The dust is beginning to settle on five memorable days of top-quality racing at Royal Ascot. Here is the verdict on the annual pageant of our resident racing expert, RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD.
A vintage Royal Ascot tugged at the heart strings from start to finish, rattling racegoers through an emotional wringer.
The five-day extravaganza opened with Cecillian tears during a well-observed minute’s silence in memory of Sir Henry Cecil, who saddled 75 winners at the royal meeting during his training career.
And it ended in Cecillian tears when one of Warren Place’s best horses, THOMAS CHIPPENDALE, tragically collapsed and died of a heart attack moments after winning the Group Two Hardwicke Stakes.
But in between, a meeting of unparalleled quality was blessed with uplifting moments that could not have been scripted by even the most perceptive of marketing consultants.
The triumph of the Queen’s filly, ESTIMATE, in the Ascot Gold Cup topped the lot, of course. The wide-eyed look of joy on her face in the Royal Box as Ryan Moore drove the four-year-old home to realise one of her lifetime ambitions will live long in the memory.
But that wasn’t all. The Ladies’ Day crowd had clearly been spoiled. Because only 45 minutes earlier, they had been treated to the poignant Cecil-trained winner that all had been craving as RIPOSTE landed the Ribblesdale Stakes. The Queen herself could not have conducted herself better than Sir Henry’s widow, Jane, as she tried to find room for celebration amid her grieving.
And if respect for Lady Cecil overflowed, what of that for Jim Bolger on the opening day? The veteran Irish handler -- wily, shrewd, canny, you name it -- had somehow dragged DAWN APPROACH from the brink of ignominy to the cusp of glory again. A matter of days after disgracing himself when forced out of his comfort zone at Epsom, here was the 2,000 Guineas hero returning to his magnificent best in a memorable duel with TORONADO in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
Turn the clock back 12 months and Dawn Approach was running out a handsome winner of the Coventry Stakes. Yet here we were, this time round, aghast at an even more impressive winner in Aidan O’Brien’s WAR COMMAND. This is a colt going places -- and he set the example for more sparkling displays by juveniles at the meeting. The victories of RIZEENA, KIYOSHI and BERKSHIRE all took the breath away.
Stirring stuff, raising the spirits no end after the bid by ANIMAL KINGDOM in the very first race of the week to complete a unique Kentucky Derby/Dubai World Cup/Royal Ascot had ended in abject anticlimax. Ironically because, like Dawn Approach in the Derby, the US-trained five-year-old refused to settle.
Similar failures littered a meeting that followed a rollercoaster of ups and downs. I am struggling to remember a Royal Ascot where so many fancied, well-backed horses were edged out into second. BATTLE OF MARENGO, BUNKER, COACH HOUSE, SANDIVA, SHAHWARDI, SHEA SHEA, SOCIETY ROCK, STENCIVE, TIGER CLIFF, the list goes on.
No wonder, the meeting was fraught with frustration for most punters, who seemed to begin and end the five days in a black hole but emerge to find some solace and success in between. I say ‘most’ because poor Tom Segal, the man trumpeted as ‘Peerless Pricewise’ of the Racing Post, was unable to pinpoint a single winner all week -- from 33 selections.
As the week’s emotions threatened to run riot, Segal’s embarassments were subjected to much ridicule on Twitter and other social network forums -- as were the rides of many seasoned jockeys, lambasted for giving their mounts too much to do.
But such criticism should be diverted into an appreciation of how cruelly competitive Royal Ascot is and how difficult the course is to ride.
Tipsters are faced with fields more like minefields, not only rich in numbers but also oozing strength in depth.
While jockeys on the round course are faced with near-impossible tasks if drawn high, and jockeys on the straight course, also bound to some extent by the draw, are faced with hellish dilemmas of locating where and when the pace might be and delivering split-second judgements to make the best of cavalry charges on the wide expanse of the Heath.
That’s what they’re paid for, I hear you say. But equally, that goes some way towards explaining why Segal got it hopelessly wrong and why talented jockeys such as Richard Hughes, Jamie Spencer and Tom Queally occasionally got it wrong too.
It also goes some way towards explaining why Johnny Murtagh, a veteran of so many Royal Ascots, knowledge imprinted on his brain, got it right so often to end up top jockey for the week. And also why the very best of pilots, Ryan Moore, ended up with the very best strike rate -- no fewer than 11 of his 29 rides hitting the first four.
Moore’s skill seemed to aggravate punters’ annoyance with the more patient approach of Hughes and Spencer, who suffered heavier traffic problems than most when plotting a path from the back. But it’s curious how hold-up rides attract most fury.
When the tactical niceties come off, as with Hughes on the brilliant SKY LANTERN in the Coronation Stakes and with Spencer on YORK GLORY in the Wokingham, they are lauded as masterpieces. When they don’t, as with Queally on TIGER CLIFF in the Ascot Stakes, they are vilified.
But why don’t over-aggressive rides, such as that by Joseph O’Brien which almost certainly got BATTLE OF MARENGO beat, receive the same treatment? Or why was Hughes not scrutinised when his limitations in a finish appeared to be exposed on TORONADO and then MONTIRIDGE in the Jersey Stakes?
In contrast to Hughes, O’Brien, Spencer and Queally, many high-profile jockeys returned home from Berkshire without a single winner to their name. Big names such as Kieren Fallon (only one in the first four from 18 mounts), Paul Hanagan, Silvestre de Sousa, Mickael Barzalona and Frankie Dettori. As did many high-profile trainers, most significantly, Saeed Bin Suroor, Mark Johnston and Richard Fahey.
However, let’s not get carried away with any tut-tutting. Reserve your ire for the racing journalists who continue to nit-pick about attendance and TV viewing figures, conveniently ignoring the fact that crowd-levels have been have been capped to create more comfort for spectators and that Channel 4’s commitment to the sport is considerable. Reserve your ire for one deluded hack in particular who recently told Racing UK viewers that Royal Ascot is “full of snobs or hookers or both”.
Concentrate instead on the fact that the 2013 renewal of Royal Ascot reinforced its status as the best international Flat-race meeting in the world. Success does not come at the drop of a top hat.
Dettori might not have been able to unleash his flying dismount for the first time since 1991. But ten of his 20 mounts made the first four. Suroor might not have been able to ease the pain of Godolphin’s steroid woes. But 11 of his horses still made the first six. Fahey might have trudged back to Yorkshire moaning about the fast ground. But he still saddled four big-race seconds. And while the public perception that Hannon misfired even tempted the man himself to stay at home on day four, the yard still sent out one winner, three seconds, two thirds and four fourths.
Few jockeys or trainers in the land would grumble with such statistics. The Queen certainly wouldn’t. A reigning monarch had not landed the Gold Cup in the race’s 207-year history .She’d been waiting since 1977, when Dunfermline captured the St Leger, for another Group One winner in Europe. Now look at her!