As the world-famous meeting baked in unprecedented heat at times, the crowds basked in polished performances and captivating contests.
From the moment miling marvel RIBCHESTER screeched home in course-record time to light the blue touchpaper in the Queen Anne on the opening day to the moment old warrior ORIENTAL FOX hunted out his second Queen Alexandra in the week’s final race, the treats were dished up relentlessly on the tastiest of menus.
It was a five-day feast of global appeal that could hardly be faulted. No amount of flimsy attempts to denigrate it with moans about a supposed draw bias, which never existed, the misuse of pacemakers, who are valid and legitimate, and the watering of the ground, which was vital, could tarnish Royal Ascot’s reputation as the jewel in the crown of the British racing year. The winners came from all parts of the track, on ground hailed as lovely by most jockeys and off all sorts of pace. They also came from all corners of the world, including six from Ireland, three from France and two from the USA.
The meeting proved that the best doesn’t have to come at the end of a season too. The one-dimensional narrative of the Jumps season, which builds to its crescendo in the closing weeks, is all very well. But Ascot actually tees up the rest of the Flat campaign. It unravels the formbook and opens the window to the delights to come. And what delights they are, courtesy of Sandown’s Coral-Eclipse meeting, Newmarket’s July Festival, Glorious Goodwood, York’s Ebor Week, the St Leger meeting at Doncaster, Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting and Champions Day back at Ascot. Feel free to salivate.
I doubt the coming weeks will be able to match the pulsating emotion that greeted the climax of the Gold Cup, in which the people’s champion, BIG ORANGE, fought off defending champion ORDER OF ST GEORGE. But sharing centre stage with the Big O were the sprinters. For the second year running, flying filly LADY AURELIA unleashed blistering Stateside speed, this time in the King’s Stand Stakes. And both of the showpiece 6f events developed into thrilling three-way goes. You’d be hard pressed to witness a more scintillating dash than the Commonwealth Cup in which the charismatic CARAVAGGIO somehow reeled in HARRY ANGEL and BLUE POINT. But not far behind it was the Diamond Jubilee Stakes in which THE TIN MAN, named after, arguably, the greatest racing legend of them all, jockey extraordinaire Fred Archer, brushed aside TASLEET and LIMATO.
Not all the drama followed the script. For while one of Aidan O’Brien’s dual Guineas winners, WINTER, completed a quickfire Group One treble in the Coronation Stakes, another, CHURCHILL, surprisingly surrendered his halo in the St James’s Palace Stakes.
The setback did not prevent O’Brien topping the trainers’ tree, however. For the seventh time in 11 years. His haul of more than £1.6 million in prize money, accumulated via six winners, six seconds and four thirds, was in excess of £1.2 million ahead of his nearest rival. The sheer consistency of his challengers was matched only by John Gosden who, admirably, sent out 13 horses to finish in the first six. The master of Ballydoyle has now amassed 61 winners at the royal meeting, only 14 behind the all-time record, shared by those two Newmarket gargantuans of the Turf, Sir Henry Cecil and Sir Michael Stoute.
Stoute was expected to break the record. Indeed some of us fancied him at tempting odds of 20/1 to usurp O’Brien as trainer of the week. But while most of his headline horses ran well, and most will improve into very good ones, all also proved how difficult it is to pass the Royal Ascot lollipop in front. It was a trait shared by the likes of William Haggas and Roger Varian, who also suffered lots of similar near-miss frustration, but at least they fared better than other leading trainers, such as Charlie Hills and Hugo Palmer, who suffered shockers.
In the saddle, O’Brien’s domination was matched by his pilot, Ryan Moore, who was crowned leading jockey for the seventh time in eight years, thanks to an astonishing record of 19 top-four finishes from 30 mounts, which speaks for itself. Only William Buick, who steered 11 of his 24 mounts into the top four, and James Doyle (seven from 22) were eating from the same table, while those of us who preach that the champion jockey is no longer necessarily the best one were supported by startling statistics for Jim Crowley, the current incumbent, and Silvestre De Sousa, champ in 2017 and probable champ in 2017. Neither booted home a single winner, with De Sousa failing to make the first four in 23 rides.
The skilful exploits of Buick and Doyle helped Godolphin land the owners’ prize at the meeting and re-emerge as serious opponents of the superiority of the Coolmore clan, comprising the Magniers and Messrs Tabor and Smith. Their superb return of six wins, six seconds and four thirds was the perfect riposte to criticism of Sheikh Mohammed’s operation in recent weeks after the departure of chief executive John Ferguson. One piece described Ferguson’s exit as “acute public embarrassment”. What utter boloney. At all organisations in all sports, personnel come and go, but the organisation rolls on. Godolphin, to whom British racing owes so much, rolled on very nicely thankyou at Royal Ascot and while much has been made of the fact that their success was spread around several trainers, their home-grown duo didn’t fare too badly either, particularly Charlie Appleby, whose talent was reflected in a fine tally of 12 top-five finishes, including two winners, three seconds and four thirds.
At the head of the leading sires’ table, the familiar hooves of Galileo strutted their stuff. No fewer than 11 of his progeny made the frame and helped amass more than £1.3 million in prize money for his Coolmore connections. But how those connections must be rueing the day in December 2015 when their US-bred stallion Scat Daddy tragically passed away. His record at Ascot is heading into the stratosphere labelled phenomenal after four winners last week, including Caravaggio and Lady Aurelia.
The meeting was kind also to Dubawi (three winners and two seconds), whose progeny proved they don’t necessarily need give in the ground, and to two greats of the modern era, Sea The Stars and Frankel. Six of the the former’s offspring hit the frame, while the latter produced his first Royal Ascot winner in the most impressive handicap winner of the week, ATTY PERSSE.
Roger Charlton’s 3yo bucked a trend, though, because of the meeting’s eight handicaps, he was one of only two winners to return at a single-figure price. Of the others, four came home at 25/1 and two at 20/1. They were largely unfathomable results and underlined the arduous task that annually faces Ascot punters, notwithstanding the high quality on show. Indeed so arduous was it for Tom Segal, the Racing Post’s comically over-hyped tipster, that he failed to find one winner from no fewer than 31 selections in the print-version of the paper during the week. That takes some doing.
Mind you, Segal was probably correct this week when he poured scorn on the standard of the 2yo races, which was the only blot on the Ascot landscape last week. I felt the Albany Stakes was up to scratch, and in SEPTEMBER, winner of the Chesham Stakes, came positive confirmation of a filly on her way to the top. But it’s fair to say the season is yet to yield its best juvenile colts.
No review of Royal Ascot would be complete without mention of the peripheral figures behind the scenes. On the three days I was there, I found the racecourse staff endearingly pleasant and professional, in stark contrast to the members of a security firm who appeared to commandeer Ascot train station with a jobsworth mentality that was so unnecessary.
On course, the vast crowds were so expertly managed that I was happy to forgive a shortage of food outlets. At no stage, even among a near-70,000 attendance on the Friday, did the track feel overcrowded.
On the two days I wasn’t there, I took the opportunity to gatecrash ITV’s first attempt at Royal Ascot coverage. And, like most, I was impressed with the way they balanced the need to inform as well as entertain, much of the credit for which must go to the genial but knowledgeable anchor-man Ed Chamberlin. As a stickler for accuracy, I was irritated by factual errors that cropped up from time to time, and I still don’t understand why Matt Chapman feels the need to lace his opinions with offensive asides. But overall, I think ITV can be proud of their output, so it’s a pity they are subjected to such unfair scrutiny with regard to viewing figures. Of course, we need to know how many were watching, but the totals need to be placed into context, alongside audience-share statistics, while comparisons with racing’s former broadcasters, Channel 4 and BBC, are ludicrous. ITV has double the overall audience-share of Channel 4, so there’d be something very wrong if their figures were not superior, while the media landscape is a very different place to the one of 2012 when BBC last covered Royal Ascot. Gone are the days when we had to sit on the sofa in front of the telly to catch up with the action. For instance, friends of mine, stuck at work, were content to pick up clips of the finishes on ITV’s Twitter feed. And when Racing UK pundit Claude Charlet suffered a puncture while driving to the course on the Wednesday, he could still watch the first race via his mobile phone at the side of the road.
Ascot themselves also released some revealing stats that estimated the meeting’s social media and media reach reach over the five days was in excess of 100 million. There were nearly 99,000 mentions on Twitter, 820,000 video views on Facebook and more than 25,000 downloads of the new Royal Ascot app. It’s a world far removed from that of Julian Wilson and Raleigh Gilbert, but one that ITV deserves to populate without being told the future of racing weighs on their shoulders.
In fact, it doesn’t. But on last week’s evidence, if the future of racing ever came to weigh on Royal Ascot’s shoulders, then we’d have nothing to fear.