Desert Orchid thriller the highlight of 50 years of jump racing at Ascot
First published on February 13, 2015
Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard, 16th Duke of Norfolk, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Earl Marshal of England, Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and Her Majesty's Representative at Ascot, was not often wrong. This, though, was such an occasion.
"Jump racing at Ascot will take place only over my dead body," he said, no doubt with the 'harrumph' expected of a sufficiently outraged aristocrat, no doubt considering the subject closed. The cricket-loving Duke – a story that is hopefully not apocryphal refers to the umpire at Arundel, who was also the Duke's butler, announcing his dismissals with the diplomatic words 'His Grace is not in' – died in January 1975, by which date Ascot had been staging jump racing for very nearly a decade. Perhaps he'd grown accustomed to it by then.
This year Ascot celebrates its half-century as a dual-purpose racecourse, the first races on the jumps circuit - on the inside of the fabled Flat track, and thus a little remote from the grandstands - being run as part of a mixed meeting on Friday, April 30, 1965, with the ground-breaking Inaugural Hurdle won by the favourite Sir Giles, trained by Fulke Walwyn and ridden by Willie Robinson. Forty minutes later the Kennel Gate Handicap Chase christened the steeplechase fences, with 20-1 outsider Another Scot, trained by Chris Nesfield, upsetting a big field under Tim Norman.
The turf upon which the jumps course was constructed was not native to Ascot, having been transported the few miles from Hurst Park racecourse in south-west London. When that track closed in 1962, its fixtures and fittings were auctioned and 20 acres of its turf were purchased by the Ascot Authority to landscape the new circuit. Two years later the grass pre-galloped over by generations of jumpers had knitted together and settled sufficiently in its new surroundings to allow racing to take place.
Also new in 1965
The miniskirt is launched by Mary Quant from her shop on the King's Road
Bob Dylan 'goes electric' on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island
US Marines arrive in South Vietnam, the first combat troops to enter the country
The supermarionation sci-fi show Thunderbirds is screened on British television
Alexey Leonov leaves Voskhod 2 and becomes the first man to walk in space
This new venture took place against a background of course closures the like of which had never been seen before, with Hurst Park's demise one of a clutch of similar stories across Britain.
Buckfastleigh had disappeared in 1960, Manchester and Woore closed in 1963, Lewes and Lincoln followed suit the following year, Bogside and Birmingham shut either side of Ascot's reinvention. The move was an important demonstration of faith in jump racing, which at that time was seen as very much the poor relation of the Flat scene, as well as an opportunity to provide another outlet for the upper echelon of the winter sport.
Racing's big names were swiftly in attendance. In October 1965 the great Mill House took on the fleet-footed Dunkirk in the Frogmore Chase over a two-mile trip that was well short of his best, and ran a gallant second.
Then, the following year, Flyingbolt's greater-still stablemate Arkle carried 12st 7lb and landed odds of 1-3 in the SGB Handicap Chase, the final victory of an incomparable career that would draw to its shockingly premature close less than two weeks later at Kempton - the three best steeplechasers in history had thus run at Ascot within 20 months of its inception. The SGB (now run as the Ascot Silver Cup) would be one of the highlights of Ascot's jumps programme for the next two decades, being won by subsequent Gold Cup winners Glencaraig Lady and Midnight Court and Gold Cup runners-up Captain John and Cavvies Clown.
Cheltenham was of course the great focus for all these big names, but one horse who would prove ideally suited to Ascot's unique tests was the flamboyantly brilliant grey Desert Orchid, who won three hurdle races and five times over fences at the course. His finest hour at Ascot came in the inaugural running of the Victor Chandler Chase (now run as the Clarence House Chase) in January 1989, a race that will live long in the memories of those who saw it.
Ascot's Flat course had the imperishable battle between Grundy and Bustino as a benchmark for breathless excitement, and in the duel between Desert Orchid and Panto Prince the jumps course found its own yardstick. The grey horse was conceding 22lb to his near-black rival and seemed to have matters largely under control until a better jump at the final fence appeared to tilt the definitive initiative to Panto Prince, more so given the comparatively short run-in at Ascot.
Yet Desert Orchid would never concede even the most hopeless cause, and hauled himself back to Panto Prince, inch by inch, before pushing his head in front on the line to win by the length of it. In those pre-redevelopment days the final furlong of the jumps course was slightly obscured by the frame of the number-board, and those in the packed grandstands peered through the ironwork to better see this most thrilling of finishes.
The Victor Chandler Chase would produce a near-facsimile of this absorbing contest in 2004, when Isio and Azertyuiop traded blows all the way to the line before the former prevailed by a neck, on this occasion a hefty weight concession of 19lb proving just too much for the resolute runner-up. Incidentally, the Victor Chandler must own the unofficial record for being staged away from its home most often, with six iterations of the race being run elsewhere (owing to abandonments and redevelopment) in the space of 20 years.
If the speed merchants take centre stage over fences at Ascot, it's the stayers who hold sway over hurdles, with the Long Walk Hurdle at the December meeting the most prestigious race over the smaller obstacles. This three-mile-plus contest has developed significantly over the years from its earlier incarnation as a handicap, with the victory of the former Champion Hurdle winner Lanzarote in 1975 a watershed for its fortunes. Subsequent winners included the enigmatic Derring Rose, Crimson Embers and Floyd, but the Long Walk evolved into a race for champions only when the outstanding Baracouda put his mark on the honour roll.
The French ace won the race four times in the early years of the 21st century, three times at Ascot and once at Windsor, his victories generally characterised by the employment of extravagantly patient tactics. He also twice won Ascot's other big hurdle race, the prosaically monikered Ascot Hurdle at the November meeting that boasts no fewer than four Champion Hurdle winners among its alumni, with this season's victor Faugheen favourite to make it five.
Other multiple winners of the Long Walk include the great champion Big Buck's (although two of his three wins were gained at Newbury, on Ascot's abandonment) and Reve De Sivola, whose recent tussle with Zarkandar stood comparison with many of the great Ascot races of the past - although perhaps not the aforementioned Desert Orchid-Panto Prince affair.
Jump racing is now so commonplace at Ascot as to barely warrant comment, although a dozen years ago its future came into question when the course executive briefly considered scrapping fixtures after a spate of small fields in some of its more prestigious races. It was no more than a fleeting concern and was soon forgotten, and now Ascot's seven annual fixtures are an integral factor of the jumps season and of the course's annual offering.
"Jumping at Ascot is often perceived to be the Flat's little brother, and that's understandable given the magnitude of the royal meeting and our Flat programme generally," says Nick Smith, Ascot's head of communications and international racing.
"However, we don't feel like that within the organisation and have built on the programme and prize-money consistently. I think it'll surprise a few people, when they see the historical images on course and on television, just how many of the greats have run here, from Arkle and Mill House, through Desert Orchid and on to latter-day legends such as Big Buck's."
There have been many memorable moments aside from those described here, although inevitably not all the memories are happy ones – for example, Killiney and The Proclamation were both killed in falls before they had the opportunity to fulfil their remarkable potential. But who can forget Andrew Thornton's incredible feat of horsemanship to win on Kingscliff after the reins had snapped at the third fence of a three-mile chase, or Monet's Garden's heartwarming success at the age of 12 in the Ascot Chase, or Kauto Star's imperious victory in the same race on his only appearance at the course, or Peter Scudamore bringing a long and illustrious career to an end with a winner in Sweet Duke.
Ascot has substantially enriched the jumping scene over the last 50 years, has comfortably established itself as one of the top jumps courses in Britain and Ireland, and tomorrow – Betfair Ascot Chase day – there will be celebrations surrounding the 'golden jubilee' with free admission to all Grandstand visitors.
A large crowd will gather to watch some of the sport's big names, and perhaps a few old-timers will recall the words of the 16th Duke of Norfolk, and smile to themselves.
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