What was different, indeed unique, about Saturday at Ascot? With the sun shining and the temperature climbing into the 20’s it could have been the warmest Qipco Champions Day yet, writes Tony Stafford. With 30,000 in attendance the day confirmed Ascot’s ability to pack in the crowds, and John Gosden collected three big prizes with his trio of equine (and one human Italian) superstars.
But no, none of those was unprecedented. Maybe the sight of Sheikh Fahad Al Thani jumping up from his seat next to the Queen in the Royal Box as his Roaring Lion went to the front in the Mile race was a little out of kilter with traditional behaviour. But as the Qatari related afterwards, he was given full licence by her Majesty. “You are allowed to enjoy this”, she reputedly said.
At the age of 92 it is hard to imagine anybody in the world with Her Majesty’s multitude of obvious qualities, and her approachability is becoming more discernible too. Certainly Ali Idrissi, whose day job is as the House of Lords butler, was captivated by her on Saturday as he was called in for duty in the Royal Box.
“She was very friendly, talking to everyone and really enjoying the whole occasion,” he said later. “What surprised me was when she told me: “After all these years coming to Ascot, this is the first time I’ve ever had lunch in the Royal Box”.
Idrissi is based in a different location during Royal Ascot and his revelation showed just how much thought goes along with the traditional elements of racing at Ascot. Saturday’s early start meant the guests would have needed to be tucking into the langoustines and chicken well before noon had the normal Windsor Castle timetable been observed.
Instead it was Kensington Palace for dinner on Friday night when I understand partridge was on the menu – and on Saturday with no carriages coming down the course. This was just as well with the ground still on the heavy side by the time racing went ahead a full hour and five minutes before the traditional start of the Royal’s racedays.
Gosden took no time getting under way, sending out Bjorn Nielsen’s home-bred Stradivarius to add the Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup to his million bonus-earning series of staying-race victories through the year.
Sheikh Fahad’s personal triumph with Roaring Lion came in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, with the sponsor’s name added only in parentheses before the British Champions Mile notation. His colt held off I Can Fly whose late rally belied her 33-1 starting price and also indicated her as a possible Breeders’ Cup challenger for Ballydoyle next month.
The lavish sponsorship of two major British meetings – Goodwood is the other – has kept Qatar in the game at the top level at a time when the Middle-eastern country has been at loggerheads with many of its neighbours and the subject of severe financial constraints as a result.
But the signs recently – certainly in the horse racing world – have been a little more promising for Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing Ltd if not as much for Al Shaqab, now with far fewer horses in training in the UK after stories of unpaid bills earlier in the year and the departure of its UK advisor, Harry Herbert.
Herbert returned to manage the affairs of his brainchild Highclere Racing and the Royal Ascot Racing Club along with John Warren, his brother-in-law and the Queen’s Racing Manager.
Qatar Racing’s senior representative is David Redvers who also runs Tweenhills stud in Gloucestershire, where Roaring Lion and fellow Group 1 winner, Lightning Strike, will begin stallion careers next year. In Roaring Lion’s case, it could possibly be after a Breeders’ Cup tilt if the sheikh is to get his wish over Gosden’s more measured approach.
The purse strings had been visibly tightened during the period of Qatari austerity, but loosened enough for the Qatar Racing Ltd team to acquire the 3.5 million guineas full-brother to the champion 2018 two-year-old Too Darn Hot, so impressive in the Dewhurst, at Tattersalls October Yearling sale two weeks ago. That was the highest price paid anywhere in the world for a yearling at auction in 2018.
Without Aidan O’Brien’s numerical support, the day would have been thin enough in a number of races. The reigning champion could never threaten to peg back Gosden’s lead but he still managed to win the Fillies and Mares race over a mile and a half with Magical, who raced past Gosden’s favourite Lah Ti Dar before holding the late challenge of the latter’s stable-mate, Coronet.
The late summer and autumn has been very much about the success of Godolphin’s Royal Blue colours, with Charlie Appleby leading the way in Britain, France and Australia, more recently joined by teammate Saeed bin Suroor, who collected Saturday’s Caulfield Cup in Melbourne with Best Solution – The Cliffsofmoher third.
But with more than a little obvious disagreement between the two neighbouring nations, it seems pointed that neither Charlie nor Saeed had a runner on British Champions Day. Indeed the only Godolphin runners on the card were Harry Angel, runner-up to 28-1 shot Sands of Mali in the Sprint and the Andre Fabre-trained Kitesurf who was fourth in Magical’s race.
Harry Angel did a fair bit to restore his reputation after a couple of disappointments, He had never won at Ascot in five previous tries – five wins in six runs elsewhere - so to be staying on into runner-up spot for the Clive Cox stable was acceptable before his departure to stud. Kitesurf ‘s Prix Vermeille win last time was put into perspective in this stronger affair.
Sir Michael Stoute has enough experience to accept that the otherwise admirable Crystal Ocean has been little more than cannon-fodder since his near miss on this course in the King George behind now-retired stable-companion Poet’s Word.
First he provided Enable with some worthy if over-stretched, conceding 8lb, opposition in Kempton’s September Stakes on that filly’s Arc prep, and now, back to 10 furlongs, set up the final crowning of Cracksman in the Qipco Champion Stakes. As Cracksman, gifted his preferred testing ground after a frustratingly dry summer, careered six lengths clear, you could sense Dettori, brandishing the whip to the stands through the last furlong, rehearsing a fresh version of the trademark flying dismount.
After the championship races it was left to James Doyle to collect the finale, the Balmoral Handicap, on Sharja Bridge trained by Roger Varian. Doyle, with his new girlfriend in attendance and brand new car in prominent display in the car park, was standing in for Andrea Atzeni, forced to sit out the race after earlier confusion on whether a French-imposed ban should be implemented.
His elder sister Sophie, one of the leading riders at Hawthorne in Chicago at the moment, took time off last week to attend the sales in Newmarket with mum Jacqui. The aim was to look for suitable yearlings to go into training in the US. It’s great to see such enterprise paying off.
One thing that clearly did not pay off happened last week when I suggested possibly the worst bet ever, on Big Brother of all things. Thanks to Roger Hales’ “inside knowledge”, I put up Atzeni’s former partner Isabella Farnese at 14-1 after Roger said she’d win the event having come in as a late addition. I did tune in the night after I passed on the “knowledge” and within minutes it was clear that she had already annoyed half her fellow inmates. She’s an inmate no longer. Thanks Roger! [More accountability, please! – Ed.]