“Her absence will reshape the landscape of racing and breeding because her presence defined it.”
Rolf Johnson on the year in racing and breeding
For as long as anyone can remember, the doom-mongers have tapped their noses and pronounced, archly, that racing’s had it when the Queen’s no longer around.
Her late Majesty would not have given such curmudgeons much shrift. By her mere presence she promoted the sport: Royal Ascot’s worldwide prestige was owed to the sovereign’s attendance, from which all else flowed.
But on St Leger day 2022 only in Great Britain did the racing world stop spinning – in deference to the death of the Sovereign. I am not at all sure that cancelling racing fixtures that day, as sombre as the occasion was, would have met with the Queen Elizabeth II’s approval: she was never a fair-weather friend of the sport she adored.
However, in this, the year of her Platinum Jubilee, the St Leger went ahead a day later than scheduled. Back in her Silver Jubilee year, 1977, the script for the oldest Classic was seemingly written beforehand. Dunfermline, already winner of the Oaks and ridden by Willie Carson in the royal colours, landed the St Leger after a ferocious struggle with Lester Piggott and the subsequent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged. It was a cut-throat battle that took the raceday stewards twenty minutes to endorse.
There is an encyclopaedic collection of authentic vignettes of Her Majesty’s involvement with racing, stretching back to the first time she graced the Royal Meeting as Princess Elizabeth in 1945.
One of the more piquant epigrams came in the wake of the 1953 ‘Coronation Derby’. After knighting Gordon Richards earlier in the week, the new monarch watched Sir Gordon force Pinza past her best horse, Aureole, at Epsom. It was Richards’s 28th attempt at the race; Her Majesty’s first. She would never come so close again.
Post-race, the Duke of Edinburgh asked the newest knight if he was now going to retire, having finally won the Derby, whereupon the Queen stepped in and said: “Of course not! He’s going to ride for me in the race next year on Landau.” Sir Gordon would have done so, too, but for a bad fall at Salisbury just before Epsom – and that 1954 season was to be his last.
Estimate’s 2013 Ascot Gold Cup victory was a marquee moment in Queen Elizabeth II’s commitment to racing, come rain or shine. Composure was thrown to the winds. Estimate had already been a winner at the Royal Meeting, in the previous year’s Queen’s Vase, but her trainer Sir Michael Stoute described the Gold Cup triumph as being “as high as anything I’ve done”.
The crescendo of public reaction rose above mere sentimental attachment. Estimate was the first Gold Cup winner in the colours of a reigning monarch. The jockeys on the first three home were all given penalties for transgressing the whip rules: the race was certainly no royal penalty kick. The Queen always presented the Gold Cup. Prince Andrew obliged, on this occasion, to hand the Cup to his mother – which prompts the question of who will occupy the carriages in the Royal procession at next year’s Royal Meeting.
He may have served his time of penance at Her Majesty’s pleasure for tax transgressions, but in later years it was Her Majesty herself who unveiled his statue at Epsom
King George V gave the Ascot meeting of 1911 its first ‘Royal’ appendage, but it is the presence of the monarch that matters and there is no substitute for the Queen. Cromwell, after beheading Charles I, banned racing altogether but Charles II revived it. The soubriquet ‘sport of kings’ was first used in his reign – rightly so, for he initiated the Newmarket Town Plate in 1665, even winning it as a jockey in 1671 and 1675.
He would stroll about the Heath talking horses to passers-by, with some of that common touch passing down occasionally to his descendants.
Modern monarchs would not be allowed similar freedoms. As Prince Charles, our new King rode in a charity flat race and finished second and occupied the same position in an amateurs’ handicap chase at Ludlow. But after two unseats and deteriorating form figures of 242UU0, any such jeopardy to the heir to the throne could no longer be sanctioned. His sister, the Princess Royal, was more successful. Sir Peter O’Sullevan called her home to victory in 1987 on Ten No Trumps in the Ladies Diamond Stakes – fittingly, at Ascot.
The royal silks may have passed to King Charles III, but the presence of Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, will continue to be felt wherever thoroughbred horses race. Her absence will reshape the landscape of racing and breeding because her presence defined it.
One of the other major news stories of the year, the war in Ukraine, gave way as news broadcasters and national newspapers led with the announcement of Lester Piggott’s death in May, at the age of 86.
I saw ‘the long fellow’ riding into a nostalgic sunset in November 1963. It was the final race of the season on the last day’s existence of Manchester racecourse. The banks of the River Irwell at the time of year were consistently dank and drab, but this day was bright – even though overcoats (and caps) were still in order. The crowd of 20,621, turned up in the hope that Lester would ride a treble and catch Australian Scobie Breasley on the last lap of the jockeys’ title race – a season beginning with the Lincoln and ending on November Handicap day.
Piggott’s long shadow, high in the irons, lanced across the finishing line in the Goodbye Consolation Plate, as he and Fury Royal galloped into the setting winter sun.
But the cheering wasn’t quite full-throated: Fury Royal was only the second part of a double – Lester had lost to Breasley by one. The scene that day of a crowd, bowed, departing Castle Irwell required the brush of L S Lowry. The ‘matchstick men’ of south Lancashire would return to the drudgery of their mills and factories on Monday morning still smarting from seeing their hero upstaged, their racecourse closed.
Of course that wasn’t the end of things – Lester won the next eight jockeys’ titles.
I had precious few dealings with the great man, but they were just that – ‘precious’. Two that spring to mind were during my time with Toby Balding.
The phone rang and the voice at the other end (which, shamefully, I didn’t instantly recognise) intoned: “I’ll ride Decent Fellow in the John Porter.” Naively, I replied: “I’ll see if that’s all right with Toby.”
“No, I WILL ride Decent Fellow in the John Porter,” came the indisputable reply. And he did, and he won.
On another occasion we had a well-fancied horse in the Bunbury Cup, a more prestigious handicap in the 1970s than today. Toby was held up getting to Newmarket and when Lester walked into the parade ring he noticed (of course, what didn’t he ‘notice’?) that Casino Boy was wearing normal work shoes, not racing plates.
Casino Boy’s attendant was a tall, well-proportioned girl known as ‘Big Liz’ and not noted for her mental acumen. When Lester queried her about Casino Boy’s footwear, her innocent reply was: “Nobody told me whether he was ‘off’ or not.”
Apoplectic, the great man, for probably the only time, felt provoked to exclaim: “Don’t you know who the fuck I am?” He grabbed the horse, led it over to the racecourse farrier and asked him to remove the shoes.
And then Lester went out and rode one his greatest (unsung) races, on the barefoot Casino Boy – beaten a neck. The ‘face like a well-kept grave’ betrayed no further emotion striding back to the scales.
There were no ‘extenuating circumstances’ for Lester. He jocked Bill Williamson off Roberto in the 1972 Derby with the official explanation that the Australian had had a fall ten days earlier. Be that as it may, Williamson rode two winners that same Derby afternoon – beating Piggott on both occasions. Those winners are forgotten; Roberto’s triumph is folklore for Piggott’s peerless ride. How often was his presence cited as the difference between victory and defeat in his 4,493 winning rides?
Originally the American Press didn’t ‘get’ him – more ‘out to get him’. Their champions such as Willie Shoemaker were miniscule men who “got down low and went for dough”. They weren’t perched, apparently precariously; but a natural ‘seat’ for Lester.
Even when he won, narrowly, the 1969 Washington International at Laurel, Maryland on Sir Ivor, the American press castigated him as “the bum who nearly got a good horse beat”. He repeated that victory the following year on Karabas.
“When did you think you had the race won, Lester?” the same carpers asked sheepishly.
“I thought I had it won three weeks ago – now eff off.” When he returned, at 54, from prison and retirement, with hardly time to change from civvies into silks, he flew to New York and rode Royal Academy to an even more glorious, seismic victory in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park.
He may have served his time of penance at Her Majesty’s pleasure for tax transgressions, but in later years it was Her Majesty herself who unveiled his statue at Epsom, one of nine round British racecourses – although, where Lester was concerned, the mould was broken at his birth.
We will remember the Lester who deserved, on balance, to have his OBE returned, and I’d go so far as to say that it should have come with a knighthood, as much as anyone has earned in any sport or field of endeavour. What he gave to racing he gave instinctively, occasionally unconsciously, and yes, at times, too selfishly.
The racing public, and indeed a wider audience, forgave Lester every peccadillo, judging him instead by how much he gave to his sport – an amount far greater than what he took.
It took some foot-stamping on the part of Miss Rausing to get her trainer to Paris on Arc day: maybe that’s why she was wearing a surgical boot in the winner’s enclosure
To Ascot, in mid-October. “There are lots worse things going on in the world to worry about than a few horses going round a field.” So said Lester’s son-in-law, William Haggas, on Champions Day. The words came at the point in his distinguished thirty-five-year training career where focusing on a wider picture was the only salve for inescapable dismay at Baaeed’s Champion Stakes defeat. Haggas’s hitherto unbeaten colt, seemingly not born to follow, finished no better than fourth on his final racecourse appearance.
To rant or rave, though, at the end of this season, over racing’s health, its very future? Is it worth the effort of sounding off against a teetering gerontocracy pursuing asinine governance, accelerating the game’s skid over a cliff? Or do we rave over a captivating season on the racecourse, brought to an undeniable diminuendo of a conclusion by the downfall of Baaeed, in whom we had all collectively invested so much?
The sport triumphed as it must. Smart alecs say there’s no such thing as a vintage year because every year has a ‘vintage’, be it ambrosia or mildewed. But 2022 was a corker. Baaeed turned out to be one of the best racehorses ever seen in Britain and two ‘feel good’ stories – those of Alpinista and Highfield Princess – captured imaginations across the sport, too.
Alpinista became the first five-year-old mare to triumph in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe since Corrida in 1937. The corrida is the bullfight; Alpinista’s trainer Sir Mark Prescott is a devotee of the bull ring; and racing is devoted to Sir Mark, the Don Quixote of Newmarket Heath.
He rebuts all those who threaten the sport, be they antis, time servers or pseudo ‘professionals’ leapfrogging from one sinecure to another.
“We have lost our contact with the working horse,” he said this year. “People have lost sight of nature. They don’t see death any more.” As a devotee of blood sports, he has seen plenty. But what he is trying to evoke, through personal example, is without that connection with animals – the thoroughbred racehorse in particular – the game is up. What little symbiosis a wider public retained through the media expired, as papers discarded racing’s column inches and broadcasting teetered on vaudeville.
In some ways, the baronet Prescott’s understanding of both the value of bonds with working animals, and of the rhythms of racing which have made him such a master of his craft, is out of time. He restricts inhabitants of the stable yard at Heath House, at the foot of Warren Hill, to 50, the number of boxes built there in 1704. In these days of behemoth-sized yards, such a numerical disadvantage could be terminal.
Sir Mark himself had confessed he needed an Alpinista to come along. Somewhat unexpectedly the mare deposed Irish Champion Stakes winner Luxembourg as Arc favourite. The reason can’t have been a Japanese-style plunge by British punters, because many plans to travel to Paris were scuppered by rail strikes. Japanese voyagers didn’t encounter such obstacles, but their ambitions were yet again unrequited.
The ground at ParisLongchamp was predictably testing but Alpinista skimmed through the mud and rain, with enough in reserve to resist French Derby winner Vadeni, under the French champion jockey Christophe Soumillon, and last year’s German hero Torquator Tasso and Frankie Dettori. The heavens opened, but to embrace Alpinista.
What the reaction would have been had Soumillon managed to force home Vadeni, the best horse in France, doesn’t bear thinking about. Forty-eight hours earlier, Soumillon got a 60-day ban for giving fellow jockey Rossa Ryan the elbow, literally, and pitching him out of the saddle in a race at Saint-Cloud.
Sir Mark trains Alpinista (as he had done her mother and grandmother) for Kirsten Rausing, one of racing’s most popular and loyal supporters. What a treasure the grey daughter of Frankel will be for her owner-breeder when she retires to Lanwades Stud.
Sir Mark’s owners, great and small, participate in the knowledge that they must be prepared to suck the same enjoyment from a Class D on the all-weather as bottomless pockets (and egos) digest on grander stages.
“You never forget your first kiss or your first winner,” says the bachelor knight of Edwardian mien. “I haven’t won an English Classic and I’m very ashamed of it.”
Not that Sir Mark hasn’t sampled past Group One success: he’s just not a glutton for it. Alpinista has now gathered six of them on the trot on something of a European Grand Tour, usually without her trainer in attendance. It took some foot-stamping on the part of Miss Rausing to get her trainer to Paris on Arc day: maybe that’s why she was wearing a surgical boot in the winner’s enclosure. Perhaps he also had to be blindfolded and spun around for the ‘handlers’ to load him onto the plane...
“You can change your wife but never your jockey,” is one of Sir Mark’s acutest aphorisms, but the bon mots went missing in Paris under an avalanche of accolades. Under the glare of the world’s press and television, rather than under his customary floodlights at Wolverhampton, Alpinista’s rider Luke Morris was composed. “She was towing me along and then when I had to ask her for everything, she answered like she always does,” he said. “This is the pinnacle of my career.”
Morris’s next ride, hardly a pinnacle, was winner of the first the following day at the aforementioned Wolverhampton. Winning owner’s prize money? Wolverhampton: £3,276; Arc: £2.4 million…
Admittedly, money isn’t everything. So let’s make the most (Great British Racing, are you there?) of a mare beaten off a rating of 57 in a Class 6 on her first run in a handicap, yet the winner of Group Ones on her 28th, 29th and 30th outings. Highfield Princess outran everybody in the Flying Five at The Curragh, the Nunthorpe at York and the Maurice de Gheest at Deauville. Led out of the auction sale ring unsold by her owner-breeder as a yearling at 29,000gns, you can now add a couple of noughts to that valuation.
I think people were blindsided to some extent by the hype and the racing PR exercises linked to Baaeed (none of which, it must be said, came from his trainer or owner). Much of the talk surrounded his place in racing’s pantheon of recent years relative to the likes of Frankel and his own sire, Sea The Stars. Now that his racing plates have been taken off for the final time, Baaeed’s form can be subjected to more critical examination.
Joe Louis, ‘The Brown Bomber’, was dubbed “the greatest” until Mohammed Ali came along. Either side of the Second World War, Louis knocked out 52 opponents and it was no fault of his that they were dubbed ‘bum of the month’. Frankel kept hammering Excelebration – four times. Excelebration was certainly no ‘bum’, being a three-time Group One winner; but he just didn’t carry Frankel’s punch.
Baaeed slammed Sir Busker three times, but Sir Busker, although certainly no pushover, had no pretensions to Group One status. Baaeed beat Sir Busker by nine and a half lengths in the Queen Anne Stakes and by a very similar distance in the International Stakes. Sir Busker was reckoned to have improved 6lb over the first two clashes; Baaeed by 10lb despite his superiority being lessened when you factor in weight for age allowances.
Timeform commented on Frankel’s retirement that Alexander the Great wept when he had no more worlds to conquer. The collective shocked, muted (and, in some quarters, even tearful) disappointment when Baaeed was defeated in the mud in the Champion Stakes – never the formality the odds suggested – meant that the winner, Bay Bridge, came home to something of an empty stage. Bay Bridge had been beaten favourite for Sir Michael Stoute in both the Eclipse and Prince of Wales’s Stakes. But when has Stoute not brought out the very best from his aspiring champions?
Baaeed now retires to Shadwell Stud in Norfolk. What manner of horse was he? Unraced at two, he didn’t appear until June of his three-year-old career and was kept to a mile – “I don’t want people to think he’s a slow horse,” said Haggas, who relented for the ten-furlong International Stakes at York. On the Knavesmire, the son of Sea The Stars swept home, emulating his own sire and evoking ten-year-old memories of Frankel’s famous York triumph. Remember Baaeed for that day: he came home to a reception befitting a champion, and deservedly so.
Frankie Dettori received a $13,500 whip fine – and $750,000 as his percentage of the $12 million prize – when winning the Dubai World Cup on the badly-spelt Country Grammer. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Admittedly, famous horses aren’t ‘public property’, but racing hasn’t respected one of its key constituents, the public punter. Unloved, estranged from the sport over which they chewed the ‘fat’ in bars and betting shops, football has corralled them. The majority, too, often sneered at as ‘betting fodder’ are captivated by little beyond the Derby and the Grand National. We’re no longer the stuff of front or back pages. The Mirror, Express and Star and their Sunday titles advertised for a single journalist to do the lot.
We were obliged (though not forced, of course) to endure ululating cacophonies on television (in between advertisements for funeral plans and comfortable trousers with elasticated waistbands), making little impact on the wider world. ‘Grand’ schemes, like the Racing League team championship, create a tumbleweed of public response. A litmus test is that we’re out there looking for yet another new Derby sponsor, now that the share price of car salesmen Cazoo has fallen by 97%. What price the Bitcoin Derby?
Sir Michael Stoute barely had time to enjoy his sixth Derby victory, this time with Desert Crown, before the horse suffered an injury after Epsom and was unable run again this year. One record among many that Stoute, at 78, won’t regret is the accolade of being the oldest trainer of the winner of the Blue Riband of the turf. The great man still has it (and I swear I wrote that before Champions Day).
It may not be a trend but the last three Derby winners got no further than maiden company in their first season: both Desert Crown and Adayar were no more than Nottingham maiden winners at two. The winner before Adayar, Serpentine, remained a maiden at two. This winter’s favourite for next year’s Derby, Auguste Rodin, took the last Group One of the season, Doncaster’s Futurity, at the tail-end of October. Camelot was the last horse to win both the Futurity and the Derby. Auguste Rodin was Aidan O’Brien’s record eleventh winner of the Futurity.
Auguste Rodin could be the best horse on this side of the globe sired by the Japanese non-pareil sire Deep Impact. He’s the first foal on the racecourse of Galileo’s daughter (and Lockinge winner) Rhododendron. We’ve come to expect that O’Brien, Ryan Moore and ‘the lads’ will always work out a way to win. They’d obviously walked the course at Doncaster, though, as dominating on the stands’ side undoubtedly added to Auguste Rodin’s superiority. However, the way he carved through the mud when both sides of his pedigree cry out for better ground suggests his current favouritism for the Classics is justified.
I have never seen Aidan O’Brien so animated. In its own way this victory was almost as important to the master of Ballydoyle as Alpinista’s was for Heath House. Before Doncaster the volume of potential among his juveniles had not produced the ultimate ticket – “This is probably the most exciting horse we’ve ever had.” Before Doncaster, when asked whether he was as confident about next year’s Classic hopefuls as is normally the case O’Brien’s reply was: “We’re happy with what we’ve got.”
Then came Auguste Rodin leapfrogging his generation, prompting the long-awaited utterance: “Probably the most exciting we’ve ever had.” Last year’s Futurity winner Luxembourg received similar encomiums after his Irish Champion Stakes victory but his staccato season ended tamely in the Arc. Redemption awaits for him at four; glory for Auguste Rodin at three. And neither bears the burden of being unbeaten. Eulogies over: time to get the worst of the rest off one’s chest. So many unanswered questions... The Gambling Review, racing’s 21st-century Magna Carta, awaits its Runnymede moment: gestation two years and counting. And this is governance?
British racing is in a fix. I observed a winning jockey, at Thirsk, throwing buckets of water over his palpitating winning mount – well, there was no-one else to do it – before picking up his tack again to weigh in. How far removed are we from the days when Gordon Richards chose Noel Murless as his boss “because he always carried his own saddle”? Doesn’t anybody in power recognise the extent of the staff crisis?
The only substantial growth in the industry has featured these erstwhile reviews and reports – solvents when the sport cried out for solutions. Meanwhile the hardy annuals were mulched, the whip and interference rules debates flowered again. The wise men of the BHA judiciary deemed the experienced Paul Hanagan guilty of a “riding performance poor, reprehensible and self-evidently culpable” at Royal Ascot. So obviously Hanagan lost his Norfolk Stakes win on the all-too-appropriately named The Ridler? No, he did not.
Hanagan held up his hands, content with a ten-day ban while lamenting that the weighing-room wasn’t the cosy retreat of yesteryear, adding guilelessly if tellingly: “We can’t escape the fact that countless jockeys, me included, have decided it's worth getting a few days in order to win a race. That tells you the system isn’t working.”
Christophe Soumillon got twelve days’ ‘holiday’, reduced to eight on appeal, for celebrating recklessly after winning the Eclipse on Vadeni. As mentioned above, that penalty was a day trip compared with the 60 days which French stewards later awarded him. Shades of Kieren Fallon all those years ago at Southwell, ‘assisting’ Stuart Webster from his horse after the line.
Amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen got a ten-day ban for excessive use of the whip at Aintree on his family’s 50-1 Grand National winner Noble Yeats. A few months later under revised rules, the ultimate jumps prize would have been snatched away. Waley-Cohen retired straight after his triumph – were that penalty and the accompanying £400 fine weighing on his conscience? Unlikely, and certainly not if you believe Hanagan…
One (formerly) respected writer said: “Used properly, the whip should be a conductor’s baton, not a toxic word.” Try telling that to slaves rowing home their master’s trireme. Mark Johnston’s defence revolved around: “the strokes of the whip… initiate a new ‘injection’ of adrenalin and endorphins.” What even he excludes is that those protesting against the whip aren’t interested in niceties; they want to end racing full stop.
The problem isn’t restricted to these shores. Frankie Dettori received a $13,500 whip fine – and $750,000 as his percentage of the $12 million prize – when winning the Dubai World Cup on the badly-spelt Country Grammer. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
There were those who moaned about Dettori’s hapless Royal Ascot, most controversially and perhaps unreasonably on Stradivarius, denied his fourth Gold Cup, and claimed it as clear evidence of the end of the line for the near 52-year-old. The Dettori grin took a landslide after team Gosden called a sabbatical for the man who has always been Ascot’s darling. A stentorious John Gosden said: “We gave him a bit of a public warning. He was left on the bench like he would be by a football manager. When he is not in the zone, he is a menace.”
Threats have to be existential or they are not threats. If it was indeed a sabbatical it was a brief one – a month later and the ‘menace’ was back in his pomp, guiding Gosden’s Inspiral home in the Jacques le Marois at Deauville. Ascot’s Champions Day had its Dettori leap – from Emily Upjohn and Kinross. It was as if he’d never been away. He had a fall that day and expressed sympathy for the jumping boys’ perilous profession. The man remains incorrigible.
“The most powerful man in racing” retired this year. No-one has ever had the temerity to contradict Martin Pipe, and it was with those words that the man who revolutionised training described jockeys’ agent Dave Roberts. Roberts didn’t so much operate under the radar; he was the radar through which most trainers’ (predominantly National Hunt) plans were sieved. The biggest nugget of course was AP McCoy, but over sixty other jockeys received their directions from Roberts: trainers knew to whom they must turn. He pursued his clients’ interests with an anonymity and discretion which those who should be raising racing’s profile instead of their own would do well to emulate. Surveys highlight a public lack of interest (apart from the antis campaigning for a total ban) in horseracing and its issues. Current BHA Chief Julie Harrington gave her verdict on yet another whip review in one of her typical gnomic utterances: “I was really hopeful that what this would do is allow us to take serious action to form a proper deterrent and I’m pleased about how it hangs together as a suite of recommendations.”
What does this mean?
White smoke was emitted from High Holborn and peace in our time proclaimed, after a summit between ‘all the interested parties’ in September. The BHA (former BHB), Thoroughbred Group (former Horsemen’s Group) and Racecourse Association (plus the odd ‘expert’ Tom, Dick and Harriet) achieved “agreement on areas of focus for a strategy which will be developed in the coming months, underpinned by all parties agreeing to share data to inform decision-making, with the aim of building a sustainable model for British racing and identifying areas for growth.”
What does that mean?
Racing needs to move down its road to Damascus at motorway speed. Sadly, the only thing on the horizon is yet more ‘Operation Stacks’.