The Daily Telegraph
Sport of kings throws open its doors for five-day feast
• Top-class action in store for 60,000 spectators at test event • Battaash and Palace Pier can start the week off with a bang
The awful edict “thou cannot be at the races if you are seen to be enjoying yourself ” that has hung like a wet blanket over the sport of kings for the past 13 months has been lifted and, for the next five days at least, the party-pooping shackles are thrown off.
Royal Ascot will today host the biggest crowd to attend a British race meeting since the Cheltenham Festival in 2020. In the region of 12,000, technically guinea pigs for the Government’s event research programme, will go to each day of this year’s five-day extravaganza.
It will, of course, not be quite Ascot as we know it, but, after last year’s meeting behind closed doors, it will be more akin to a halfway house, Royal Ascot canapé style – not quite the full mouthful.
Despite “Freedom Day” being postponed yesterday, parts of Ascot will feel like the nearest to normal since pre-pandemic times, although, in truth, the only thing really going full-bore will be the horses. There will be no Royal procession but, it is hoped, the Queen, who can go when she has a runner, will be in attendance, after her sprinter King’s Lynn was declared for the King’s Stand Stakes.
Top hats, tailcoats, summer dresses and bonnets of all sorts will all get a welcome airing after nearly two years stuffed in the wardrobe, there will be raucous singing after racing by the bandstand, and vertical (standing-up) drinking returns instead of it being imperative to sit (although that may well be favoured later in the day).
Rick Stein makes his Ascot debut and there are eight Michelin stars spread out across Ascot’s restaurants. Seven races a day – introduced last year to ease the backlog of demand to run horses after lockdown – are here to stay and we will soon find out whether that waters down Ascot’s fine wine.
The dreaded Covid zones are gone and we are back to the regular methods of segregation, social and cost, of the Royal Enclosure and Queen Anne Enclosure, with roughly 4,000 in each, and 4,000 across hospitality boxes and restaurants. On top of that, 1,200 owners a day are expected.
There will still be inconsistencies – you have to wear a face mask in the paddock, but not “outside”. Because this is part of the Government’s research, socialising is encouraged. Happy days, you will not be slung out for breaching two-metre social distancing rules.
It is meant to be as “normal” as possible, but racing’s only normal in the 13 months since it resumed at the start of June 2020 has been the racing. There will be plenty of equine stars on show – Battaash and Palace Pier today, Love and Lady Bowthorpe tomorrow – and, topping the show, will be the incomparable Stradivarius, bidding for a record-equalling fourth Gold Cup on Thursday.
Even Grand National heroine Rachael Blackmore pays the place a visit to ride Cape Gentleman for Emmet Mullins in the Ascot Stakes today.
Tuesday, with three Group Ones and the key juvenile race, the Coventry, is often the best day of the five and punters appear to have been given an easy shot in the opening Queen Anne, although Palace Pier and Frankie Dettori are not going to make anyone rich. The colt looks a cut above his rivals. He is rated 5lb better than Order Of Australia and is 8lb and more clear of the rest of his rivals.
Though the race has thrown up a couple of “surprises” in the past three years, Ascot’s straight mile is not overly complicated, so it generally goes to the best miler.
In Battaash, the best sprinter this country has had in a decade, we have another popular short-priced favourite for the take-a-sip-of-your-drink-and-you-miss-it King’s Stand Stakes over five furlongs.
He sustained an injury on holiday at Shadwell Stud in December and returned to training a bit later than usual. But he is unbeaten first time out, including in this race last year when he cracked Royal Ascot at the fourth attempt. Twice, he was beaten in this race by Blue Point, but he made no mistake last year. His trainer, Charlie Hills, is optimistic. The seven-year-old also has a new lad, John “Bluey” Cannon – another who has been working for the Hills family since before Charlie was born – after the retirement of Bob Grace who used to look after him (or vice versa).
“He’s in really good form – as good as he was going into this last year,” said Hills yesterday. “I couldn’t be happier with him. The injury was in December, so he’s had plenty of time. It was the plan to come here first time and he proved last year that he was capable of that.”
If Anno Domini is catching up with Battaash and he is susceptible, then there are a number of candidates. Oxted won the July Cup and if his mojo is back he is a threat, while Extravagant Kid has been gelded since winning the Al Quoz Sprint in Meydan – you might have thought he would have been allowed to keep them after that.
Coming from the United States, it is an away game for him, but if Frankie Dettori is fresh from winning the Queen Anne, he is probably worth a few pounds. However, Tim Easterby’s three-year-old filly Winter Power appears to be on a near-vertical trajectory and might be the one.
The St James’s Palace Stakes is a tricky contest, not least because there is no shortage of runners, and a bend to negotiate.
They are headed by the 2,000 Guineas winner Poetic Flare and there is a good mix of colts on a retrieval mission, such as Battleground and Thunder Moon, and
There are eight Michelin stars spread out across the restaurants
progressive sorts, such as Mostahdaf, who skipped the early Classics. I prefer Richard Hannon’s Chindit, however. He got behind a bit in the Guineas, but finished well and Ascot’s stiff mile should suit him.
American visitor Kaufymaker is favourite for the Coventry. The Acropolis comes from Ireland. The home team include Richard Hannon’s Gisburn, who looked impressive at Newbury and Hugo Palmer’s Ebro River, who did everything wrong at Sandown but still won by a good margin.
However, I fancy The Organiser, bought after his win by Highclere Thoroughbreds, to give Joe Tuite a first Royal Ascot winner.
Of course, for today’s racegoer at Royal Ascot, that is not quite it. You are an experiment and there is the further Covid test in five days’ time.
In among the empty bottles and wilted buttonholes that signal the end of a normal week’s carousing will be the used PCR and lateralflow testing kits.
But like the Coventry winner – that is very probably the future.