Irresistible lure of Ascot proves priceless
Showpiece meeting is once again attracting the finest horses from around the globe, writes Ian McClean
Little could Queen Anne have envisaged, as she rode out on the heath at East Cote near Windsor Castle in 1711, where her assessment that here was "an ideal place for horses to gallop at full stretch" would ultimately lead.
East Cote became Ascot, and that tranquil bucolic scene of 1711 has 300 years later been gazumped by an entertainment extravaganza that this week 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.
All badged up in two words: Royal Ascot.
Whilst the historical and natural transformation over 300 years has been absolute, the change from 2012 to 2013, while far more subtle, is still marked. For the first time the BBC will be replaced by Channel 4 who, also for the first time, will broadcast all 30 races live. More poignantly, the feast of racing will be all the poorer for the loss of Henry Cecil, knighted more recently for his service to racing. That service incorporated an indelible imprint on the roll of honour at the Royal meeting where his staggering 75 winners over more than four decades is, and will remain, unparalleled. Names like Bolkonski, Le Moss, Kris, One In A Million, Ardross, Light Cavalry, Paean, and Bosra Sham instantly conjure unforgettable images that connect us to our past.
But Cecil's finest was reserved for his very final act. Frankel. Triumphant at Royal Ascot for the last two years, the muted "cling-on" victory of the St James's Palace win in 2011 was trumped spectacularly by his 11-length annihilation of the Queen Anne field 12 months ago – perhaps the most breathtaking of all his 14 victories over three unforgettable seasons.
Like Frankel, Sir Henry reserved his best for the Royal meeting and once said how he wouldn't mind only training a handful of winners in a whole season if only he could be champion trainer at Royal Ascot. If Royal Ascot reflects racing's most preciously colourful pageant, then Henry Cecil was its golden thread.
If Frankel's explosive Queen Anne victory in the very opening race set the tone for the meeting last year, then many are hopeful of a similar show from Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom this coming Tuesday.
The US-trained Animal Kingdom's participation is emblematic of the recent trend towards foreign invasion. Australian-trained Choisir's victory in the King's Stand doubled up four days later by the Golden Jubilee 10 years ago did for international visitors to Ascot what Dick Fosbury did for the high jump in the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
The allure of winning at Ascot in mid-June was probably most amplified by the arrival last season of Aussie super-mare Black Caviar whose knotty trans-global odyssey could in no way add up if you applied either logic, mathematics or economics. However, the magnetism of Ascot isn't a head thing, it's a heart thing. A heart thing that's had a 300-year investment.
This year the heart thing is attracting runners from Ireland, France, Germany, USA, South Africa, Australia and Bahrain.
"Royal Ascot is a bonus for me because I thought Dubai was his last race," said Animal Kingdom's trainer Graham Motion. "I feel very fortunate that these guys have taken on this very sporting challenge. It's admirable that John [Messara] and Barry [Irwin] want to do this."
The truth is the owners are taking unnecessary risks with a fragile horse for a prize-fund about five per cent of the value of the pot they won in Dubai. However, to paraphrase the Mastercard advert's tag-line, some things are just priceless.
Speaking of priceless, the perils of ante-post betting have never been as heavily accentuated as in the build-up to the other Group One feature of Tuesday, the St James's Palace Stakes. Magician was installed a strong favourite following Jim Bolger's assertion that Dawn Approach would bypass Royal Ascot but would be "worth waiting for" on his return. From not even being quoted, Dawn Approach suddenly leapt to the head of the market as he got conjured into a runner out of nothing. Meanwhile, Magician suffered some bruising and became a possible disappearing act as he drifted to 6/1 on Betfair.
It is perhaps significant that (without Dawn Approach) Godolphin – reeling from an annus horribilis already this year – do not have a single credible runner in any of the major championship races.
Ultimately, the lure of a winner at the Royal meeting is, after all, irresistible.