A Shot of Ascot

Each year, I keep thinking there is no cure for Triple Crown trail withdrawal, and each year I am reminded that there is a cure, and it’s called Royal Ascot, which thankfully comes only 10 days after the Belmont Stakes. But, that poses a new problem. What is the cure for Royal Ascot withdrawal? That one we haven’t been able to figure out.

The five days of Berkshire bliss not only provide the ultimate in beauty, grace, pageantry, and top-class racing, it means five mornings of curling up on my couch with a bowl of Wheaties, light years from the world of top hats and tails, lords, dukes, and earls, and traffic congestion.

How much more contrast can you have than watching close-up shots of The Queen and her elegant pastel-colored garb while stuffing an onion bagel in your mouth?

If watching Royal Ascot makes you feel as if you are on some nirvana-like high, then TVG is guilty of being the supplier. Not only do I become addicted to the event, but also to Graham Cunningham’s brilliant analysis and quick wit, Simon Bray’s enthusiasm and informative interviews, and John McCririck’s mere presence, which still makes me smile and often laugh out loud after nearly three decades. I can’t help it, I love the guy. With executive vice president of television, Tony Allevato, running the show, this is five days of pure cathartic entertainment.

At this year’s Royal Ascot meet was heard a line that has to be considered a classic. After jockey Luke Nolen eased Black Caviar before the wire of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes for whatever reason, nearly resulting in the super mare's her first career defeat, Cunningham borrowed a fitting comment that was heard after the 2005 International at York when jockey Richard Hills waved his whip in celebration, only to lose the photo. Cunningham seized the opportunity, calling Nolen’s move, “Premature jock elation,” which had to be the most provocative thing heard at Royal Ascot since Eliza Doolittle fell out of character and shouted in her cockney accent, “Come on, Dover, move yer bloomin’ arse.”

As for Nolen, he goes down as the luckiest person at Royal Ascot. Considering how vilified he was after the race, his actions could very well have proven life-altering had Black Caviar been beaten. Even the great Australian jockey Roy Higgins said the incident would "haunt him and haunt him." The headline in the Racing Post read, "The Blunder From Down Under," while the Sunday Mirror headline read, "Luk-y Devil." And this was after a victory.

This year’s Royal Ascot meet was unique in that its most indelible image was not even at Royal Ascot, but more than 10,000 miles away in Federation Square, in Melbourne Australia, where thousands of young people gathered well past midnight to watch Black Caviar on a large screen. Seeing so many young adults burst into celebration after the great filly narrowly scored her 22nd victory in as many starts and her first outside her homeland, made you realize just how universal racing is and to what extent horses are revered around the globe. This was one huge party, with surrounding pubs filled to capacity, all because of one racehorse.

Pardon the overused cliché these days, but over the past few years in Thoroughbred racing, females are the new males. Our heroes for the most part are now fillies and mares, an international phenomenon unlike anything ever seen before. America had Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, Australia has had Black Caviar and Makybe Diva, France had Goldikova and Zarkava, Japan had Vodka and Buena Vista, and England had Ouija Board.  

Since 2005, fillies have conquered the boys in the Preakness Stakes (Rachel Alexandra), Belmont Stakes (Rags to Riches), Breeders’ Cup Classic (Zenyatta), Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Zarkava and Danedream), Breeders’ Cup Mile (Goldikova three times), Melbourne Cup (Makybe Diva three times), Japan Cup (Vodka), Hong Kong Cup (Snow Fairy), Canadian International Championship (Sarah Lynx), Woodward Stakes (Rachel Alexandra and Havre de Grace), Caulfield Cup (Southern Speed), Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (Sarafina), Grosser Preis von Baden and Deutschland Preis (Danedream), Prince of Wales's Stakes and Hong Kong Vase (Ouija Board), Diamond Jubilee Stakes (Black Caviar), Dubai Sheema Classic (Dar Re Mi and Buena Vista 1-2), Woodbine Mile (Ventura), July Cup (Fleeting Spirit), and Haskell Invitational (Rachel Alexandra), not to mention a United Arab Emirates Derby victory by Khawlah and a Queens Plate score by Inglorious. Japanese superstar filly Buena Vista finished first in last year’s Japan Cup only to be disqualified in what was an extremely unpopular decision.

But there is still room for male heroes, as few and far between as they have become, and this year’s Royal Ascot meet also provided a stage for the world’s greatest horse, Frankel, who has crossed over from greatness to legend with his breathtaking victories. With Frankel (who romped by 11 lengths in the Queen Anne Stakes) and Black Caviar bookending the 2012 Royal Ascot meeting, there was plenty of room in between to relish such special moments as The Queen capturing the Queens Vase, the indefatigable So You Think winning the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, Simenon winning the 2 ½-mile Ascot Stakes on June 19 and the 2 5/8-mile Queen Alexandra Stakes four days later on June 23, and Godolphin breaking out of a slump by finishing first and second in the Ascot Gold Cup.

And there were the four Betfair employees from around the world who won half-interest in the filly Ceiling Kitty (bred by Betfair co-founder Andrew Black) in a company-run contest. It was great seeing them rejoice in disbelief when the filly captured the group II Queen Mary Stakes at odds of 20-1 in England and 29-1 in the States. One of the four employees was Heather Ralston, who started at TVG (which is owned by Betfair) as a receptionist and now works in sales.

Unlike the countries mentioned earlier that have been dominated recently by great females, England actually is on quite a run with colts. In addition to Frankel, they had Irish-trained superstar Sea the Stars capture the 2,000 Guineas, English Derby, Eclipse Stakes, and Juddmonte International, as well as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France and Irish Champion Stakes in Ireland, and are on the verge of witnessing their first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky in 1971 with the brilliant Camelot, another colt trained in Ireland. But will he forsake the St. Leger for the Arc, as Sea the Stars did?

As TVG came on the air each morning, they showed a long-range shot looking up the lush green Ascot straightaway, with the inside and outside rails accentuating the undulating nature of the course. Then came the Royal Procession, with the British bookmakers laying odds on what color The Queen would be wearing that day. The devious side of me can’t help but imagine The Queen checking out the odds and making a killing every day by wearing the longest-priced color and loading up with the bookies. That’s even better than past-posting. Hey, I’m only joking.

Royal Ascot has changed considerably since my only two trips there in 1977 and ’78. I remember police officers trying to confiscate my camera on two occasions; first for photographing an empty walking ring well before the first race and the other time for standing too far over on the press balcony while photographing people entering the Royal Enclosure below me. I was OK standing on one side of the entrance and shooting, but move a few feet to the left and I was a criminal. It took an angry mob of media members to gang up on the police officer who tried to come up the stairs and take my camera.

But those really were special times, especially looking out on the course, engulfed by a sea of green, with waves upon waves of women’s hats – all different – and men’s hats – all the same. Fortunately, ignorant Yank reporters were OK wearing just everyday suits and going hatless (I had hair back then, so I didn’t mind).

Once in a while you will find a year like 2012, when great racing is mixed in with great drama to titillate the fancy. But never before can I remember so many fascinating subplots, highlighted by The Queen winning her own Vase, one of the most controversial rides in decades, an amazing exhibition of durability and staying power, four contest winners taking home a grade II prize, and two equine legends destined to take their place among of the pantheon of greats.

How much more can you ask for sprawled out on a couch in your pajamas?

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