To Royal Ascot and the Stayers: Thanks For the Memories

When Royal Ascot ended its five-day meet Saturday, there was a sense of sadness, as if something beautiful, yet comforting, was taken away after filling four and a half hours each morning with a kaleidoscope of images and colors and unbridled emotion. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend, even though the friendship lasted less than a week.

It was more than the great racing or the pure spectacle of the event or the Royal Procession or the amazing fashion or the superb coverage by ITV, with its wide variety of on-air talent and spectacular camera work or the great job for NBC Sports by host Nick Luck. Imagine a major network devoting 22 1/2 hours of coverage for horse racing in less than a week.

It was also about heroes, mainly equine, and the courage they displayed, enhanced by the raw emotions exhibited by the grooms/exercise riders. Like in the U.S., these are the true unsung heroes. They live with these horses, who have become a part of the fabric of their lives. These are their children, and their pride in them comes pouring out whether rejoicing in victory or suffering in defeat. Either way, tears are shed. Can anyone forget the emotions we witnessed from Thomas Hobson’s groom after he won the Ascot Stakes at two miles and three furlongs and then after his gallant defeat only four days later in the Queen Alexandra Stakes at two mile and five furlongs. And what about the outburst of emotion from the groom of the gutsy Ascot Gold Cup winner Big Orange, and the joyous celebration by his connections, as well as the affection lavished on all the winners. Never before have I seen more horses being hugged and kissed so passionately. Credit the ITV interviewer who would often interview the still emotional grooms, either before or after the winning jockey, as they led their horse back through the tunnel.

Royal Ascot has a way of producing equine heroes that Americans are not accustomed to. I can’t help but think back to 2009 and the rousing ovation for Yeats after he won his record fourth consecutive Ascot Gold Cup at 2 1/2 miles. Europe loves its stayers and I was privileged to be at Royal Ascot in 1978 when the French-trained Sagaro won his then record third straight Gold Cup. And who could forget the scene in 2013 when The Queen, who normally presents the trophy to the winner, won with Estimate? This is a race that saw American Triple Crown winner Omaha get beat a nose by the filly Quashed in 1936. Imagine if you can a race so steeped in history and tradition its first running came eight years after the death of George Washington and three years after Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France.

Watching Yeats break Sagaro’s record, The Queen’s emotionally charged victory, and watching this year’s epic duel between Big Orange and last year’s winner Order of St George at thend of 2 1/2 miles, it brought a sense of purity and timelessness to the Sport of Kings. To hear the Ascot crowd salute the 8-year-old Yeats with an ovation worthy only of true champions, and the roar that went up in 2012 and at the finish this year, 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 in this country 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. The New York Racing Association and Arlington Park are at least attempting to make stamina enticing once again.

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 dominated by horses who run an eighth of a mile in under 10 seconds at the 2-year-old sales. And there is even more to speed in eight- and nine-furlong races.

In America, European heroes like Yeats are considered a notch above plow horses. How soon we forget Kelso winning five straight Jockey Club Gold Cups at two miles or a mediocre horse for pretty much 11 months out of the year named Paraje, who became a fan favorite winning three straight Display Handicaps at 2 1/4 miles. Although she swept the Filly Triple Crown, the great mare Shuvee will be remembered mostly for winning back-to-back runnings of the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, a race now run at 1 1/4 miles.

Even the Breeders’ Cup’s feeble attempt at having a marathon race failed. First off they disgraced the name marathon by running the race at 1 1/2 miles, then increased it to 1 3/4 miles, and despite European invader Man of Iron beating the hard-knocking old warrior, 9-year-old Cloudy’s Knight, in a thrilling nose finish in 2009 and the 9-year-old Argentine invader Calidoscopio becoming a budding hero with his spectacular victory in 2012, the race was discontinued as a Breeders’ Cup event a year later.

I remember, 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.

Royal Ascot provides a startling reminder of how racing was meant to be -- horses without drugs, jockeys restricted in their use of the whip; 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, and tradition.

This is not to knock American TV commentators and analysts, most of whom are very knowledgeable, and Randy Moss is as good it gets. But how refreshing and entertaining it was in 2008 to listen to the unconventional and outspoken John McCririck and the equally unconventional analyst Matt Chapman, who you saw at his wackiest on this year’s telecast, going at each other on the air. Here is an exchange between the two 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 jockey Johnny Murtagh for abusing the whip on Haradasun.

”It was a great training performance by Aidan O’Brien, but it’s slightly besmirched because of the way the horse was ridden,” McCririck said. “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).

Chapman responded 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 fired back, “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 a 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.”

Finally, Chapman said, “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. Can you imagine an exchange like between Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey?

Speaking of good TV, how about the fly-on-the-wall coverage of the stewards' hearing following an inquiry in the Diamond Jubilee on the final day? That was riveting stuff, especially the third-place jockey who suffered the most, telling the stewards in all honesty, "I just got squeezed, nothing much. I was going to finish third."

So, Royal Ascot sadly is over, and we saw heroes and unforgettable performances at all distances, beginning with Lady Aurelia’s second dominating win in two years for America, this time beating males in the group 1 King’s Stand Stakes, and the indomitable Highland Reel, who has competed all over the world, finishing in the first four in group 1 races in six different countries on four continents, dropping down in distance to win the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. One great result after another followed, with everyone thrilled with the powerful victory by undefeated Caravaggio in the Commonwealth Cup and  other Ballydoyle-trained horses, such as Winter and the brilliant September. But I was still taken with the stayers, such as Big Orange, Order of St George, and Thomas Hobson; perhaps because they filled a huge void that exists in American racing and are the kind of heroes that have become all but extinct in the U.S.

So, here is a toast to longevity, perseverance, courage, and stamina. And to all the horses who ran so gallantly at Royal Ascot.

As William Butler Yeats, for whom Yeats was named, wrote: “Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.

Following a wildly inconsistent, but entertaining Triple Crown season, I am now refreshed by Ascot’s week-long splash in the face and it is time once again to get back to the rush hour-like bustle of American racing and the Herculean figure of Arrogate lurking in the distance. That is until July 21 when it will be time once again for my own catharsis known as Saratoga. It cannot come too soon.

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