Sport Horse Racing

Monday 24 October 2016

Foreign invasion shows Ascot's appeal

Kentucky Derby winner, Aussies, Japanese and more are set to show their faces, says Ian McClean

Ian McClean

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Queen Anne apparently knew a thing or two. She certainly wasn't far wrong when, upon riding out on the East Cote heath near Windsor Castle in 1711, she figured out that here was "an ideal place for horses to gallop at full stretch".

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Boy could Twitter benefit from that level of understatement on occasions.

East Cote soon became Ascot, and that tranquil bucolic scene of 1711 will some 300 years on be usurped by an entertainment extravaganza this week that will play host to 175 horse boxes, 630 panels of picket fence stretching over 1.5km, nearly 300,000 visitors occupying 14,000 car spaces across 10 car parks, 400 helicopters, 1,000 limousines, 1,000 accredited media from five continents and 2,400 cleaners working on a 24-hour cycle over all five days.

However, for all the fashionistas, hipsters and social climbers rounded by a circus of paparazzi at Windsor Castle's back door, it is the equine A-list that provides the real star attraction this coming week.

It is arguable that Royal Ascot's star has never shone as brightly as it does now. Hot on the heels of the global all-star cast announcement for this year's fixture on the track is the unlikely news that when it comes to corporate injections, following a £50m deal with Qipco, there is apparently no room left at the inn. Departing from any known precedent, Ascot head of communications Nick Smith even went so far as to admit, "the deal is at a level that makes race sponsorship at Royal Ascot unnecessary". Next thing politicians will be begging for no more votes.

One measure of the royal meeting's stock value has been the steadily increasing stream of foreign raiders, with Australian turbo-mare Black Caviar a stand-out bellwether in 2012. However, this year's foreign cast is so illustrious in terms of quality, quantity and distance travelled that Ascot is in danger of becoming a diamond-encrusted halting site for exotic equine dignitaries.

Once upon a time, it would have been inconceivable that a Kentucky Derby winner would end up in Berkshire in mid-June. By the end of the week, we will have seen two in the last three years. In addition to Animal Kingdom, which started favourite for the Queen Anne two years ago, Ascot welcomes California Chrome to its Group One feature on Wednesday. The very juxtaposition, side-by-side, of the owner Dumb Ass Partners and the Prince of Wales's Stakes alone is worth the entry ticket . Not to mention that voluble part-owner Steve Coburn remarked in his mid-west drawl last week his understanding that "the Queen is a Chromie" - in other words a member of the California Chrome fanbase.

But the more serious business of competition and the intensity of the line-up is reflected in the less flippant comment: "We're trying a thing that this horse has never done, and I feel he's going to be 12/1 or 15/1 (at Ascot) when every time he's run before he's been 8/5 or even money."

In total, more than 20 horses will fly in from outside Europe to strut their stuff, including the world's joint top-rated Able Friend, winner of his last six group races in native Hong Kong. The Aussies are bringing their now habitual battalion of sprinters, while the Japanese are trying to break their duck at the illustrious fixture, principally with Japan Cup third Spielberg in the aforementioned Prince of Wales's.

But perhaps the magnetic allure of the royal meeting, combined with its globalisation, is best illustrated by the impending challenge of Cyclogenisis, a North American trained three-year-old that is about to be supplemented for £35,000 at the last minute for a newly inaugurated race (Commonwealth Cup) that didn't even exist last year. The notion only came about after a conversation between trainer George Weaver, bemoaning the lack of opportunities in the programme book Stateside, and Wesley Ward, who has made a happy recent habit of pilfering the booty at Ascot. Whatever the value of Cyclogenisis's latest triumph on tapeta at Presque Isle Downs in the context of Friday's Group One challenge is anybody's guess, but if it proves one thing it is that such is the internationalisation of racing, and more especially Ascot's appeal, that a horse trained more than 5,000 miles away can be conscripted to compete almost on impulse.

Given all, it is somewhat ironic that Godolphin, one of the early pioneers in the globalisation of races with winners in 14 countries and so traditionally dominant at the royal fixture, should be reliant on Jim Bolger or Richard Hannon for the best chance of a winner this week via horses whose aspirations it has only bought into post hoc (Night Of Thunder, Round Two and, just this week, Pleascach).

The boys in blue's UK operation has struggled to restructure since the Al Zarooni doping saga, and last year's Ascot haul amounted to one solitary handicap win between their two domestic trainers, Saeed bin Suroor and Charlie Appleby. All racing superpowers are equal but some, at least for now, are more equal than others.

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