24 June 2007

The memorable sound at this year’s Ascot was a snort. Not an Australian snort of derision that anyone could have doubted that they would blow the European speed stars away on the opening day, not even the blue-chip snorts of satisfaction as Royal Enclosure patrons realised their old playgrounds had been restored and improved. No this was the snort that Yeats gave after winning the Gold Cup.

Note the “after”. Plenty of horses, particularly lusty looking six-year-old colts like Yeats give a snorty whinny before a race. It usually has precious little to do with the race and a lot more to do with anticipating the stud career with which his Gold Cup winning exploits should soon reward him. But Yeats even snorts afterwards. Because when it comes to living symbols of the Alpha male, Yeats is the real thing.

Forget top hats and morning dress. However you kitted up Daniel Craig or Didier Drogba, neither of them would hold a candle to the 520 kilos of simmering testosterone that dominated Ascot on Thursday. Fittingly this was the day when the crowds came back. For after last year’s much-debated teething troubles racegoers are beginning to explore and appreciate the enormous assets of the new grandstand rather than moaning about the negatives.

Most disputed of these points was the new lay-out of the paddock round which Yeats strutted his stuff so magnificently. The “old” Ascot had the most gorgeous, sweeping paddock. Last year the lawns and trees where it used to be lay empty in open rebuke to the modern sunken terraces of the new paddock at the back of the stand. No matter that Ascot had finally killed off the abomination of the tunnel through which ordinary racegoers had to burrow to get back to the grandstand. Something beautiful had been replaced by something utilitarian. For “Disgruntled of the Royal Enclosure” already furious at the lack of viewing facilities and at the indignity of having to share space with what they considered “The Great Unwashed” of the mere “Grandstand”, it was the last straw.

This week the much heralded experiment with “Horizontal Segregation” (different levels of the new stand rather than barriers on the ground) has largely been abandoned. The lost beauties of the old paddock are no longer mourned because, in a brilliant piece of improvisation, they have been corralled off to make a marvellously spacious setting for the marquees of the new Royal Enclosure. Only the meanest of spirits among the formerly disgruntled could now complain that coming to Royal Ascot is anything but the most privileged of racing occasions, while the original “inclusive” idiom of this £230 million project has been fulfilled in the Silver Ring at the other end of the Grandstand.

Last year this was little more than a newly dug mound with a couple of marquees on it. Just one of this week’s flash storms would have reduced it to Glastonbury mud. Now there is almost a tented city of food outlets not to mention an array of portable toilets. No Yeats in the paddock for them, but Yeats on the racecourse was awesome enough.

For we have become so used to having horses go to stud as three-year-olds that a four-year-old colt is about as mature a specimen as we usually see. Yeats is six and with his flowing mane, crested neck and heavily muscled loins, looks every inch the stallion he will become. To judge from those snorts he is ready for it.

On the Tuesday, everybody had been flapping as to how George Washington would cope with a return to racing action after “firing blanks” at stud. His paddock demeanour was positively wimpish compared to Yeats but he ruined his chance by pulling too hard in the race. What George needs to re-learn is the art of buckling down in a race however much you may strut beforehand. Yeats was still snorting out his challenge as he walked from the track. Long may he shout it.

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