In a disintegrating country, stuck for the moment with a Prime Minister who can’t see the difference between a proliferation of photo-ops and the act of governing, we needed a Royal Ascot week. No racecourse in the world does photo-ops better than Ascot – the carriage processions, the toppers and tails (and yes, Madam, wear what appears to be a pair of mating macaws on your titfer if that is what rocks your boat), the bandstand singsongs. But at Ascot they know that the show counts for nothing without the substance and in its enthusiastic embrace of internationalism (another contrast with Downing Street) Ascot delivers, bringing top-class contestants from the United States, Australia, Japan, France and Germany to vie with Britain’s best.
Typical was the Queen Mary Stakes. America’s Wesley Ward has had eight juvenile winners at Royal Ascot and collected four Queen Marys. He told everyone how confident he was that his Golden Pal would win, but Yorkshire’s Karl Burke, opposing him with Dramatised, declared: ‘I’ll take my hat off to him if he can beat Dramatised – in fact, I’ll give him my hat.’ In the end, no handover of head wear was required: Dramatised won handsomely and Ward proved that Americans, too, can be good losers with the wry comment: ‘Some days it’s chicken, some days it’s feathers.’
The week was about jockeyship as much as equine athleticism and sometimes it can be as hard for riders to acclimatise as it can be for horses. Wesley Ward had brought over the US star Irad Ortiz to ride Golden Pal. I noted Ortiz before the race, constantly twitching in the saddle as if dissatisfied with his gear. He was then caught napping as the stalls opened because he hadn’t realised that horses in Britain only get so many attempts to enter the stalls and his eye was on a horse who had been excluded thinking he was yet to load. More homework next time, Irad. To add to his misfortunes, the talented US jockey also got a five-day suspension for letting another Wesley Ward star, the filly Love Reigns, drift across others in her race.
It was a different story for the 20-year-old Irish jockey Shane Crosse who rode State of Rest for Joseph O’Brien in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. In 2020 he had been due to ride Galileo Chrome in the St Leger but caught Covid at the wrong time and missed out as Tom Marquand rode him to Classic victory. This time he faced jockeys of Derby-winning experience in Frankie Dettori on multiple Group One winner Lord North, Cristian Demuro on the Japanese Derby winner Shahryar, Mickael Barzalona on French Group One winner Grand Glory and Ryan Moore on the Sir Michael Stoute-trained favourite Bay Bridge. None of them wanted to make the pace, so Shane Crosse went out in front and stayed there. Maybe the other riders forgot that State of Rest had already won big races in the United States, Australia and France. Anyway, when they tried to pass him they couldn’t: the young rider had judged it perfectly in front. As he said afterwards: ‘It’s the most straightforward way to win the race.’
For Frankie Dettori, so long the darling of Ascot, it was a meeting he will want to forget. Not only did he have bad luck on Lord North, his hood becoming entangled in the bridle as they left the stalls, on his 24th ride on the crowd’s favourite Stradivarius he simply got it wrong, inexplicably taking him back halfway through the race and then becoming caught up in traffic when he needed to unleash a burst of speed at the end. Stradivarius, looking for his record-equalling Gold Cup, was only third and Frankie’s long-time mentor John Gosden and owner Bjorn Nielsen were openly critical. He was unable to win on the Queen’s Reach For The Moon, an odds-on shot who wasn’t quite good enough, and got beaten by a head finishing fast on her Saga in the Britannia. Being Frankie, though, he rescued his popularity by winning on Inspiral after another poor start.
The other jockey story was that of Paul Hanagan, winner of the Norfolk Stakes on the 50-1 shot The Ridler for trainer Richard Fahey. Two weeks before, he had been dropped as Fahey’s stable jockey at 41, having joined him at 17. It was an emotional moment for the now freelance Hanagan, but emotions of another kind were stirred as he veered across the course in the final stages, wiping out the chances of three other runners without much effort to keep his mount straight. The stewards gave him a ten-day holiday from the saddle but in some other racing jurisdictions – the United States, for example – The Ridler would have been disqualified. Champion trainer, yet again, was Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien, but one thing I noted was that, of the English trainers who succeeded, five were Yorkshire-based. Richard Fahey and Karl Burke had two winners apiece, David O’Meara one. If they can do it on the Flat, why do northern trainers do so poorly over Cheltenham’s jumps?
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