We knew already that it was a meeting fit for a queen. After all, Elizabeth R, as she likes to sign her name in the racecard each day, has been turning up since 1945 -- a record that knocks the Cheltenham Festival attendance boasts of many of the rest of us into a cocked hat.
But the 2018 version of Royal Ascot was also fit for kings. Namely, jockey Frankie Dettori and trainer Sir Michael Stoute, who sat astride the Ascot throne after revelling in regal weeks to remember.
Dettori, whose love affair with the course dates back to his magnificent seven-out-of-seven back in 1996, set the meeting alight with a treble on the opening day and also went on to land his sixth Gold Cup aboard STRADIVARIUS in the best race of the week.
While Stoute, after a rare, nervy blank meeting in 2017, broke the record for the number of royal winners when the victory of POET’S WORD in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes lifted him past fellow legend, Sir Henry Cecil, to 76. For good measure, the 72-year-old Barbadian, a true colossus of the racing game, went on to add three more. Hid skills were perhaps best advertised by the dramatic return to form of one-time Classic hope EXPERT EYE in the Jersey Stakes, but also in defeat as he enabled 3yo fillies VERACIOUS (Coronation Stakes) and SUN MAIDEN (Ribblesdale Stakes) to make with aplomb the huge transition from maiden company into hot Group races. Both will reward Stoute with major prizes before the campaign is out.
Dettori was also in the mix on several other mounts, and while the meeting’s top jockey and top trainer titles again went to Ryan Moore and Aidan O’Brien, his efforts and those of Stoute meant that they weren’t decided until deep into the fifth and final day.
O’Brien’s all-conquering dominance was not as pronounced as it has been in previous years. But his unique talent came to the fore in his handling of MERCHANT NAVY, winner of the big 6f Diamond Jubilee sprint on that final day. Not only did he have to find stacks of improvement from the 3yo after he had been beaten, in receipt of 12lbs, in his native Australia by another raider from Down Under, Redkirk Warrior. O’Brien also had to somehow ensure that the colt acclimatised in time. As the master of Ballydoyle himself said: “When he arrived, he didn’t know whether he was going into the winter or coming into the summer, so we had a lot of re-adjusting to do.” It speaks volumes of the job he did that Merchant Navy won his first start, a Group Two, at The Curragh when barely ready to run and, a month later, doubled up here at Royal Ascot.
O’Brien was also pushed all the way for the trainers’ title by John Gosden, who shared centre stage with his Newmarket compatriot Stoute. Gosden supplied all four of Dettori’s winners, plus six placed horses, to amass more than £1 million in prize money. It was a return in stark contrast to those of other wieldy operations based at Headquarters. For instance, William Haggas could muster little more than £29,000 from one second and one fourth, while Roger Varian failed to make the first three of any contest. And what do we make of the now-massive differential in the fortunes of Godolphin’s two Newmarket-based handlers? While Charlie Appleby continued his prolific season with two winners and trousered £607,000 in prize money, Saeed Bin Suroor fed off scraps with just a couple of sixth places.
Of the up-and-coming trainers expected to make their mark, Owen Burrows endured a frustrating week considering the material at his disposal. But it was pleasing to see the names of five new names on the roll of honour as Eve Johnson Houghton, Ed Walker, Marco Botti, Simon Crisford and Archie Watson all saddled their first Royal Ascot winners. Crisford and Watson, in particular, are handlers well worth following by punters.
In the plate, Dettori and Moore were joined by no fewer than 14 other pilots on the winners’ podium. One of them, Charles Bishop, who steered home ACCIDENTAL AGENT, shock winner of the opening race of the week, the Queen Anne Stakes, rather threw away the kudos such prestige affords when failing a breath test for alcohol only days later. But another, Silvestre De Sousa, must be hoping his successful week (two winners, two seconds and one fourth from 19 rides) will help him earn more joy in Group races, which is a glaring omission from his CV at present, even though he is champion jockey.
More details on individual races and performances can be found in my day-to-day review of the week. But it was a shade disappointing that the international flavour to the meeting was not as striking as previously. Regular US visitor Wes Ward was the only trainer outside of the UK and Ireland to saddle a winner, but most of his challengers ran like drains, making a nonsense of some of the bullish comments he delivered on the eve of the action.
Mind you, ‘disappointing’ was not a word you could attach to the week’s racing as a whole, which was brimful of quality. The older I get, the more cynical I get, and it isn’t difficult to get me moaning. But I have rarely enjoyed a week’s racing more. Of course, the beautiful weather helped, as did the consistent Good to Firm ground, expertly managed by clerk of the course Chris Stickels, and the palpable absence of any semblance of a draw bias. However, Ascot also deserves huge credit for its polished organisation and presentation.
Staging the greatest Flat meeting in the world is no straightforward matter. And whenever I go to Ascot these days, I recall, and recoil, with horror the state of the giant grandstand when it was first opened in 2006. Aesthetically, it served every purpose but, functionally, it was a disaster. Viewing from the lower levels was hopeless, while the stand’s facilities and infrastructure were spartan. As every one of the 301,818 people who turned up to this year’s royal meeting will testify, the manner in which the stand has been transformed is a triumph.
The course had an extra problem to deal with this year after the much-publicised outbreak of drink-and drug-fuelled violence at a meeting earlier in the season. But its zero-tolerance game-plan of a reinforced police presence appeared to pay off. I wasn’t too keen on the snouts of sniffer dogs marking my suit, but security was encouragingly visible, rather than intrusive. A total of only 17 arrests across the five days was extremely small for such large crowds.
The improved bumper aggregate attendance was in stark contrast to the reduced viewing figures of ITV for the meeting. Even allowing for clashes with World Cup matches, a drop of more than a million should surely kill off once and for all the bloated significance that some still attach to terrestrial TV in the modern-day digital world of multimedia platforms.
I watched a couple of days of the ITV coverage. It could best be described as slick but light. Whether more gravitas would have resulted in more viewers, I don’t know. The presence of the shrewd and knowledgeable Kevin Blake was a bonus, but some dumbed-down elements of the coverage were downright silly, and too many were smothered in self-serving backslapping. Mind you, any criticism must always be tempered by the realisation that the audience ITV is trying to attract comprises casual viewers as well as racing diehards and purists.
To put my purists’ hat on for a second, I do think Ascot can make improvements to the race schedule for future years. Like Glorious Goodwood last year, they seemed to make a conscious move to downgrade the Saturday card, safe in the knowledge that they would still attract the biggest crowd of the week. Three of the weakest, least prestigious races of the meeting, both in terms of quality and betting interest, are the Chesham Stakes, the Windsor Castle Stakes and the Queen Alexandra Stakes, so why are all three run on the Saturday?
That’s a minor complaint, though. Some felt the week lacked a superstar display, with ALPHA CENTAURI getting closest to one in the Coronation Stakes. But who would have thought, at the start of proceedings, that such a posse of short-priced favourites, and potential superstars, such as CRACKSMAN, BATTAASH, LADY AURELIA, HARRY ANGEL and DREAMFIELD would all get turned over? We cannot marvel at Frankel every year, you know.
Having said that, while Frankel wasn’t there in body, he was certainly around in spirit because his progeny were responsible for three winners, two seconds and five thirds, making him the leading sire of the week.
Frankel -- like Messrs Dettori and Stoute, a true king of Royal Ascot.