Reflecting on Royal Ascot: the week of wonder that saw Frankel, Black Caviar and So You Think reign supreme
Royal Ascot concluded Saturday with the feature race, the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, one of the most dramatic races ever seen at the Berkshire course. It was a fitting end to what was a top carnival, surely one of the best Royal Ascot meetings in the 301 years of racing at the course.
It had a little bit of everything on each day of the meeting – from the sheer brilliance of Frankel, to the vindication of Aidan O’Brien with So You Think; from the brilliant tactical battle of the Gold Cup, to the immense popularity of a royal winner in the Queen’s own race; and finally, relief on a scale never seen before as Black Caviar had a nose advantage at the finish of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
Looking back, it is one of those moments where you have to pinch yourself. I will be able to tell my kids and my grandkids (who will hopefully understand the importance of such a statement!) that I was there when Frankel became the best horse to have ever graced a racetrack. I was there when Black Caviar held off the international challengers, despite so many things going wrong. It truly was a racing fan’s dream.
It was so close to being a nightmare, though, especially as an Australian. Black Caviar’s race was the 27th of 30 races across the carnival, but the pressure was there from the beginning. Any time the Australian accent was heard, the inevitable question was, “Will you be here to see Black Caviar on Saturday?” And, invariably, the answer was, “Of course.” Therefore, I will deal with her race first before looking back at the rest of the magnificent meeting.
The minutes leading up to the race were agonising for the Australians on track. I can’t imagine how it would have been for Peter Moody, Luke Nolen and the connections. I spoke to a number of Australians post-race and all said the tension was very similar to the emotions before a Melbourne Cup. I don’t think I’ve seen Australians collectively so jittery before. We knew our mare was good…no, great. Yet it was still a big ask to come all this way and perform at her peak.
My vantage point for this moment of history was about 10 metres before the line, on the second level of Ascot’s massive grandstand. By luck, I was standing right next to the connections of French mare Moonlight Cloud. Their English was limited, but I could tell they weren’t overly happy about being near such a big group of Australians.
Concerns were raised by a couple of people that Black Caviar looked lame in one leg as she walked onto the track. I dismissed them, believing them to be the glass half-empty types looking for the slightest issue. In hindsight, perhaps they may have been right. I haven’t seen footage since of her pre-race, but every day more people seem to attest to the fact that all was not right pre-race.
However, once behind the stalls, it did become clear that something may have been up. The mare they call Nelly was reluctant to enter the stalls, something never witnessed by those of us who had seen her in Australia. She was occasionally sluggish out of the stalls, but loading her had never been an issue.
But quickly, she loaded and the race was underway. Although it has since been said that Peter Moody had concerns around the half mile mark, 800m from home, to us grandstand jockeys she appeared to be travelling as well as she usually does. It was only once Luke Nolen asked her to go that we knew she was going to race below her best.
Still, it looked like she was going to win comfortably enough, until Luke Nolen’s “brain freeze.” Much has been written of his decision to sit up on the mare near the finish, almost costing him victory. Hindsight is a marvellous thing, and considering she was so far below her best it probably wasn’t a bad move. But to those of us in the stands, it was lunacy. Moonlight Cloud was closing with every stride. He sensed her coming, riding Black Caviar out the final three strides. At the line, it was close.
It was a bizarre scene. The Australians were yelling expletives at Nolen, all wondering what they had just witnessed. The connections of Moonlight Cloud were jumping up and down, cheering, believing their mare had done what no other sprinter could do before. We thought Black Caviar had won, but as they showed the slow motion replay, it looked like Moonlight Cloud got on terms just before the post. That split second, where the possibility crossed our minds that the champion mare had been defeated, is not something I want to relive again.
But as we tried to process that horrific possibility, we saw the freeze frame of the finish – she’d held on! We cheered, we jumped and down, we celebrated as we’d expected to do. A mere 15 seconds later, though, we were racing off to the parade ring. The atmosphere there was quite eerie. She’d won, but it was more like a crowd of mourners gathering for a funeral. Ascot was sombre.
While standing in the parade ring, I began discussing the race with two veterinarians and one of Black Caviar’s owners. All three agreed that she’d raced below her best, and the two veterinarians both expressed their opinion that she was injured. The response to this news was phenomenal – I’ve never quite had a reaction like that to one of my tweets. It’s since been revealed she raced with two muscle tears. It’s not a serious injury, and she may even be fine to race during the spring.
The picture of the celebrating ashen-faced man is something I have never seen, and I don’t expect to see it again. It is such a paradox – someone as white as a ghost is hardly the partying type – that it took a while to comprehend the scene in front of me. Peter Moody was relieved, aching for a cigarette, while Luke Nolen answered the media’s questions with a beer in one hand. It was clear Nelly wasn’t the only one feeling the effects of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
In time, history will probably judge Black Caviar’s win at Royal Ascot as one of her finest performances. She was injured, she wasn’t herself, she didn’t look at home down the testing Ascot straight, the jockey eased up on her – and she still won. Her victory – despite a number of negatives – will probably stand the test of time much better than those wins where she has received everything on a silver platter. Until Saturday, many racing fans would have said her best victory was at Randwick last year. That was when Hay List looked to have kicked away, only for Black Caviar to show her fighting qualities to sprint away with the TJ Smith Stakes.
Every horse has an off day, but it takes an exceptional beast to have an off day against some of the world’s best sprinters and stil win. That’s the true mark of a champion. And there’s no doubt that Black Caviar deserves to be labelled a champion.
And Black Caviar did what even Frankel couldn’t do. She transcended the traditional boundaries of a racing audience by taking the coverage of Royal Ascot mainstream. Not just in Australia, although all the major newspapers and television networks were covering the race. But even in Britain. Every major newspaper featured something about the mare.
And the crowds! The number of people wearing Black Caviar ties, carrying Black Caviar banners or waving Australian flags was quite surreal. For me, having been away from home for almost six months, it was the closest I’ve felt to home (although I return to Sydney next Thursday). The truth is, the mare is a public relations bonanza for racing. And, it seems, Ascot handled it pretty well.
Amazingly, I didn’t see one Frankel tie on Tuesday. It doesn’t really matter though. I have no qualms calling Frankel the best horse I’ve ever seen. Black Caviar is clearly the second best, not far behind Frankel when she’s at her best, but Frankel is stunning. Physically, he is imposing – not quite as handsome as, say, So You Think, but he is all muscle. And his action is so fluent. Black Caviar is the fastest horse I’ve seen, but Frankel is able to sustain a similar speed over a mile. If he can sustain it over ten furlongs, the results may be gobsmacking.
His 11 length win in the Queen Anne Stakes was sensational. I found the Timeform rating of 147 surprising given he was beating the same horses and Excelebration clearly performed below par. But to be there to see a win of such dominance is something I’ll remember for a lifetime. He set the bar so high that there was no way Black Caviar could claim performance of the week, even if she won by six lengths.
He ran his sectional from the two furlongs to the one furlong in 10.58 seconds. 10.58!!! To do that over a mile is something extraordinary. Black Caviar has posted superior sectionals, as should be expected from a sprinter, with one remarkable sectional of 9.98 seconds in the Lightning Stakes this year.
I hate comparing Black Caviar with Frankel. They are two different horses who happen to race at the same time. They both are incredible horses and we should consider ourselves insanely lucky to have been able to watch the two of them race at the same course within five days of each other.
It is interesting to note that Frankel had his lowest moment at Royal Ascot last year, just as Black Caviar did this year. He lined up in the St James’s Palace Stakes for three year olds over a mile. He should have won easily, just as easily as he’d won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket five weeks prior. Instead, he weakened near the line to only just beat Zoffany. Excelebration, now considered Frankel’s bridesmaid, was a mere two lengths away in third. Excelebration was 11 lengths behind Frankel on Tuesday.
His reputation didn’t suffer and he came out with a brilliant performance at his next start, in the Sussex Stakes against Canford Cliffs, a few weeks later. There is no reason that we won’t see the real Black Caviar on her reappearance in the spring. In many ways, it will feel as though she is out to prove her knockers wrong.
That was the task of So You Think in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. Just 12 months ago, having won his two starts in Ireland very easily, he started at $1.35 to win the same race. But it all went wrong when So You Think hit the lead over two furlongs out. He was left in front too early, and he was nabbed by Godolphin’s Sheema Classic winner Rewilding in the final strides.
At the time, I said Australian racing was in mourning. I now think that was a bit over the top, given how Australians would have reacted if the photo in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes had gone the other way! There were probably a number of reasons he was beaten, many relating to the way in which team tactics were employed – Jan Vermeer was used as a pacemaker, pretty poorly. But it was still a shock to see him defeated, especially given my high opinion of him.
That was all forgotten on Wednesday. Aside from Frankel, So You Think’s win was one of the highlights of the week. He won with a hint of arrogance, comfortably defeating Her Majesty The Queen’s Carlton House and Godolphin revelation Farhh. It was like the So You Think of old had emerged from nowhere. Aidan O’Brien apologised to Australian racing fans after that defeat, saying he had almost wrecked the horse, although the sincerity of that apology has been questioned by racing commentators far more rational than myself. I say that with regards to So You Think, because I doubt I think logically about racing when So You Think is involved.
I’ve mentioned many times the special connection I have with the horse. It saddens me to know he’ll only have one more start in his career before retiring to stud, while it excites me to know I’ll be able to buy his progeny at the 2015 yearling sales in Australia.
It is also nice to see that Australasian middle distance horses can make it on the world stage. Our middle distance ranks are not outstanding, but when we produce a good one I have no doubt that they can hold their own internationally. I believe a horse like Atlantic Jewel would not be disgraced in Europe.
Outside of So You Think, Godolphin’s Farhh was the runner that caught the eye. He’s very lightly raced, having only raced four times, and he is said to be unsound. But it takes a horse of immense talent to produce a run of his quality and if he holds up he’ll be a great money spinner for Godolphin. Many users on Twitter were encouraging the Moonee Valley Racing Club to focus on him for the Cox Plate.
And Carlton House was game at his second run as a four year old. The Queen’s runner, favourite for the Epsom Derby, has always looked a good horse in the making. He’s probably at his best over the mile and a quarter, so if he can avoid Frankel, there should be a Group 1 there for Her Majesty. It would be fitting if it were this year, during her Diamond Jubilee, as her last Group 1 winner in Britain was in her Silver Jubilee year of 1977 when Dunfermline won the English St Leger.
If it isn’t Carlton House who provides her a Group 1 success, perhaps it will be Estimate, the winner of the Queen’s Vase on Friday. A royal winner over the meeting is always greeted enthusiastically, and this year was no exception. Ironically, she won her own race with a lightly raced filly who looks to be going places (as she couldn’t present the trophy to herself, the Duke of Edinburgh made the presentation – the first time ever). Admittedly, it was a fairly weak edition of the race, won in the past by the likes of Mamool, Mahler and Holberg. But she won with such ease that it is hard to say she won’t have bigger targets in her sights. Perhaps the Ascot Gold Cup next year could be her target.
At this time of year, I begin to look for horses who could come to Australia for the Melbourne Cup. Royal Ascot is the start of my intense examinations, although I always have one eye on Europe. There were a couple of horses who caught my eye over the five days at Ascot.
Firstly, the Ascot Gold Cup. Most horses who run here are simply too slow for the Melbourne Cup, although look at a horse like Manighar. He was fourth last year, but has come to dominate the middle distance ranks in Australia. With the exception of Fame and Glory, I doubt any of those horses could do a Manighar – although, let’s face it, we wouldn’t have expected Manighar to be able to do it.
It’s highly unlikely any horses from the Ascot Gold Cup will come to Melbourne. Colour Vision is still improving but Greg Carpenter has said he is likely to receive 56kg. In recent years, Godolphin have brought their emerging gallopers weighted around the 53kg mark. I doubt that will change this year. Similarly, Opinion Poll would receive too much weight. Saddlers Rock, for John Oxx, could have potentially been a nice type but is aiming at the Cup races closer to home, while Aidan O’Brien has stated in the past that he believes an emerging three year old is needed for the Melbourne Cup – hence he won’t bring Fame and Glory.
The only horse from the race that I could potentially see coming is Gulf of Naples for Mark Johnston. The Scottish trainer has a bit of a fiery attitude about Australian racing, but the horse is still lightly raced and has a similar profile to Fox Hunt last year – in fact, he races in the same silks. He may back up into the Northumberland Plate at Newcastle this weekend, which would be a better indicator of his Melbourne Cup hopes.
Incidentally, a horse that won the same race that Fox Hunt won last year is the galloper I believe is best suited to the Melbourne Cup. His name is Camborne, a four year old son of Doyen. He is not bred to get a Melbourne Cup trip, but if you can get your hands on a replay of his win on Saturday, you will be all over him for the Melbourne Cup! He was in the race after Black Caviar, hence why most Australians would have ignored the race.
He sat back last, but showed a withering turn of foot to grab his rivals out in the centre of the track and win easily. His next target is likely to be the Group 2 Princess of Wales’s Stakes (2400m) in a couple of weeks, but if he resorts to a handicap path, I desperately hope we see him in Melbourne. His owner, Princess Haya of Jordan – the wife of Sheikh Mohammed – has travelled horses in the past, but trainer John Gosden has not had a Melbourne Cup runner. Perhaps Camborne can be his first.
If not, Aiken is in the running to represent him at Flemington. The winner of six of his eight starts ran fourth in the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes (2400m), behind English St Leger placegetter Sea Moon and Melbourne Cup quinella Dunaden and Red Cadeaux. Aiken is high on Racing Victoria’s wishlist, with international scout Leigh Jordon to talk to Gosden when in Europe next month.
Of the Hardwicke Stakes trifecta, only Red Cadeaux is certain to come to Australia in an attempt to avenge his second placing last year. Dunaden is likely to go to the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, the world’s most prestigious race, as his owners sponsor the race. However, more is likely to be known following his run in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in mid-July. That race is also the target of Sea Moon, who was dominant in victory. He will not be seen in Australia.
Wolferton Handicap winner Gatewood could also be on the radar of Racing Victoria. Another lightly raced commodity for John Gosden, he was impressive in winning the 1m2f handicap which has produced the likes of last year’s Melbourne Cup sixth Lost In The Moment. Another one to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
And so, the sun has set on Royal Ascot for another year. Before we know it, the Spring Racing Carnival will be in full flow in Australia! And, as quickly as it fades, another royal meeting will be here again. However, it is unlikely that we’ll quite see a Royal Ascot as magical and majestic as last week’s fanfare. It truly did have a dash of everything, combining together to make the ultimate festival. It will live in our memories for a very long time to come.