For 32 years I was able to say I was at Royal Ascot to witness history. Well, it’s history no more. It was 1977, my first trip to Ascot, and I was privileged to see the great stayer Sagaro become the first horse in the 170-year history of the Ascot Gold Cup to win the 2 1/2-mile race three times. To do it in successive years made the feat all the more impressive.
Watching Yeats this morning break Sagaro’s record, storming to victory in the Gold Cup for the fourth consecutive year, it brought a sense of purity and timelessness to the Sport of Kings that has been lost in this country. To hear the Ascot crowd salute the Ballydoyle-trained 8-year-old with an ovation worthy only of true champions, it showed there still is a place in the heart for the long-distance runner.
The purity and timelessness I refer to is stamina, an inherent trait of the Thoroughbred that has been so consumed by speed over the past several decades it has all but disappeared. What trickle of stamina, or at least what resembles stamina, that does remain is frowned upon by owners, trainers, and especially breeders.
There certainly is nothing wrong with speed, which is the premise on which the sport was born. But there is more to speed than five- and six-furlong races or even eight- and nine-furlong races. As was written about Sagaro: “Sagaro despite being an out and out stayer had a blistering turn of foot and could give an electrifying burst of a rocket propelling in the air, at the end of two and a half miles.”
What has made this year’s Ascot meet so memorable and significant is that we saw history made at 2 1/2 miles by a European horse -- I emphasize horse (not a gelding), by Sadler's Wells -- and at five furlongs by American horses -- two distinct worlds coming together to form a magnificent tapestry of the turf. In addition to Yeats, we had General Wesley Ward lead an unprecedented army of 2-year-old sprinters across the Atlantic to put on a spectacular display of American speed in front of The Queen and everyone else hoping to establish Royal Ascot as a true international event. By winning the listed Windsor Castle Stakes on Tuesday, Strike the Tiger became the first American-trained horse ever to win a race at Royal Ascot. By winning Wednesday’s group II Queen Mary Stakes, Jealous Again became the first American horse to win a group race at Royal Ascot.
To then have Yeats win his fourth consecutive Gold Cup the following day, it not only inscribed two new chapters in racing lore it burned this year’s Royal Ascot meet into the hearts and minds of racing fans in Europe and America.
The resounding ovation given Yeats is what this sport is all about. We even had a slight hint of it in this country last year when the 10-year-old Evening Attire was given a hearty round of applause by the Belmont Park fans after finishing second in a gallant effort in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap. There is just something about watching a horse, especially an old horse like Evening Attire or Yeats, run his heart out at the end of a long-distance race that strikes an emotional chord.
I heard those same cheers in 1977 when Sagaro defeated the top-class stayer Buckskin, despite having fallen victim to his rival on three occasions that year. Also in the field was the previous year’s St. Leger winner Bruni. Buckskin not only had beaten Sagaro in three major stakes in France prior to the Gold Cup, he had annihilated him by 20 lengths in the Prix Jean Prat. But in France’s top stamina test, the Prix du Cadran, Sagaro had cut that margin to three-quarters of a length.
In the Gold Cup, Sagaro burst to the lead and opened up to the cheers of the crowd who were looking to witness history. It was if Sagaro knew the Gold Cup was his race, just as Yeats appears to know it. He drew off from Buckskin to win by five lengths, establishing a record that would last for more than three decades.
In a bit of irony, the horse Yeats defeated today, Patkai, had won one race this year…the Sagaro Stakes at Ascot.
I remember standing and cheering Sagaro with everyone else that day as the grand-looking chestnut with the attractive stripe down his face was led into the winner’s enclosure.
I couldn’t help but relive those memories and emotions watching Yeats charge to victory today and march into the winner’s enclosure to those same cheers.
So, here is a toast to longevity, perseverance, courage, and stamina.
As William Butler Yeats himself wrote: “Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.”