Catherine Austen is one of just a handful of journalists working on site at Royal Ascot this week – here are her reflections on the first day...
It was though someone had cast a spell over Ascot racecourse yesterday. The colours were still there – the gleaming bay coats of impeccably bred horses, the vibrant silks of the jockeys, the tropical hues of the flowers – but there was virtually no noise.
Without the 50,000 spectators usually expected on the first day of the Royal meeting, you could watch a race from the top of the grandstand and hear the jockeys’ voices raised above the drumbeat of hooves as the horses charged along the final furlong towards the winning post. Normally Ascot would be ringing with the cheers of the crowd, the hum of chatter, the clink of champagne glasses.
For 2020, Royal Ascot is taking place “behind closed doors”, with only the most essential participants on course. This includes four journalists – one from the Racing Post, one from the Press Association, and two from Racenews, who provide the official news service and for whom I am working.
Temperatures are tested on arrival, facemasks are obligatory, there is endless hand sanitisation and strict social distancing. There are so few of us that everyone is parked in one of Ascot’s near-dozen large car parks. I am wearing a dress, but, like Sky Sports’ Hayley Moore, decide to keep my trainers on instead of swapping into heels. Mine are dirtier than hers, though, and I think that for the rest of the week I will revert to the less comfy option.
There is no Royal procession. The national anthem is played before the first race, but The Queen, like all other owners and racing fans, is watching from home.
Richard Hannon wins the first race of this unique week, and tells the Press Association’s Graham Clark and I that that’s it, “the rest of the meeting is cancelled”, with a flashing grin. Ultimately, when the memories of this extraordinary year have faded, the records will remain – a Royal Ascot winner is a Royal Ascot winner. By the end of the day, jockey Jim Crowley has bolstered his Royal Ascot scorecard by three, all for different trainers but all for the owner who retains him, Sheikh Hamdan.
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How many times over the decades have pictures been captioned, “Frankie Dettori delights the crowds with a flying dismount”? He obliged once again after the hot-headed but talented Oaks prospect Frankly Darling gave John Gosden a 50th Royal Ascot training success in the Ribblesdale, but it was for the three photographers present, not for the dozen or so of us who watched him from the paddock steps.
The tempo of the day might have been muted, but the stories were as rich in variety as ever. The big guns – Gosden, Frankie, Ryan Moore, Coolmore – were matched by pistol shots from the likes of William Muir, for whom Pyledriver’s King Edward VII Stakes victory was a second Royal meeting winner, 18 years after his first. Normally the race is a Derby consolation; this year it’s a Derby trial and the dream is alive.
Muir was there and in voluble form, but not all the trainers were present. Alan King’s Coeur De Lion took the last race, the two-and-a-half-mile Ascot Stakes, but he was nowhere to be seen. Instead attention focused on the 20-year-old jockey with surely the best name in the weighing room, Thore Hammer Hansen. It is a name reminiscent of the Norse gods.
Like Sleeping Beauty, Royal Ascot will rise from her semi-slumber next year and once again be the most intense, exotic week of the season. But I’m going to enjoy every minute of this one – as will the millions of TV viewers all over the world. Hats off to Ascot and to British racing for pulling it off.
Keep in touch with each day’s action from Royal Ascot here on Horseandhound.co.uk and don’t miss H&H magazine’s full report in next week’s magazine, on sale Thursday 25 June.