Royal Ascot a Tonic for U.S. Woes

 What a joy to watch the Royal Ascot meeting on TV last week, especially hearing the rousing ovation for the champion stayer Yeats after his record-equaling third straight Ascot Gold Cup (Eng-I) victory at 2 1/2 miles. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a stayer is a creature unknown to American racing fans that actually relishes distances well beyond 1 1/2 miles (pssst, Breeders’ Cup officials, 1 1/2 miles is not a marathon). In speed-crazy America, horses like Yeats are considered a notch above plow horses and cast aside, while being treated like lepers by the breeders.

The last horse to win three Ascot Gold Cups was Sagaro in 1975-77, and, believe it or not, I was at Ascot when he completed his triple in 1977 and can remember very well the enthusiastic reception he received. By the way, if you want tradition, next year the Ascot Gold Cup will have its 200th running. Not many people realize that an American Triple Crown winner ran in the Gold Cup. Omaha was the 6-5 favorite in 1936 and was beaten a nose by the filly Quashed.

At the same time Yeats was being saluted for his remarkable achievement, Americans were listening to its leaders testify at a congressional hearing how drugs are ruining the sport and need to be abolished, how fragile the breed has become, and how racing desperately needs to be regulated by a governing body. Most witnesses painted a bleak picture of the sport and virtually pleaded with the subcommittee to do the work for them instead of offering a positive alternative and expounding on racing’s virtues. Talk about hostile witnesses. Yes, the sport in America needs a kick in the ass, but that was painful to listen to, and it was necessary to rush back to the Ascot races.

Royal Ascot was a startling reminder how racing was meant to be -- horses without drugs, jockeys restricted in their use of the whip; no track surface controversies, grooms (lads) wearing suits and ties; entertaining and insightful analysis, candid comments, first class TV coverage and camera work, and a genuine love and respect for the sport and the horse. All this in a kaleidoscope of glorious colors and images set against a lush green backdrop and one of the most magnificent grandstands in the world. And, of course, there was the Queen’s procession each day.

Getting back to Yeats, in America, he would be an outcast, floundering at distances 12 furlongs short of his best. In England, he is a hero worthy of the adulation he receives. Yeats’ victory capped a remarkable opening three days for trainer Aidan O’Brien, during which he also captured the group I St. James’s Palace Stakes with dual Guineas winner Henrythenavigator;  the group I Prince of Wales’s Stakes with the former bridesmaid Duke of Marmalade, who has been born again as a 4-year-old, winning three straight group I stakes; and the group I Queen Anne Stakes with the Australian import Haradasun. Then on closing day, Saturday, O’Brien won the group II Hardwicke Stakes, a traditional prep for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-I), with Macarthur before bidding aloha to Royal Ascot by capturing the finale, the Queen Alexandra Stakes at two miles and five and a half furlongs, with Honolulu.

The races were exciting, with numerous tight finishes and the occasional bravura performance. Even the TV commentary was exciting.

Not to knock American TV commentators and analysts, but how refreshing and entertaining to listen to the unconventional and outspoken John McCririck and analyst Matt Chapman going at each other on the air. Here is an exchange between the two on opening day after McCririck was severely critical of the whipping rules in England (imagine what he’d have to say about our non-rules) and expressed his displeasure with Johnny Murtagh for abusing the whip on Haradasun.

McCririck: “Murtagh would not have ridden like that if he knew he’d be disqualified. He could not come back and say, ‘I apologize, Aidan. I hit the horse too often, too hard, and I lost the race because of it’. The only way they’re going to stamp out excessive use of the whip, especially in big races, is to disqualify the horse. The jockeys wouldn’t do it. I’m right, but no one ever listens to me. It was a great training performance by Aidan O’Brien, but it’s slightly besmirched because of the way the horse was ridden. It’s unnecessary to hit a horse like that.” (By the way, Murtagh’s whipping of Haradasun was mild compared to the way many of our jockeys abuse the whip -- more on that in the future).

Chapman (to the audience): “If you were listening to McCririck about the whip, please don’t get sucked in by his total buffoonery over the issue. The rules may be wrong, that’s a different issue, but Johnny Murtagh, to any normal horse racing fan, did absolutely nothing wrong. The horse was responding to a very light whip. The rules may be wrong, Big Mac, but that doesn’t mean the horse should be disqualified.”

McCririck: “If you listen to Chapman we shouldn’t have any rules at all. You should go and slash the horses and beat them in the name of the sport. There are certain guidelines and all the jockeys know them. Murtagh deliberately broke them because it was group I and he keeps the race. He would not have done it, Matt Chapman…listen! He would not have broken the rules if he knew Haradasun would have been disqualified. He wouldn’t do it! Get THAT through your thick skull.”

Chapman: “Of course, McCririck once again failing to grasp any of the point. No one wants any horse slashed. No jockey would slash a horse. It is absolutely not even the issue that he’s talking about. Jockeys, of course, wouldn’t break the rules if they got disqualified. However, that is not the point either. You’ve really got to get a grip about this, Big Mac, because you’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.”

Now that’s good TV.

Having been a huge fan of European racing for 40 years, Royal Ascot was a much-needed respite from all the craziness that has afflicted American racing lately, including one of the most tumultuous Triple Crowns ever. Now refreshed by Ascot’s week-long splash in the face, it is time once again to get back to the rush hour-like bustle of American racing. That is until July 23 when it will be time once again for our own catharsis known as Saratoga. It cannot come too soon.

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