15 June 2003

For the first time the cream of European trainers will have to see off international opposition from as far afield as Australia and America

Henry James got the wrong time of day. “Summer afternoon,” the great novelist wrote, “the two most beautiful words in the English language.” As we close on Royal Ascot with the weather suddenly quite breathtakingly glorious – it is actually the mornings that you need to relish.

Get out there with a string of horses and thoughts of all the noisy, crowded, top-hatted and best-dress pantomime of the five days on the Queen’s lawns soon fade. At 7am on Friday John Dunlop’s team were winding their way past the Arundel oak trees to do their opening canter. At the same time at Newmarket, Middleham, Lambourn, Chantilly, The Curragh and Ballydoyle, other teams were doing the same. It is the horses much more than the hats which give an honesty to Royal Ascot’s claim to be the greatest meeting in the world.

Dunlop saddled his first Royal winner in 1971. There have now been 30 in all and the stable topped the honours in 1986 and again in 1995 when they opened the meeting on Tuesday with a huge-priced treble. A repeat of that looks unlikely but the dozen strong raiding party does include the splendidly named King Edward VII Stakes entry Big Bad Bob, the horse for which Kieren Fallon deserted Kris Kin before the Derby winner revealed his talent by beating `BBB’ at Chester.

“Everyone gets excited about Ascot,” says Dunlop, without his trademark cigarette since his brush with the grim reaper 18 months ago, “and everyone wants to run there. But you can’t really say you are training a horse specifically for this week. You just have to get them there in the best shape you can. That’s the thing about training – it’s mostly common sense and trying to avoid obvious mistakes.”

The man’s easy air can never cloak a fly-trap attention for detail as he asks a rider about the well-being of the horse beneath. At a time when some trainers have begun to moan about the drive, led by the Racing Post, to put stable staff conditions higher on racing’s agenda, Dunlop continues as a shining example of best practice. Staff at Castle Stables have respect; they rather than the trainer told the visitors about “their horses” at the Open Day last Sunday. And they, more than anyone, share the Ascot dream.

Eight years ago they shared the winnings, too. “I had all our horses in doubles and trebles,” said Mark Gilchrist, as he drove the truck up to the dusty tree-ringed circles, where the string gathers after its canter, “Bahri, Harlestone Brook and Medaille Militaire, who beat another one of ours by a head in a photo. Everyone was on them. I won £18,000. The local bookies did not have enough cash to pay out and we had to go back the next day.”

The trainer smiles and raises his eyes in something pretty close to disbelief before walking across to pair off his team for the exercise ahead. For any Royal Ascot trainer this is finger-tip time – the decisions as to just how far and fast a horse should run. They are seemingly simple tasks but ask your runner to do too much, fail to heed a warning sign and no amount of blaming the jockey, the draw, the going or even the way they cut the grass, can avoid the truth that the fault began here.

It was a warm Sussex morning. Just beyond the spinney the view stretches away across the downland to the sea. It was impossible to look out there without thinking of the other big players going through just the same routine. Fly south across the channel and you would eventually reach French maestro Andre Fabre whizzing about on his polo pony as he prepares Clodovil for his tilt at Indian Haven, Kalaman and Co in the St James’s Palace. Go only 60 miles west and up above Lambourn and you will find Henry Candy letting the flying filly Airwave go for a spin in preparation for Saturday’s Golden Jubilee.

But the real fascination of this Royal Ascot is that to take in its equine impact you have to cast the net even further afield. For the first time there will be runners not just from Europe, but from America, Australia and Hong Kong. In the King’s Stand on Tuesday will be the top-flight American sprinter Morluc, Hong Kong specialist Firebolt and Australia’s Choisir, whose team have an authentic Aussie ring about them. “We have won everything on our side of the world,” said Shannon Perry modestly, “so it’s exciting to have a crack over here.”

That opening day also sees South African trainer Mike de Kock saddle Victory Moon against Hawk Wing bidding to follow his ground-breaking Dubai victory in March, and that is even before we mention the Florida-based Frenchman Franck Mourier, who is shipping three two-year-olds in this week, starting with the catchily-titled Kate Winslet in the Coventry Stakes, which opens the whole My Fair Lady proceedings at 2.30pm on Tuesday. Time was when Royal Ascot was the absolute apogee of insularity – now it is the race meeting where the continents collide.

It is also where age may not be a barrier. At Arundel a huge old horse chewed grass with a look of forbearance at the skittish two-year-olds in front of him. It was Orchestra Stall, whose first race was under Willie Carson way back in 1994 and whose long career has included dual victories both in the Sagaro Stakes at Ascot and the Prix Gladiateur at Longchamp. He still maintains only two speeds – dead slow or flat out – and with a bit of rain could be a live contender in the Queen Alexandra Stakes which closes the show next Saturday evening. At 11, he will surely be the oldest equine participant.

“Not a bit of it,” says Taffy Williams from the saddle. “Look at the front of today’s [Friday’s] paper. Looks Like Trouble won the charity race at Newbury. It seems like he will be taking us on.” Surely not Looks Like Trouble the 2000 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner last seen trudging round the water treadmill at Noel Chance’s yard in Upper Lambourn in March? Yes the very same. “He may be 11 years old,” says the Shamrock-tongued Noel, “but he has not got many miles on the clock. He has been off a full 12 months. He has been in work 10 weeks and he was fitter on Friday than I thought. I am just off to hire the topper this afternoon.”

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