A lot has changed in three years, writes Tony Stafford. Yes, it’s that long since I’ve been to Royal Ascot and it won’t be the same with different allegiances and in some ways different means of getting there.
Over the interim with first Covid and its continued effects – my younger daughter contracted it for the first time last week but seems well enough, thankfully – its impact and threat was never far away.
But what has changed is that I’ve succumbed to the era of the satellite in the sky that guides the car through traffic pitfalls, a practice insisted upon when my wife is travelling with me; never mind that I’ve been just about everywhere!
It’s then hard to shrug it off. I’ve known all the possible ways to Ascot, ducking through Windsor Great Park, sliding away from the track, and going through the same village that the Royal party uses to reach the straight mile, with the bunting put out every year by some of Her Majesty’s most loyal subjects.
Alan and Harry have since made alternate arrangements having been at the last “faux” Ascot I missed. I think it was on my time before last when I might easily have subjected them to a police incident. There are two possible roads after that village street to turn down which take you alongside the start of the Royal Hunt Cup course. I slid in the first one, past a gun-toting police representative and was immediately confronted at the end of the immaculate gravel drive by the sight of the gates at the top of the straight.
It was a couple of hours before the Royal party would be decamping from the horse-drawn carriages into the limousines to cover exactly the same ground.
I did a quick about-turn; making a shame-faced soundless apology to the official. He by then was starting to take more appropriate attention to the potential threat posed by three men in their 70’s. Mouth wide open, he left us to re-join the correct route a hundred yards further on.
I’m not sure, travelling alone, I will venture anywhere near that approach to the track, but it always got us there quicker than the ‘tourist’ ways in. Resuming after five decades of going to Ascot will be just as thrilling as the 2000 Guineas and Derby have already been this year. I just hope this most British of sporting events proves to have lost nothing in the missing years for me.
Nowadays we have the benefit of 48-hour declarations, so we know the make-up of the seven-race opening card. Getting to Ascot by road is always a delicate balance, and with the start time now back to 2.30 p.m. and a 6.10 final race, travelling up every day will be a challenging and gruelling process.
If you want to arrive in time to get a trouble- and traffic-free approach, probably 11 a.m. might not be too early. I’m sure the track’s management will be delighted if everyone has a few hours to sample the (very expensive) catering on offer.
But then, it is Ascot. Going racing isn’t cheap in the UK. One northern track the other day was charging £20 a head – plus the obligatory £3 for a programme. I wonder how many first-time attendees there will hurry back. Maybe if they backed a few winners they might?
Winner-backing is what racing is all about and, while elsewhere on this site there will be comprehensive analysis of all the races over the five days in one article or another, I’ll restrict myself to this first card which is nicely varied with a balance of top-class contests and tricky handicaps. Also, it’s nice to know what’s actually going to run.
Everyone will hope to have got all the preliminaries – and whether that will include a Royal procession involving herself, I have yet to hear – over well in time for the first race appearance of the potential number one equine star of the week, William Haggas’ Baaeed.
Although it will have been only a year and a week since the colt made his debut as a three-year-old in a novice event at Newbury, he has progressed with such sure-footedness that in seven unbeaten runs he has gone to the top of the international racing tree.
The Shadwell Estates colours may have become a little less prominent than they were before the death of Sheikh Hamdan Al-Maktoum, but Baaeed is on the way to becoming perhaps the most illustrious to carry the blue and white silks over the more than 40 years’ involvement he had with the sport, in the UK initially, and then worldwide.
His family have inevitably slimmed down the size of the Shadwell operation, but rarely can a cull have resulted in such a positive impact on other owners and trainers. Horses that would normally have been in training for Sheikh Hamdan have been sold to race, along with beautifully bred fillies and mares passed on to other paddocks. This will enable smaller-scale owners and breeders to have access to horses that would otherwise never have come on the market.
But for as long as the family has a horse of the quality of Baaeed to represent it I’m sure it will be an honour to continue the founder’s tradition. Baaeed will be long odds-on and I’d like to see a performance of Frankel magnitude and magnificence. I think Baaeed is the nearest we’ve seen to that unbeaten champion.
A more recent death will continue to have a major impact on the Haggas family as Maureen, the trainer’s wife, is the elder daughter of Lester Piggott, who passed in the lead-up to the Derby.
Not content with nine wins in the premier Classic, Lester also rode a preposterous 116 Royal Ascot winners, starting in the 1952 Wokingham with Malka’s Boy when a 16-year-old. College Chapel in the 1993 Cork and Orrery Stakes (now Platinum Jubilee Stakes) completed the set. That haul was all the more impressive given the meeting was then staged over only four days, with Saturday being merely ‘Ascot Heath’.
Ascot 2022 will start with a bang early on Tuesday afternoon and continue in like fashion right through to Saturday evening. Sprinters are to the fore in the King’s Stand Stakes, nowadays also a Group 1 contest but over the minimum five furlongs, a furlong shorter than the Jubilee. Here the home team are promised another potential roasting from some overseas greats, human and equine.
Wesley Ward has long been a devotee of the Royal meeting, most often with his fast juveniles and older sprinters, and he brings four-year-old Golden Pal – impossible to beat at home but twice defeated in the UK, by a neck as a two-year-old at Ascot and last year when only seventh at York in Winter Power’s Nunthorpe.
That Tim Easterby filly will be back tomorrow to challenge him again, but they may both have to take special care of the threat posed by Australia’s greatest trainer, Chris Waller. His seven-year-old, Nature Strip, has won 20 of 37 career starts in Australia and has earnings that will pass £10 million if he wins tomorrow.
Between the opener and the King’s Stand, there’s an intriguing contest for the Group 2 Coventry Stakes. This is the premier juvenile contest of the week and, such is the level of competition that 15 of the 16 declared have already won races, with seven of them unbeaten.
Until his third race there was very little suggestion that Blackbeard, a son of No Nay Never trained by Aidan O’Brien, was held in particularly high regard.
But then, as the second favourite to even-money shot Tough Talk in the Marble Hill Stakes on the Curragh, he put the favourite away by more than three lengths and now heads the Coventry market. With so many of the Ballydoyle two-year olds winning first time out, fears of an almost Cheltenham-like monopoly might be imminent in the two-year-old races this week.
Meanwhile, Coroebus, the 2000 Guineas winner, is the day’s other star performer. It would be satisfying if Charlie Appleby’s Classic winner could maintain his position at the top of the mile three-year-old colts’ totem pole.
In the old days we used to get nearly all the top-category races on the opening day with just the two-and-a-half mile Ascot Stakes (Handicap) as a diversion for form students at a more prosaic level – in other words people like me! I’d love to see Reshoun win it again, but here I offer my suggestion for a value bet. Surrey Gold has never raced beyond one mile and three-quarters but Hughie Morrison has campaigned him as though there will be more to come. I believe there will.
It's a great day all round, but if you need Wednesday to Saturday information (as well as more detail for Tuesday), Matt Bisogno and the team will put you straight. I’ll be too busy taking it all in!