Crowds, including The Queen, make a welcome return to the Berkshire amphitheatre where some terrific horses show their flair
AT some stage in the future, Royal Ascot 2021 will be remembered for the terrific horses which bestrode its stage; the milers Palace Pier (pictured winning, left), Poetic Flare and Alcohol Free; the middle-distance mares Love and, my favourite, Wonderful Tonight; the new kid on the staying block Subjectivist; and the sprinters Campanelle, Dragon Symbol, Oxted and Dream Of Dreams.
But in the immediate aftermath, while we are still drying out from Friday’s deluge which meant the last two days were run in very testing conditions – heavy is for Cheltenham – it was the return of crowds to racing in some numbers for the first time in 15 months that was one of the main themes of the week.
The limited window for ticket sales and the hoops of Covid protocols and tests racegoers had to go through once the meeting had been nominated for one of the Government’s “event research programmes” meant it was something of a half-way house between last year’s zero crowd behind-closed-doors and, hopefully, the return of 70,000 for the Gold Cup next year in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year.
For some three-year-olds it was the first time they had seen any sort of crowd, and both Mohaafeth, winner of the Hampton Court, and Dragon Symbol, who had the Commonwealth Cup taken off him in favour of the narrowly defeated Campanelle after leaning all over the American filly, drifted away from the noise.
For the first two days it was a bit like tea at the Ritz on a quiet day as maybe two-thirds of the possible 12,000 turned up. But the atmosphere built through the week and Ascot was rocking on Saturday, and I am pretty sure the arrival of The Queen – much missed for the first four days – for her first day at the meeting helped put a spring in everyone’s step.
It was, however, the biggest player of the week, Stradivarius, who did not pay much attention to the script that he was to win a fourth Gold Cup, undone perhaps by his advancing age, getting too far behind, then enjoying little luck in running.
There is also a suggestion that Stradivarius, who has always been a bit colty – he is old-school and no one has told him it is not the done thing these days to wolf whistle at the ladies – fell for the oldest trick in the book, a honey trap. For almost two miles Joey Sheridan parked the filly Princess Zoe alongside Stradivarius and, whether it had any effect or not, it was certainly a clever ride.
That is conjecture but ultimately, however, Stradivarius was undone by Mark Johnston’s Subjectivist, who came into the race slightly ignored despite having won his last two, a Group One on heavy at Longchamp and a Group Two on quick ground in Meydan, where he broke the track record.
Trying two-and-a-half miles for the first time, the four-year-old by Teofilo, ridden by the unflappably loyal Joe Fanning, looked extra special quickening five lengths clear of the field.
Fanning was one of the human heroes of this year’s Royal meeting – there is no greater sign of respect for a colleague than the weighing room emptying of his colleagues to lead the cheering. That was touching – or, as Fanning in his typically understated way described it – “very nice”.
Looking forward from Ascot there are two things I would like to see; a match-up between Palace Pier, the Queen Anne winner, and Poetic Flare, the impressive St James’s Palace winner, in a race like the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood; and also Wonderful Tonight in a soft ground Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe.
THERE is nothing like a Frankie Dettori winner to get the action off to a flyer, and Palace Pier was a comfortable length-and-a-half winner of the Queen Anne Stakes to cement his position as the best older miler in Europe.
“I needed Valium this morning I was so excited,” explained Dettori, who last year said he needed an espresso to get motivated without a crowd. “He was a pressure horse in a pressure race and I wanted everything to go right. I can breathe now. It’s 31 years ago since my first Ascot winner; there’s been so much water under the bridge but I am still getting the same kick.”
Dettori’s description of him as the best miler in the world went just under two hours without challenge after Jim Bolger’s 2000 Guineas winner Poetic Flare showed an explosive turn of foot to win the St James’s Palace Stakes by 4½ lengths. It was Poetic Flare’s fourth Group One in 45 days (one every 11 days six hours) so his middle name is “tough”.
Jim Bolger, his owner-breeder and trainer, said: “I would have accepted any margin but was genuinely expecting a performance like that. He’s extremely hardy.”
The King’s Stand Stakes was a masterpiece of planning by Lambourn trainer Roger Teal, who felt a fast-run stiff five furlongs would be ideal for Oxted. The field set off like a drag race and the key players were walking at the furlong marker. Cieren Fallon gets on so well with Oxted and swept through from the back to record his first Royal Ascot winner.
SOME years Aidan O’Brien could legitimately claim squatters rights to Ascot’s horseshoe-shaped winners’ enclosure. Although he only paid it a couple of visits this year, his win and place prize-money came to over £800,000, more than anyone else.
Love, who carried all before her in her Classic year winning the 1000 Guineas, Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks, managed to win on her seasonal reappearance, though James Fanshawe’s Breeders’ Cup winner Audarya pushed her all the way up the straight.
The two juvenile races on Wednesday threw up good results. Gavin Cromwell was originally best known for being Tiger Roll’s farrier, then a jumps trainer which has seen him win a Welsh National, Champion Hurdle and, in March, a Stayers Hurdle and Albert Bartlett. On Wednesday Quick Suzy won him the Queen Mary over five furlongs.
Chipotle, a bargain basement 10,000gns yearling purchase owned by the Woodway 20 syndicate, gave Eve Johnson-Houghton her first Royal Ascot two-year-old winner when he and Charlie Bishop took the Windsor Castle by 2½ lengths.
IF the defeat of Stradivarius, who finished fourth behind Subjectivist when going for a fourth Gold Cup, did anything, it underlined the achievement of Yeats, the only horse to have won four. Subjectivist, however, looked very special. It took Joe Fanning, whose third Group One it was despite being in the top 10 all-time winning Flat jockeys, an age to pull him up.
“He won in France last season on heavy ground and people were thinking he needed heavy ground to excel,” said trainer Mark Johnston, who was winning his fourth Gold Cup. “But then he went onto Dubai and that was the big question mark, could he go on fast ground? That was the performance of his life.”
It was a good meeting for the North on the whole, but with Richard Fahey winning the Norfolk Stakes, John Quinn taking the Buckingham Palace Stakes with Highfield Princess book-ending a Middleham winner in the Gold Cup, this was a particularly fine day.
William Haggas’s decision to pull Mohaafeth out of the Derby on the day because of the soft ground was fully vindicated when Sheikh Hamdan’s colt won the Hampton Court looking like a mile and a quarter was the limit of his stamina. He also resisted the temptation to supplement trial winner Alenquer for the Derby when he beat the Sir Mark Todd-trained Tasman Bay in the King Edward VII Stakes on Friday.
THE Commonwealth Cup provided one of the best finishes of the meeting when Dragon Symbol (Oisin Murphy) and the big American filly Campanelle (Frankie Dettori) went hammer and tongs with each through the final furlong and drew five lengths clear of the third.
However, first across the line Dragon Symbol drifted across the course taking Dettori’s mount with him, and the stewards decided to reverse the placings – the first time a Group One winner had been “chucked out” at Royal Ascot since 1988.
“It’s never nice winning a race in the stewards’ room, it leaves a bitter taste,” said Dettori.
Sandrine, who had given Andrew Balding a second juvenile winner of the week to go with Berkshire Shadow’s first-day win in the Coventry, was followed into the winners’ enclosure by stable companion Alcohol Free, who took the Coronation Stakes. It was quite a comeback for Oisin Murphy to lose one Group One and then win another all in the space of 35 minutes.
I am beginning to love Murphy for his wit and wisdom.
“I said to my valet when he put his arm round me,” he said after Alcohol Free’s win, “‘There’s no place for tears in here. There are far worse things going on in the world, we’re in the entertainment industry, and I’m steering these marvellous animals and keep looking forward to the next one.’”
DAVID MENUISIER, the Sussex-based Frenchman who trains on the Pulborough gallops where Dancing Brave once strutted his stuff, has a superstar filly in Wonderful Tonight. When it came up soft he let her take her chance in the Hardwicke despite being what he described as “85% fit” and she showed a definite turn of foot when William Buick sent her on turning in.
“Wonderful Tonight is an absolute champion,” said Menuisier. “She was running against tough opposition with the benefit of at least one run, so you always have to be on the side of caution, but she is amazing.”
It was a first Royal Ascot winner for owner Chris Wright. He has had horses for 40 years including Classic winners Culture Vulture, Dark Angel, Nicer and Chrisellium but this was his first Royal Ascot winner.
“There are winners and winners, but a Royal Ascot winner…” he said. “To win at Royal Ascot is like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
This report can also be read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale date 24 June 2021
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