She deserved it, although I’m not sure if we did. After weeks of unwanted headlines about steroids in horses and drugs and corruption in humans, followed by the death of its most legendary trainer, racing has suddenly pulled itself together and produced, until the rains came, the best Royal Ascot ever with the Gold Cup for Her Majesty as the crowning glory.
Those of us who have been more times than there are runners in the Grand National, are apt to pretend there was some rose-tinted age when racing in general and Royal Ascot in particular, was much better than it is now. Well if we or others do, we are wrong. Of course racing lacks the central place in the national firmament which in 1909 had crowds dancing in Leicester Square the night that Minoru won the Derby for Edward VII. But for accessibility, enjoyment and thrilling action on the track, Royal Ascot has never served its fans and indeed its monarch as well as it did last week.
The reaction to the Gold Cup said a lot about the healthiness of the change. Sure there was not the deluded deification which once sent everyone marching off to war, but there was a wonderful, warm, shared dignity in the Queen’s delight. A year ago we celebrated 60 years of her remarkable reign with an Olympic Games opening ceremony which perfectly captured the different faces of modern Britain and even included our sovereign of sixty years coolly upstaging 007 in the most unexpected TV moment of them all. On Thursday the Queen was in every sense back on her home turf, but the big screen close ups gave us access to the personal happiness of this best moment of her own racing career. The whole racecourse was gripped not with the hysterical hats-in-the-air fervour of yesteryear but by a collective well-being, by an overwhelming sense of how lucky we were to be there and, even more, how lucky to have her.
Time was when the “Royal” in “Royal Ascot” was an excuse for stifling even the most obvious forms of progress. Up until 1955, the first year that running commentaries were actually permitted on course, divorced people were still banned from the royal enclosure and for far too long the place used to be renowned for its stuffiness and for a seemingly hopeless wish to resist, rather than harness the winds of change. To its great credit it has done the Stately Homes trick of inviting people in but explaining it is more fun if you enjoy it for what it is. So the dress code has become an advantage not an issue, the sense of decorum as an aid not a dampener. They have even made sponsorship seem respectable.
Remember all those “over our dead bodies” statements about sponsorship at Ascot as if they were about to change to titles like the “Macdonald’s Kings Stand” or the “Harpic Hunt Cup”? That may not have happened but in a rather upper class way the likes of Betfair, Longines, BMW and Bollinger have got their names into the mix and are no doubt paying very handsomely for the privilege. That’s what sponsorship is for but in sport it never works for long if the sporting action is not up to scratch and spectators don’t feel that they count. I spent the whole of Thursday with a paraplegic and friend on a first time Royal Ascot trip. He was made to count – pity his betting didn’t.
As for the action the standard was set from the very beginning. If Frankel and Black Caviar seemed unmatchable superstars last year, the arrival of the Dubai World Cup and Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom for the Queen Anne Stakes was every bit in the same dimension. That he blew out on this last race before going to stud in Australia was disappointing to his fans as well as being a reminder of how difficult it can be to settle a horse unused to a long mile of open grass offering you the chance to run like you have never run before. It later transpired that Animal Kingdom may also have been distracted by thoughts of a more saucy nature. If so, he won’t, in this or any year, be the only one.
The American disappointment with Animal Kingdom was shared, but in the near miss department, by the South African’s with Shea Shea in the very next race but his trainer Mike De Kock will be back as will the American Wesley Ward who took three shots before finally hitting the target with the hugely impressive No Nay Never whose 58.80 uphill five furlongs was the fastest ever clocked by a two year old. The shock of the Godolphin steroids bust with the Al Marooni horses has finally made racing and its trainers realise that to have any credibility international racing has to have a universal anti-doping agreement. The signs are good. Everyone, including fans, and writers and broadcasters, must ensure that action follows.
If the far flung visitors took their time, the Irish were almost excessive in their instant success. Irish jockeys won every race of that opening day, Irish trainers the first four and while Ascot Stakes winner Well Sharp is trained in the Cotswolds, owner, trainer and jockey, JP McManus, Jonjo O’Neill and Frank Berry are shamrock through and through. Suddenly it was as if Cheltenham had shifted to Royal Berkshire. Chief raider once again was Aidan O’Brien who first made his name with the jumpers in March, but special mention must also go to Joanna Morgan whose winning of the Britannia Stakes was rather overshadowed by other events on Ladies day, and most of all to Jim Bolger.
Jim has come a different route to any other trainer and continues to march to his own special drum whose roll has never rung out better than when Dawn Approach inched past Toronado in the St James Palace Stakes. The thrill of this duel is that there is likely to be a rematch from which neither side are likely to think twice of accepting. Jim and Dawn Approach have both long proved their toughness but to bring a horse back to the furnace of Group One competition less than three weeks after a total meltdown in the Derby surely surpasses all the Bolgerisms that have gone before. In an age when many decry the “softness” of the modern day thoroughbred, here is Dawn Approach who first ran in Ireland’s opening two year old race in March of last year. Forgetting any effects of the earlier bumping incidents, Richard Hughes timed Toronado’s challenge to perfection. What he got beat by was a horse and in Kevin Manning a man, who embodied the greatest of all racing qualities, the will to win.
Kevin is getting into the veteran stage for a jockey and is old enough, physically if not legally, to be James Doyle’s dad. If it had been so, we would have shared a paternal pride at the way young James bestrode his hour and a half in the spotlight as one Ascot triumph went to a second and then a third. There is no harm being unsung if there is actually something to sing about and here were Doyle’s talents for all to see most especially in the firm and unflinching way he and Al Kazeem cut down Mukhadran and exposed Camelot in the Prince of Wales.
Doyle clamps himself into and around his horse in the style now defined by Ryan Moore whose wish to avoid self-congratulation cannot conceal the uncomplicated skill and determination with which he has taken race riding to a new level. It was only fitting that his career should hit a new high spot when driving home Estimate for the Queen. Down the years there has been one abiding measurement of the greatness of a jockey. It is that although others look likely to beat him to the post, somehow you know they won’t. They never had a chance in those final yards on Thursday.
Then there was the man who was not there. Handling the recent death of Henry Cecil was always going to need as much handling as handkerchiefs and even the master trainer could hardly have orchestrated it better. The awesome reverence of Tuesday’s one minute silence was tempered by the unlucky run of Tiger Cliff later in the afternoon and Chigun’s disappointment next day. The ups and downs of Henry’s own life made him and us appreciate the triumphs even more and that was how it felt when Tom Queally drove Riposte forward with a real flourish of the trumpets in the Ribblesdale. The competitor in Henry would have grumbled at Disclaimer failing to settle in the Queens Vase, but the traditionalist in him would have loved the appreciation as his wife Jane graced the podium to present the trophy in his honour.
So to the TV coverage and as the original and long standing front man for Channel 4 Racing, I have studiously kept away from being drawn into anything but the blandest of good wishes to the new team running the operation. Six months in and with Cheltenham, the Grand National and now Royal Ascot behind them, it is time to get off the fence. I think they did magnificently last week. I believe that, for TV too, this was the best meeting yet.
Of course this is always and correctly ascribed first and foremost to the broadcasting goddess that is Clare Balding. But while she continues to mix the charm and intellect of Joan Bakewell with a drive little short of Boadicea, the success of the programme was that it was guided and held but not dominated by her. Six races spread over four hours of network broadcasting demands a variation in team and personality and pace, and it was producer Carl Hicks triumph that he mixed this with very few signs of strain.
It can get better. The analysis fronted with friendly precision by Nick Luck was the best yet seen from a race meeting and a perfect use of the grown up and highly informed views of Jim McGrath and Graham Cunningham. But to have got this far and still not have any sectional timings was a disappointment as was the very rare use of displayed times despite the Longines clock ticking away in front of the grandstand. To have coverage of what, at heart, is an athletic event and only talk rather than show timings is not good TV. It’s called radio.
That apart, I thought the team did themselves proud although consideration should surely be given to having someone share the commentary with the ever excellent Simon Holt. He was at his cool, vivid but unostentatiousbest last week but six high pressure races sometimes with twenty plus runners spread right across the track is a huge load for anyone to carry. It would only enhance not diminish his role to put a second voice to the pump.
Changes in channel and personnel always bring out plenty of pettiness as well as critical adjustment. To listen to some of the disparagement at the start of the year must have been as irritating to this operation as it was to my team when we took over Cheltenham from the BBC. We had only done the Derby, the Arc and all the Classics for years and in Oaksey and Francome had people who almost owned the place. Sensibly this lot have just got on with their business and now that Royal Ascot is over the realisation should dawn that we are actually very lucky to have them.
But then that was the feeling of the whole meeting for those who watched and the even luckier ones of us who were there. Rightly, it will outlast us all.