Royal Ascot it wasn’t: for the first time in her 68-year reign, thanks to Covid-19, the Queen was not there. Nor were the owners, the crowds, the hats or the morning suits. But just as the Cheltenham Festival gave us the last great sporting spectacle before lockdown, so Ascot celebrated the behind-closed-doors return of sport with five days of supreme skill and drama. As the no-nonsense Hayley Turner put it after a 33-1 victory: ‘It’s still an Ascot winner. Still the same race, the same grade of horses. It’s just as hard to ride winners whether anyone is here or not.’
The smooth Ascot operation provided a masked-up, biosecure environment in the open air with never a slip and it has done all sport a favour. How good, too, that there was an 11th winner at Ascot with Campanelle for US trainer Wesley Ward who still sent over his usual contingent.
Even without live cheers there were moments to stir racing folk’s memories for years to come. Stradivarius strode away to victory for a third time in the Gold Cup by the imperious margin of ten lengths. Charlie Hills’s ace sprinter Battaash nearly pulled jockey Jim Crowley’s arms from their sockets as he stormed to victory in the King’s Stand Stakes. As Charlie says: ‘He gets them all going while he is still cruising.’
Frankie Dettori needed three espressos to get him going for the first race without the usual stimulus of racegoers waving autograph books and clamouring for selfies but ended the meeting with six more Royal Ascot winners taking his total to 73. He has now won every Group One at the meeting and his victories on Frankly Darling and Palace Pier confirmed that at 49 there is still no other big race jockey with his tactical nous and impeccable balance. Nobody would compare Adam Kirby to Frankie as a stylist but with Golden Horde’s impressive victory in the Commonwealth Cup he and Lambourn trainer Clive Cox, two of the hardest workers in racing, rattled up an eighth Ascot victory each.
There were so many firsts. Jockey Hollie Doyle scored her first Royal Ascot victory a day before her partner Tom Marquand notched up his. The fast-advancing northern-based rider Ben Curtis secured his on Dandalla and 5lb claimer Thore Hammer Hansen made his first mark on Ascot riding Coeur de Lion to victory for trainer Alan King. Alan has been best known so far for his winners over jumps but is now a significant force on the Flat too, scoring also with Who Dares Wins and Scarlet Dragon. Nor will Kevin Stott ever forget the behind-closed-doors meeting. He not only won the Diamond Jubilee Stakes on Hello Youmzain; he did so prevailing in a blanket finish over Frankie Dettori and former champion Ryan Moore. When Hello Youmzain changed ownership and trainer Kevin Ryan was given freedom to choose his jockey, he reinstated Stott, his former apprentice, who had been ‘jocked off’ by the horse’s previous owner in favour of a more fashionable rider. Stott rewarded his loyalty half an hour later by winning the next Ascot contest by a nose on Hey Jonesy for good measure.
The most enjoyable victory for me (yes, okay, I did back him at 18–1) was that of Pyledriver, trained in Lambourn by William Muir and ridden by his son-in-law Martin Dwyer who noted with typical professionalism: ‘I’ve been watching mile-and-a-half races round Ascot this week. Even though I’ve ridden here for 20 years, they are such tactically run races that you’ve got to be so switched on.’ Pyledriver, who was a courageous and deserved winner of the King Edward VII Stakes, was unwanted at the sales and according to his trainer is still a big weak baby who is just coming to himself. When the horse is good enough so are Pyledriver’s trainer and jockey but they don’t get many potential Derby entries. Most years it would have been too expensive to risk entering him for the Derby but in this truncated season connections can enter him much later and comparatively cheaply. I hope they will.
The other team to praise after Royal Ascot are ITV’s presenters. If their cheery chief Ed Chamberlin was your neighbour and someone dumped a load of logs on your doorstep he would be round within the hour to help you stack them. If he had a tail it would always be wagging.
Francesca Cumani, whose outfits fully compensated for any lack of Ascot’s usual glamour, has a clever eye for a horse and ex-jockey Jason Weaver’s tactical predictions before a race and deconstructions immediately afterwards are uncannily accurate. Together they were superbly accessible in presenting racing’s most important showcase in years to the outside world, supplemented by other contributions including Matt Chapman’s jockey and trainer interviews, paddock-watcher Mick Fitzgerald’s assessments and the hushed marmoset-mating tones of Luke Harvey doing a David Attenborough down at the start. Those of us racing scribes currently denied the access we are used to owe them a big favour.
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