Return of Americans adds new dimension to Ascot's enduring allure
Every time you looked down the track you were regaled by the sight of top-class horses pelting headlong towards the winning post. From Lady Aurelia and Caravaggio to the epic Gold Cup confrontation between Big Orange and Order Of St George, Royal Ascot had it all.
And every time you listened to the voices in your midst you could not help but hear a plethora of trans-Atlantic accents. From car-park picnics through to grandstand bolt holes and private boxes, Americans abounded in large numbers.
It is not just Wesley Ward who is enchanted by the charms of the royal meeting. Inquisitive American tourists diverted there for an afternoon, there were regulars who visit Royal Ascot annually, but most of all, there was a large congregation of American owners and trainers. It has not been this way since Anglophiles like Paul Mellon, of Mill Reef fame, made the trip across the pond to watch their horses run.
For Americans, there are diverse attractions at Royal Ascot. A chance to see the Queen is high on their wishlist. Failing that, the pageantry alone is a more than compensatory substitute. And that’s not to mention the My Fair Lady-like appeal of the fashion and millinery on display. It makes for a unique sight – and that’s not just on a sporting pasture like Ascot.
But it was the presence of so many American horsemen that warmed the heart. Ascot has Ward to thank for opening his compatriots' eyes to the possibilities, even if it took Tepin’s victory in last year’s Queen Anne Stakes to dispel the perception that Americans competed at Royal Ascot only for the bourbon in the owners’ and trainers’ car park.
An insular component within British racing is adamant the American equivalent is a drug-fest that bears no comparison. Fair enough: it is perfectly clear that Americans are more medication-tolerant, although it only really came to light in the wake of the Mahmood Al Zarooni doping scandal four years ago that horses in Britain could be trained on all manner of medication just so long as it didn’t show up on raceday.
So crab the Americans if you will, but first consider how insular Royal Ascot would have been without them. Five different US trainers saddled 14 runners at an average, near enough, of three runners per day.
And where were the Aussies? Absent for the first time since 2004. The Japanese? They were non-runners – as were those ultra-durable sprinters from Hong Kong and Singapore, who were almost de rigueur just a few years ago.
While these nations back away, the Americans step up to the plate. And we can expect more of them in the years ahead now NBC has started broadcasting a live daily programme, extending to more than four hours and hosted by Nick Luck, whose regular presence on NBC’s Breeders’ Cup output makes him familiar to America’s racing audience.
Even Bob Baffert, as American as they come, declared he would love to saddle a winner at Royal Ascot when he was in London for the Longines awards back in January. I asked him why he didn’t recruit some decent ex-European racehorses and bring one back. “Oh no,” he said. “It would have to be a two-year-old; one that was all mine in the making.”
This increased interaction between the people and horses of both countries can only be a positive thing. We may be some way from a reintegration of bloodlines that was such a common feature of the last century, and without which the recent history of the Derby would look very different indeed. There would have been no Sir Ivor, no Nijinsky or Mill Reef, not to mention Roberto, The Minstrel, Golden Fleece and Secreto, all of them bred in the US.
Even in limited numbers, there is no doubt American horses add plenty to the feast. In their absence we could not have marvelled last week at the seemingly sonic speed of Lady Aurelia and Caravaggio, who are both products of US nurseries.
Of course, Britain has had greater exposure to US racing through the annual Breeders’ Cup renewal, at which our horses have been ever-present. But the flow is no longer one way, thanks to Royal Ascot.
The very best of the sport continues to develop along international lines – witness Caravaggio’s proposed assault on the The Everest in October, an AS$10 million sprint in Australia that will curtail his appearances in Britain this season. Britain’s role within the global matrix is less about such innovation than the extension of its rich racing history, and Royal Ascot is the purest expression of it.
Royal Ascot flies the flag with a vigour that Champions Day singularly lacks, which is ironic in one particular respect. As racing officials here grappled for years with the Champions Day concept and how to best showcase British racing, the solution was right under their noses. It simply required Royal Ascot to spread its wings with greater purpose on the international stage.
Some things are broke and can be fixed
Having paid full homage to Royal Ascot’s delights, there were aspects to the five-day meeting that left something to be desired. And in that vein it was gratifying to see my colleague Nicholas Godfrey allude, in this space on Tuesday, to a certain snootiness on the part of some of its officials.
I, too, had sensed an undercurrent of smugness in some of their comments, in particular in the justification for keeping the Coronation Stakes as the Friday highlight ahead of the Commonwealth Cup. “At Ascot, we make changes only when there is a need to do so,” we were told.
Really? To the best of my knowledge, change is only ever introduced when it is needed. This is precisely what spawned the expression: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Lest Ascot is unaware of it, this does not apply to Ascot alone.
On a different tack, while the explanation for the absence of any Australian runner – they don’t have horses sound or good enough – was confirmed by an Aussie journalist friend of mine, there is, of course, one notable exception.
Winx stayed at home because connections wanted her to land the Cox Plate in September for a third time. The allure of Royal Ascot is not as all-embracing as some of its officials are inclined to believe.
And it should not have required too much foresight to realise that starting the revamped Queen’s Vase a furlong or so from the first bend was asking for trouble. Sure enough, Wisconsin took part in the headlong charge for early position and was unable to handle the turn. He took the scenic route thereafter. Much to the dismay of his many backers, he never had a chance.
Godolphin still have work to do
Joe Osborne’s in-house appointment as John Ferguson’s successor at the helm of Godolphin suggests there will be no great shake-up of Sheikh Mohammed’s racing and breeding outfit – at least in the short term.
As the sheikh considers the fallout from a highly successful week at Royal Ascot, however, it will not be lost on him his two Group 1 triumphs were gained by horses he bought in training, and who remained with their original trainers.
Both of the sheikh’s private trainers, Saeed Bin Suroor and Charlie Appleby, were on the Royal Ascot scoresheet, but the higher-profile victories of Ribchester and Barney Roy are consistent with an underlying theme in European Pattern races this season.
The handful of horses the sheikh has bought and left with other trainers have outperformed the large herds of homebreds and foal/yearling sales purchases trained by his private handlers by five wins to four. His younger horses are not making sufficient impact.
Derby also-rans looking in fine form
Contrary to the general consensus on Derby day, the early signs are the Classic crop is above average following the Royal Ascot Pattern-race triumphs of Benbatl and Permian, who finished fifth and tenth respectively at Epsom. But the contentious question of whether the best horse actually won the Derby looks sure to be resolved in the Irish equivalent at the Curragh on Saturday.
Perhaps the best middle-distance three-year-old did not even run at Epsom. When assessing the race in this newspaper on Monday, Andre Fabre seemed distinctly optimistic that his Waldgeist, so narrowly denied in the Prix du Jockey-Club, would be centrally involved.