In the event, I didn’t dress up for Royal Ascot, writes Tony Stafford. Lockdown Tuesday has become our day for Tesco shopping and Mrs S didn’t see any reason to alter the schedule even for a fixture she likes to visit once every year. She timed it nicely, so I was able to watch the first four races before setting off. I listened to Battaash and Nazeef, two of the endless stream of Hamdan/Jim Crowley winners, courtesy of John Hunt’s Radio Five Live Radio commentary, while the two-metre queue inched forward, and we were back just in time to see Blue Laureate trail the field for almost the entire 4,390 yards of the Ascot Stakes.
It would have been inconvenient on Tuesday, having to change out of Fashion Show week catwalk mode into car park waiting mufti halfway through the piece. So I didn’t bother.
Having missed it on Tuesday, the incentive to “Go Royal” after so many had already had their first-day home champagne parties lost its glister. Indeed that was more and more the case as the week progressed. By Thursday I was wondering how we had ever managed to get there at all in all those years. Driving across to pick up Harry and Alan; negotiating the M25; employing the well-worn but not generally-known short cuts like Watersplash Lane which leads down to the Golden Gates and doing all that to arrive by midday for a coffee in the box and a 2.30 start was always a real trial. Now we had to be ready for a start at 1.15 and I found it was almost impossible even without the travel.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” and that adage, first formulated in the 1940’s, certainly mirrors my experience of the long weeks of isolation during lockdown.
The normal Royal Ascot routine post racing always required a quick departure after the last and a brisk stroll past the community singing as the bulk of the crowd, unaware of the potential horrors of delaying, would be left behind. Talking of the singing, I wonder if the obvious changing tide of popular sentiment in the UK will ever allow such jingoistic throw-back melodies to be allowed in future, a thought that symbolically coincided with the death of Dame Vera Lynn last week at the age of 103. Even when we got back to the car park before the queues started in earnest, the M25 was still the major obstacle, and I rarely managed to get home much before 8 p.m.
One nonagenarian who would have managed to find elements of the cut-down menu to enjoy was Her Majesty, at 94 still vigorous and, in Dame Vera terms, a relative spring chicken. While denied for the first time since the War of the full Ascot experience of which she is always such a centre-piece for so many, including Mrs S., she had to find a private way of celebrating the success of her home-bred colt Tactical. How odd that she – I presume that’s where she remained after the Trooping the Colour transposition the previous weekend – was in Windsor Castle at the precise moment that her colt was winning the eponymous event!
Her carriage routinely passes along our Watersplash Lane/ Cheapside Village route. No doubt the bunting will have been out as usual last week and the locals will have been feeling among the most penalised of all those denied that early summer feeling of normality. Now, as the days grotesquely start to grow shorter, and with Coronavirus deaths finally dropping below a thousand for the past week from a peak of 6,500 in mid-April, hopes of some degree of normality are rising.
For some stables the outward impression of the status quo remains. Royal Ascot success was largely the province of the big yards, but not exclusively so. Possibly the most remarkable were the achievements of Alan King, once almost exclusively regarded as a National Hunt specialist, but now a man for all seasons.
Royal Ascot encompassed 36 races over the five days. King had runners in five races. His Tritonic finished a half-length second to Highland Chief in the one-off Golden Gates Handicap which opened Thursday’s card and 40-1 shot Painless Potter was a creditable fifth in Saturday’s Coventry Stakes which will live long in the memory. Its victor, the Clive Cox-trained Nando Parrado, ridden by Adam Kirby for Mrs Marie McCartan, a 165,000 guineas buy as a foal, won at 150-1, the longest-priced Royal Ascot winner in its history. That exceeded two 100-1’s: Fox Chapel, who won the 1990 Britannia Stakes and Flashman’s Papers in the 2008 Windsor Castle.
Nando Parrado had run two weeks previously in one of the highly-competitive Newmarket races where trainers anxious to give preps to their nominated Royal Ascot hopefuls, took advantage of being guaranteed a run. Nando Parrado finished fifth behind Bright Devil whose trainer, Andrew Balding, opted for a step up in distance in Thursday’s Chesham Stakes. He finished fifth to the promising Coolmore colt, Battleground.
As well as Nando Parrado, three other subsequent winners started in that race. The fourth, Saint Lawrence, and sixth, Jimmy Sparks, both won races impressively last week, and London Palladium, last of 11 in that debut, was a 16-1 victor at Redcar yesterday.
Amazingly all three of King’s remaining runners won the final race of their respective days. Coeur De Lion made it third time lucky in Tuesday’s Ascot Stakes; Scarlet Dragon, at 33-1, gave Hollie Doyle a first Royal Ascot success in Friday’s Duke of Edinburgh Handicap and the final accolade of the week went to the redoubtable Who Dares Wins, just too tough for The Grand Visir, ridden by Hollie’s partner Tom Marquand in the Queen Alexandra Stakes for which he was the hot favourite.
Who Dares Wins, at eight, is the oldest of the King trio and has proved durable enough to run 44 times in his long career. The others are seven, Scarlet Dragon, with 45 runs on his card, and Coeur De Lion, 35.
Let’s deal with the other two first. Scarlet Dragon had 23 of his 45 runs for Eve Johnson Houghton before switching to King three seasons ago. He won five Flat races for Eve and, until Friday, his only wins for King had been in two hurdle races. He put that right here with a spectacular run from the back of the field, Hollie emulating Hayley Turner’s repeat win for Charlie Fellowes, this time aboard Onassis, in the Sandringham Handicap, Thursday’s finale.
Coeur De Lion has been with King from the start, the son of Pour Moi winning six races, two over hurdles, three on the Flat turf and one all-weather race. Who Dares Wins, with whom he has occasionally shared a horsebox to the races, had a remarkable time of it in 2019 and the first part of this year.
He was second in the Chester Cup on his third attempt. He was fourth in 2017, third the following year, and beaten only by Making Miracles last season. Between the two later Cup efforts he’d been off the track for almost a year before finishing a warming-up third under 9st 12lb behind Coeur Blimey and the inevitable Coeur De Lion in a long-distance Newbury Handicap.
Next came the Northumberland Plate, only a third all-weather run, but in the event a second triumph with a career-defining £92k winner’s prize. After that he was fourth to the smart Withhold in a valuable (but slowly-enough-run for him) two-mile handicap and then fourth in the Group 1 two-and-a-half-miler At the Arc meeting in Longchamp before finishing seventh to Stratum in the Cesarewitch.
So now Kingy would surely be giving him a break? Certainly not! Next came, of all things for a rising eight-year-old, four chases. Second places at Kempton, then (at 2-7) Plumpton before a Grade 2 win, showing all his stamina back at Kempton. His final run, in the Ultima Handicap at the Festival, probably owed more than a sideways look to the King stable sponsors, and his 13th of 23 was probably as well as could have been expected against “proper” chasers.
In the context of this weird season, a run on March 10th happily made him one of the less ring-rusty turning out for the Queen Alexandra, whose extended two miles, five furlongs could well have been written almost specifically with his requirements in mind. It needed many of those qualities to get him home ahead of The Grand Visir, who had been good enough to win last year’s Ascot Stakes under top weight. In truth, no other outcome seemed likely once the pair stripped off to do battle up the home straight.
Who Dares Wins fully lives up to his SAS-style motto. He could easily have been a Special Forces hero. In syndicate owner Henry Ponsonby’s eyes he surely is. It was such a pity that we couldn’t be there to celebrate, apart from everything else, the most heart-warming of his 11 victories and pay tribute also to Alan King, who has kept these three veterans of 124 races going to such wonderful effect.