Lack of Australian runners 'down to bad luck' not steroid ban
Royal Ascot's failure to attract a single runner from Australia this year is down to sheer bad luck, according to Ascot's director of racing Nick Smith, who pledged to step up efforts to secure a top name like Winx for next year's meeting.
Since Choisir pulled off the King's Stand and Diamond Jubilee Stakes double in 2003 the royal meeting has entertained a host of leading horses and their connections not only from Australia but the States, Japan, Hong Kong and South Africa.
As a result champions such as Animal Kingdom, Able Friend, A Shin Hikari and Tepin have graced the fixture, while California Chrome travelled over to compete until suffering a training setback.
However, it is the Australian absence that is most keenly felt after Choisir began a sequence of sprint domination in which horses from down under plundered four King's Stand wins in seven year which climaxed with Black Caviar's victory in the 2012 Diamond Jubilee.
Last year Holler (Diamond Jubilee) was Australia's sole representative, while out of four runners in 2015 Brazen Beau came closest to adding to the record when touched off by US sprinter Undrafted in the Diamond Jubilee.
Nevertheless, trainer Ralph Beckett suggested the absence of entries from Australia this year was linked to a clampdown on anabolic steroid use in the country in 2013, which had been legal as long as there was no trace of the drug on raceday, having tweeted, "Were they really, really good, or were they really, really medicated?”
In a blog he wrote, "Nobody involved in the industry here, (or anywhere else) believes that the aforementioned Australian sprinters didn’t get 'help' when out of training. (Steroids only show up for three months on a blood picture).
"Nor is anyone accusing their trainers of cheating. They were acting within their rules, it just so happened that they weren’t our rules, but they were running under our rules of racing."
This year's international representation is set to be the joint-second highest in 15 years but it is entirely comprised of a record contingent from the US, ten of which are trained by Wesley Ward.
Smith makes several trips overseas every year trying to recruit runners for Royal Ascot and said there were a numbers of reasons to blame for no horse coming from Australia but the steroid ban was "not a factor".
"I wouldn't say the numbers are disappointing because the American challenge is particularly strong," he said. "What's disappointing this year is there are not any Australians and that is purely down to bad luck.
"We had Caulfield Cup winner Jameka as good as on the plane. The plan was firm to come for the Hardwicke and King George. She suffered travel sickness on a trip between Melbourne and Sydney which put paid to an international trip.
"Spieth, Flying Artie and Extreme Choice are leading sprinters in Australia who were being talked of in February as Royal Ascot bound before the Lightning Stakes, but they didn't come through.
"Chautauqua was going to Hong Kong and potentially on to here but they shelved all of those plans because of the lucrative new Everest race in October which requires a £600,000 entry fee, which changes the game a bit."
Ascot pays a travel allowance for runners in Group 1 races and spends money promoting the meeting worldwide. As a result Smith says he travels twice a year to Australia and the States, once a year to Japan, Hong Kong, Dubai and Canada as well as Europe meeting horse connections, media and racing administrators. This could in future extend to China after a broadcast deal was signed with Sina Sports.
He targeted Black Caviar's connections more than a year before she ran and has already used the trips to have several meetings with the Winx team.
"I don't think we'd be anywhere near where we are if we didn't have a network of agents around the world and be able to extend a personal welcome," he said. "Sometimes horses drop out of the sky but with others you want to get to know them. It's about making sure everyone has it in their mind Ascot is the international event for Europe."
There are also other opportunities to promote the Ascot brand. He said. "This is not just about the horses, Juliet Slot [commercial director] and I went to the Kentucky Derby. Royal Ascot entries were closed then but the main reason was to do an interview live on NBC to promote the meeting. On the back of Tepin and Wesley Ward we have signed a major contract with NBC to cover the best part of 25 hours of the royal meeting.
"It costs very little in the grand scheme of things compared to what you get back in betting revenue, TV rights and brand exposure. We regard it as extremely good value."
Smith met Winx's trainer Chris Waller at the Kentucky Derby who he said remains "extremely positive" about bringing the record-breaking mare next year.
"The owners have always had a third Cox Plate in their mind," he said. "With that out of the way in October hopefully they will start to go internationally with her. I get the sense they see her as a Black Caviar and the type of horse that can put Australia on the global map.
"One year of having no Australians has to be taken in the context of what's happened in the last five or ten years. If there are no runners next year then you ask a question but right now we are working on the basis that it is business as usual."