Ryan’s dad was born. In the old days she even used to gallop it.
Back in the 50s and 60s her esteemed majesty would ride across Windsor Great Park with her guests of a morning and race up to the winning line. In a jollier world Prince William, Zara Phillips, and Prince Harry would thunder up next year but purists would tut-tut about ruining the turf, republicans would fulminate about hedonism and security would get in a bigger sweat than the Hong Kong super star Able Friend did in the Queen Anne Stakes. How appropriate that the very first race of the meeting should remind us how tough it can be. Able Friend’s brilliance out east may have made him the world’s top rated racehorse, but it counted for nothing when facing up that pitiless stretch of Berkshire grass.
The trick at Ascot is to note the detail and savour the links between the past, the present, and, as it is racing, the all too imminent future. As Freddie Head and Maxime Guyon received their trophies after Solow’s triumph in the Queen Anne it was easy to reflect what a master trainer Freddy had become, to wonder how far in the steps of Goldikova and his other great milers this one might follow. But not so easy to guess that the exuberant young Guyon in front of us would play an enforcer’s role in the week’s most famous race of all. Watch out Mr Moore.
History now relates how soon Ryan found his compensations and how immense and how subtly achieved has been the move by the Coolmore syndicate to install him as first jockey in place of young Joseph O’Brien. It could easily have been pitched as the sacking of an over indulged son with words that wound and scars that take long to heal. Instead it has been an acceptance of the inevitable and as Aidan O’Brien happily said “Joseph trains him” after Gleneagles fine win in the Prince of Wales, we could see how the future lies and realise quite what a phenomenon Joseph has been in his own right.
When he first came on to the scene only four years ago he was already about 8 foot long and about as wide as a bamboo stork so most of us thought he wouldn’t last five minutes. But he has confounded the Jeremiahs with major victories around the world full of sympathetic skill and plenty of bottle as in that nerveless win on St Nicholas Canyon in the Breeders Cup Turf of 2011. Sure there has been the odd disaster like Gleneagles’ Longchamp disaster last October and the mugging of Australia at Leopardstown by a masterful Moore on Grey Gatsby a month before that. But it’s no shame to be eclipsed by the greatest operator on the globe and anyway nobody ever called Joseph a spoilt brat.
Yet the flood of O’Brien trained Moore winners started by Gleneagles emphasized something much bigger than mere jockey change. It demonstrated the enormity as well as the professionalism of the Tipperary operation in its current flowering. Those of us around in the 60s and 70s when Lester Piggott swept the Ascot board on Ballydoyle horses primed by Vincent O’Brien (nobody ever believes that he and Aidan are unrelated) thought we were watching something like the ultimate. In terms of individual genius that argument holds but in mere size Vincent’s was a bijou version of the present project with hardly more than fifty horses in his legendary stable. Today’s deal is infinitely bigger and if that increases the pressure, well that, as far as the sport of racing goes, is the point of it.
For winning at Ascot should not be easy and it wasn’t, not even for Ryan Moore. He may have had decisive victories on the classy Gleneagles and the speedball Acapulco, but the other successes were so close that his average winning margin was under a length. Indeed just about the only triumph of the whole meeting that could be classed as facile was the filly Time Test under a resurgent Frankie Dettori on the Thursday. But that contrasted with the whisker by which Frankie had landed his half century of Royal Ascot winners on Osaila 22 hours earlier and reminded racing that if Bernie Ecclestone had run racing over last twenty five years he would claim to have invented Britain’s favourite Italian.
For while the game wrestles with its place in the sporting firmament a century on from times when it was the greatest show in town, Frankie and his flying dismounts have been one of the biggest strokes of luck we have ever had. Good job he was so impressed when he first watched Angel Cordero do it in America all those years ago. Good thing that we have him as an outgoing contrast to the outwardly dour professionalism of Ryan Moore.
Mind you, at Ascot, there is one person who far outshines any other and that is the lady in the leading carriage. Forget about Frankie Dettori, what the Queen has done for racing in the years since Choir Boy won the Hunt Cup in her Coronation year, has surpassed anything any person has done for a single sport over the same period. She has brought dignity where there is so often silliness, enthusiasm were there is too much sulkiness, and she has endured the slings and arrows or racing’s daily battle of hope against experience like everyone else. Especially this time.
For there she was in her 90th year getting out of the carriage as ready as ever. There she was in the paddock with her runners. If the game was bent one of the six would be allowed to win but just as her colt Peacock hit the front on Thursday, Dettori appeared turbo charged beside him on Time Test. Bang goes Frankie’s honorary knighthood.
Worse was to come on Thursday. One moment the royal colt Capel Path was a highly promising Michael Stoute trained athlete, the next Graham Lee was a jockey on a horse crippled at the gallop. Breaking down badly at full pelt is the riding equivalent of a blown tyre on the motorway. You are desperately trying to pull up knowing that you might swerve or turn over anytime. Somehow Lee managed it and modern veterinary support got the colt to hospital in double quick time. But it was a brutal reminder that the brink of glory sits above the trapdoor to disaster. 40 minutes earlier Graham had delivered Trip To Paris with the sweetest of inside runs to become the first jockey complete the Ascot Gold Cup/ Grand National double. A hundred and fifty years ago Fred Archer, who reputedly rode 12 winners at the 1878 Royal Ascot, kept saying that he would love to ride in the Grand National. Graham has actually done it. We should all be proud of him.
Mind you the Gold Cup was, for Ryan Moore, the race that got away. We had last seen young Monsieur Maxine Guyon on the rostrum after The Queen Anne, now he was a intense pumping figure on board the French trained Bathyron stubbornly holding his place while Ryan Moore tried everything short of full on shoulder charge to get out in pursuit of the escaping Trip To Paris. But Ascot is a place where no quarter is asked or given. If you have still got a chance you hold your line. Frankie Dettori on Western Hymn did it to Jamie Spencer and The Grey Gatsby in The Prince of Wales. It is no good screaming about it and one of the best things about Ryan Moore is that he doesn’t squeal however hard though we hacks may tempt him. He just puts his head down and tries to deliver. And this week that was a master class.
He does not have the fizzy, acrobatic flair of Dettori or the sweet-flowing, roll-them-underneath style of Richard Hughes whose double on Friday reminded us just how much we will miss him next season. With Moore there is not even that predatory feel that Soumillon showed when he and Ervedya snapped up Ryan and Found on the line on Friday. What you have with him is a balanced but highly driven, deeply thought through orthodoxy whose simplicity masks its genius. Watching him this week on GM Hopkins in the Hunt Cup and on War Envoy in the Britannia was to marvel at how he kept his calm in the maelstrom of a big field, how he had reserved something extra beneath him for the final run to the line. He would tell you he was lucky to have good horses. They were fortunate to have him.
On Friday one of his own heroes was watching. On Friday AP McCoy was in the royal carriage resplendent in gleaming topper and famine free features. When Ryan was still a Brighton schoolboy McCoy came to school horses for Gary Moore in the old creosoted stables at the top of racecourse. The champion’s work ethic and modesty created an indelible impression, as did his understated but implacable will to win. As AP looked down from the Royal Box at the last race on Friday he would have liked what he was seeing.
Because if Aloft was a heavily backed favourite it was not making him go any faster. Coming to the turn he was in a position that drives lesser pilots to desperation. He had work to do and would need to run through horses. As he strove for room he got knocked heavily by Andrea Atzemi outside him. But there was now a familiar implacability about the man atop. It was difficult but not impossible.
Over the years I have been lucky enough to have seen Piggott in his pomp and Eddery ay his most astonishingly effective. With both of them in full flow there became an inevitability about the outcome. It is no criticism of the other riders but there is sense of belief instilled by great champions at their best which adds a whole other dimension. Comparisons with other eras are always invidious but it now has to be accepted Ryan Moore compares with the best of any era.
Mind you not everyone appreciated the impact of Ascot’s slogan for 2015. Some weeks ago a pair of kestrels must have congratulated themselves on finding the perfect nesting spot. It was in a neatly rounded hole two thirds of the way up an elegant cedar tree in what seemed a quiet field nicely sheltered from the swish of the A 329. The chicks were duly born and other kestrels envious. Imagine the horror on Tuesday to wake up to the braying sounds of a hundred champagne picnics in what had become the Owners and Trainers Car Park. Ascot may be “Like Nowhere Else”, but like Ryan Moore, it’s best seen at the winning post.