Sport Horse Racing

Thursday 18 January 2018

Royal party serves up cocktail of emotions

Lethal Force wins the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot
Lethal Force wins the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot

Ian McClean

The extravaganza that is Royal Ascot has no real compare. One hack – on a maiden visit – described the scene this week as a cross between Henley and a refugee camp. Berkshire's historic annual social oddity is made all the more bizarre by the unlikely fusion of racing and fashion – a union made all the more real by the fact that over half of the 1,000 accredited media are there for the couture, not the thoroughbred.

Coupling betting with fashion is like splicing Jeremy Kyle with the Royal Wedding and the twin anomaly reached its summit early on the very first day when Coral had to suspend betting on the colour of the Queen's hat because of an irregular run on pink.

Carlsberg don't do Royal Ascots, but if they did then it would be the hour between 3pm and 4pm on Thursday. During racing's ultimate happy hour, Lady Cecil greeted into the winner's circle the poetically-named Riposte, underlining the memory of racing's much lamented Henry – one of the few of the racing tribe to genuinely embrace style – and echoing the 75 winners he had welcomed over four decades.

The poignant tears enveloping Riposte's triumph turned to cheers just half an hour later when Estimate became the first Gold Cup winner to be owned by a reigning monarch. The memorial tribute to Sir Henry Cecil was played out daily on the big screen before 1pm, and at many and frequent intervals in the week racing's dignitaries paid their individual respects. Aidan O'Brien remembered his greatness and his loss after one of Coolmore's many winners.

The Master of Ballydoyle passed through training half the number of the 75 total of the Warren Place maestro this week – a feat he has managed in less than a decade and a half. And while he may never match Henry for Gucci loafers, dappled kerchiefs or luminescent socks, Aidan is nonetheless going stride-for-stride with Royal Ascot's crown impresario in shelling out winners.

Whilst the Americans managed to get on the scoreboard this week, it wasn't in the shape many expected. Much of the hype before the meeting surrounded Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom, which had been sportingly routed to Berkshire by his owners for what was likely to be his twelfth and final race. It was therefore one of the sorriest sights of the week to see the colt back-pedalling rapidly out the back of the TV monitor in the opening Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday.

Ironically, it appears that a premature preoccupation with his upcoming breeding career caused his lacklustre performance on the track. Things were fine in the paddock right up until the one filly in the race (Elusive Kate) – his Cleopatra – appeared in the ring.

For the next 10 minutes Animal Kingdom became agitated, heated and (what breeders kindly describe) as "coltish" in demeanour. In other words, his head was in the shed. It is such a pity that the performance of the first Kentucky Derby winner to appear at the Royal meeting for 77 years should end in such anti-climax.

Highlight of the week for me in pure on-track achievement was the performance of Dawn Approach in the St James's Palace. The skill of the Coolcullen team to coax an athlete which was out of control just 17 days earlier on the Epsom Downs back to peak for a championship race cannot be overestimated. Irrespective of opinion, competing in a Group One at Ascot so soon after Epsom's aberration came with plenty of risk attached. However, Sheikh Mohammed contextualised it when he declared that "the biggest risk of all is to take no risk."

The final nail-biting scrap between Dawn Approach and old adversary Toronado augurs well for the near future – reminiscent as it was in the last decade of the rivalry between Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator or (previously) of King's Lake and To Agori Mou.

A final theme of the week centres round the fickleness of success – particularly seen through the lens of the jockeys. Contrast the experience of James Doyle this week – a jockey few would be familiar with – and household names Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori.

On Wednesday, James Doyle popped his Royal cherry by riding three winners on the bounce in three consecutive feature races. Fallon, meanwhile, struggled all week to get rides even from his main retainer Luca Cumani; and Frankie looked increasingly distracted as he tried to make the most of the scraps from others' tables.

You wouldn't be certain that Fallon and Dettori, once kings of Ascot, do not still possess all the talent they did then. Then again, it's not just about talent. Carlsberg, at least this year, just didn't do Royal Ascot for them.

Irish Independent

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