Ascot highlights: a vintage week despite the Covid restrictions
Thirty-five of the world's best Flat races spread over 5 days of highly variable weather and ground conditions prevailed to produce some highly competitive racing, and the largest crowd seen on a British racecourse since the Cheltenham Festival of 2020. As one of the government's pilot studies, 12,000 spectators attended each day, and the fashion spectacle that is this unique five days was in no way diminished.
Palace Pier proved himself among the best milers in the world with a competent, if not spectacular win in the opening Queen Anne Stakes, and will next target the Sussex Stakes, both races won by milers of the highest calibre. There he may well clash swords with St James's Palace Stakes winner Poetic Flare, the winner of the British 2,000 Guineas, who opted for the same day's St James's Palace Stakes. The opener brought up Frankie Dettori's 74th Ascot victory, second now only to the peerless Lester Piggott (116).
The colours of leading sprinter Battaash were lowered by the Roger Teal - trained Oxted, ridden by Cieran Fallon, son of the former British champion rider, enjoying his first Royal Ascot winner.
Wednesday had spectators checking their racecards as Gavin Cromwell, better known for his jumpers like 2019 Champion Hurdle winner Espoir d'Allen and Flooring Porter in this year's Stayers Hurdle, proved that 20 years of shoeing the best horses in Ireland can teach you how to train them too. Quick Suzy continued her meteoric rise up the rankings to win the opening Queen Mary for juvenile fillies.
Love justified 11/10 favouritism to get the Coolmore team off the mark in the Price of Wales' Stakes, whilst the annual cavalry charge that is the Royal Hunt Cup fell to Godolphin's real World, trained in Newmarket by Saeed bin Suroor.
Thursday was billed as the day that leading stayer Stradivarius would equal Yeats' record of four Ascot Gold Cups, but in truth, the winner of the last 3 runnings of Royal Ascot's marquee race never looked the winner at any time in the race. His best days may be behind him, which is to take nothing away from winner Subjectivist, whose impeccable recent record includes a Prix Royal-Oak at Longchamp last October, and the Group II Dubai Gold Cup at Meydan this spring. No surprise there for trainer Mark Johnston and jockey Joe Fanning.
There was a welcome return to the big stage for Marcus Tregoning in the Britannia Handicap with Perotto, providing a first Royal meeting winner since 2003.
In a week conspicuous for its lack of continental success, more so for the paucity of runners from France, it was down to the well-travelled Wesley Ward to keep the end up of horses trained outside Britain and Ireland, which he did with alacrity in the Commonwealth Cup, albeit by default. In a day of drama that began with a course inspection, Archie Watson's Dragon Symbol edged the race by a head, but was adjudged to have bumped Campanelle in the final furlong, who was awarded the race. Campanelle won the Queen Mary Stakes for Ward in 2019.
On the final day's card, the senior member of the British Trainers common room, Sir Michael Stoute, chalked up his 82nd Royal meeting winner in what may prove to be the last Diamond Jubilee Stakes, next year marking the platinum anniversary of HM The Queen's coronation. Dream of Dreams may be athletic and speedy enough to win over 6f at the highest level, but he certainly isn't the prettiest horse to look at. In a race with several that took the lead, however, it was the 7 year old gelded son of Dream Ahead who prevailed, taking his tally to 8 races on turf, and earnings of close on £950,000.
The unique spectacle that is Ascot's closing race, the Queen Alexandra Stakes, marks the British calendar's longest flat race over 2m6f. Trainers more used to frequenting Leopardstown and Cheltenham have been habitual winners win of the past 10 years, and Willie Mullins asserted his authority on the staying handicap division with the 3 1/4l victory of Stratum, ridden by Ryan Moore. He was within a short head of winning the quarter miles shorter Ascot Stakes on Tuesday too.
Let us hope that the miserable 3 runners from Europe is a phenomenon of Covid. Ironically, Covid has encouraged many British trainers to travel to France in pursuit of better prize money, including several emigrating for the better overall conditions for building a training business. But Ascot is still recognized the world over as a marquee event, and international competition, manifested in a plane full of runners from Wesley Ward's US stable, adds spice to this quintessentially British event.