On Track with Johnny D: A Royal Pine

Tell me, is it possible to painfully long for a place you’ve visited just once in your life? Apparently, the answer is ‘yes,’ because I pine for Ascot Racecourse in Great Britain. Conceptualized in 1711 by Queen Anne, it’s where some of the world’s most exquisite human and equine flesh has been pressed for over 300 years. Perhaps, as a provincial US-based racing fan, you may recognize Royal Ascot as the house that trainer Wesley Ward built. You wouldn’t be wrong, just misinformed and rather late to the party.

Last year, the wife and I traversed the pond to attend Ascot’s opening day. We had a great time and for a dedicated Yankee horseplayer the experience was eye opening. After, I recapped the journey in this space and explained how, for the first time ever, I had purchased a ‘bag’ of champagne for my wife. Actually, it was a bottle of champagne with ice cubes inside a plastic ‘to-go’ container. I found it way cool that English race-goers were considered mature enough to be permitted to meander about unsupervised while toting chilled bottles of bubbly. In contrast, at US sporting events concessionaires often dutifully confiscate caps from newly purchased plastic water bottles!

At Ascot, in addition to portable chilled champagne, there also is plenty of pomp and circumstance topped by The Queen’s daily early arrival via a Royal Procession over a mile-long straightaway. Bookies take action on it–well, more accurately, on the color of The Queen’s hat (one of the few tickets I cashed last year). Wednesday of this week punters assumed they had an edge in the wager. Just a few hours earlier The Queen had made a speech to Parliament in a blue outfit. Smart money assumed that with little time between appearances Her Highness wouldn’t bother changing. Wrong! A yellow chapeau won day-two bread.

Instead of observing The Queen arrive from the racetrack side of the grandstand, next time the wife and I will camp out in the walking ring area for an enhanced view of her and guests. Last year, on opening day, the royal ginger Prince Harry attracted a crowd. My wife was a bit disappointed that we (read ‘she’) didn’t get a good look at Diana’s youngest–a reported ‘hunk.’ Harry’s sister-in-law Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, attended Ascot the day after we had (and again on opening day this year), and we missed seeing her in person. According to my personal international handicap rankings, Kate clearly is listed a few stone above Harry.

It should be noted here that The Queen is not merely a colorful empty bonnet. She’s a horse lover, an owner, a breeder and, most importantly, a racing fan! Wednesday afternoon, following a speech to Parliament and with her 96-year-old husband in the hospital, the 91-year-old hustled to make first post at Ascot. Now, that’s not the same as sprinting to catch the bus to Aqueduct in time to play the pick five, but it’s close. Gotta love that dedication to the game! Don’t know if she’s much of a punter, but she’s certainly sharp enough to lose intelligently with the rest of us, if she chooses. In fact, upon their first meeting, The Queen prodded US-based trainer and Ascot regular Wesley Ward for hints about how he gets his young stock to win with such regularity.

Alas, no visit to Ascot this year for me. I’m stuck home alone in the basement catching daily Ascot broadcasts on NBCSN beginning at 8:30 am and online with XBTV.com starting at 9 am. I’m enjoying the ride and am grateful to have Ascot delivered to my desktop. However, HiDef shots of men in top hats and morning coats, stylish women in dresses and hats, and images of big, beautiful naked horses has me melancholy. I wish I were there. On the big television screen in living color it all looks so wonderful and, since I’ve already been, I know that it’s even better than that. And what great racing!

Highland Reel, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf last year at Santa Anita, won the Prince of Wales’s Stakes Wednesday at Ascot for trainer Aiden O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore. Queen’s Trust, winner of the Breeder’s Cup Filly and Mare Turf last season, finished fourth in the same race. Tuesday opening day highlights included a dominant performance from Lady Aurelia for Wesley Ward and Johnny Velazquez in the King’s Stand Stakes. Ward returned Wednesday with jockey Jamie Spencer and Con Te Partiro to upset the Sandringham Handicap field at 20-1!

NBCSN’s television coverage has been outstanding, mostly because the network, featuring Nick Luck as anchor, is utilizing the local ITV presentation and not the regular US-based crew. After all, what do they know from a going stick? Wednesday’s broadcast included an up-close and personal view of a farrier changing a shoe on 2-year-old Glastonbury Song (IRE) at the gate just before the horses loaded. The work was so efficient and quick that it amazed this observer who normally waits longer in line at Starbucks for a chai latte!

Ascot definitely retains its allure by adhering to a major show business tenet: Always leave ‘em wanting more! With just six races per-per day and a mere five-day race meeting the experience cannot become mundane. It’s doubtful the same can be said for US racing fixtures where 10, 12 or 14-race cards are the norm, five days per week, on a nearly year-round production schedule.

Whatever they’re doing over there has worked on me. I can’t wait to return. Until then I’ll have to settle for a long distance love affair with Ascot. Please, join me for racing through Saturday morning. Xpressbet’s got a great ‘no takeout’ promotion on Ascot exactas you should register to receive. And if you ever get the chance, go racing at Ascot. You’ll love it and quickly plan to return.

Race On!


On Track with Johnny D: A Royal Pine

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