Racing at Royal Ascot in 2018 resumed Tuesday…again. They’ve been picking them up and laying them down there since 1711, when Queen Anne drove from Windsor Castle with her entourage for a day’s sport. That’s 65 years before the signing of Declaration of Independence! But, who’s counting?
As usual, this season’s opening-day Royal Procession was a colorful ceremony that covered the entire straight, grassy, one-mile distance of the afternoon’s first race—The Queen Anne--from the opening gates, beneath the grandstand and into the paddock. Black carriages, horses—Windsor Greys and Cleveland Bays--red-jacketed riders, The Queen and her colorfully attired guests contrast with the rich sweeping green swath before them.
The Royal Procession seems part Disney fairytale. Sleeping Beauty’s pending revitalization is at short odds with bookies. After all, Tuesday’s Royal Carriage list included two princes…a queen (actually Her Majesty The Queen), four princesses, two dukes, two duchesses, two lords, an earl, a countess and a lady. Amazingly, however, no partridge in a pear tree.
This traditional royal arrival began in 1825 with King George IV. “The King drove up the course in the first coach of four, the Duke of Wellington sitting by his side. There were three other carriages, and a phaeton after him and 20 servants in scarlet on horseback. The whole thing looked very splendid,” wrote diarist Thomas Creevey in a letter dated 3 June 1825, according to the 2018 Royal Ascot Media Guide.
Known then as the Royal Drive or Royal Parade, the current Royal Procession basically serves as the equivalent of a pre-Super Bowl fighter jet flyover, only much more serene and refined-- perhaps illustrating one difference between Brits and Yanks.
The current Queen has attended every Ascot meeting since 1945. Think about that. World War II wouldn’t even end for a few more months! That Ripken-like streak is incredible in so many ways. Clearly, The Queen loves racing. She maintains her own racing and breeding operation and has about 25 to 30 racehorses in training at any given time. One of her runners won the Gold Cup at Belmont Park June 8 and another competed at Ascot opening day. Overall, her distinctive purple and black colors have appeared in Royal Ascot winner enclosures 23 times.
According to John Warren, the queen’s bloodstock and racing adviser, the queen’s interest in her stable centers on two key points: that each horse is put in position to perform to the best of its ability, however high or low that level may be, and that the horses go to good homes once their racing days are over.
Yours truly made the Ascot scene in 2016 and proudly watched as Tepin took the Queen Anne Stakes. On the train home, in top hat and tails, British racegoers praised the invading American filly for crossing the pond to decisively wallop their best males.
To a Stateside racing aficionado, that was fun. And so was the rest of the day. Very different from any US racing experience. I hope to return. Soon.
This season, though, I enviously watched Ascot’s opening day on television—actually, while traveling, on an iPhone. I spent the entire time wishing I was there in person to see Jockey Frankie Dettori win three races. He’s the 47-year-old Italian that three times has been named Britain’s Champion Jockey and is the winner of over 500 Group races. He’s also the guy, along with fellow jockey Ray Cochrane, who survived a fiery, tragic small plane crash that killed the pilot in 2000. Frankie’s also a major British celebrity and former television personality. In a nation where racing is a popular sport, Dettori’s effusiveness, flying dismounts and saddle accomplishments are legendary.
Over the last few years, Dettori has found renewed success in the saddle riding for trainer John Gosden, British flat racing Champion Trainer in 2012 and 2015. Most recently, they combined Tuesday at Ascot where Gosden trained all three of Dettori’s winning rides. Gosden is a British trainer, but he’s saddled winners worldwide, including 600 in the US.
Some may recall that John Gosden was a successful trainer in Southern California. In 1983 he trained Bates Motel to win the Santa Anita Handicap and the Eclipse Award as top Older Male. In 1984 Gosden saddled Royal Heroine, a mare, to take the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile and Eclipse Award in her division.
Around that time, a young apprentice jockey arrived on the SoCal scene from Britain to learn about race-riding ‘American style.’ Since he was resident of a jock’s room that was more like a wing of Racing’s Hall of Fame that included Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, etc., he didn’t have many mounts. So, Frankie Dettori would spend afternoons bouncing around the Santa Anita box seat section watching races.
At that time, as a struggling jockey agent in Southern California, yours truly got to know both men. As I now reflect on nearly 40 years in the game, I’m aware of how incredibly fortunate I am to know so many outstanding horsepeople. Dettori and Gosden rank very near the top of that list.
Ascot racing continues through Saturday. I’ll be watching and, perhaps, wagering. (In fact, it’s a pretty good bet that I’ll place a bet or two before it’s over.) All the while I’ll look forward to Ascot, again.