Thursday, 20 June 2013

Ascot, Day Three. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

The thrilling thing about the Royal Meeting is that it throws up stories, as if a seasoned old scriptwriter had sat down, thrown every last shred of cautious professionalism to the four winds, and let rip.

If the first day was about a horse, when Dawn Approach rose from the ashes like a fiery phoenix, the second day was about a man. The man is a very young one; polite, soft-spoken, modest. He is, without flash or fanfare, very, very good at his job. That talent, only three years ago, did not seem enough. In 2010, James Doyle was so disillusioned with race riding that he booked himself onto a plumbing course. Yesterday, at the age of 25, he rode his first winner at the Royal Meeting, when Al Kazeem vanquished Camelot and a field of top-flight rivals in the big contest of the day.

The shattering highs and lows of racing could not have been more vividly illustrated. Only half an hour before, Doyle had gone out on the talented filly Thistle Bird. He must have been full of hopes. But, once again the ultimate mystery struck. Thistle Bird ran no race, labouring away from miles out, never looking likely. They may take her home and scope her and find some muck in her lungs, or it may have to be a puzzle that remains forever unsolved, the kind of thing where, as racing people say, you just have to put a line through it. James Doyle was so despondent that he could hardly construct complete sentences when interviewed afterwards in the weighing room by Mick Fitzgerald.

Then fortune turned topsy-turvy, and Al Kazeem came powering down the straight like a titan, after Paul Hanagan had slipped the field and must have thought he had the race in the bag. It was a brilliant ride by Doyle because the older jockey, canny and tactical as the day is long, had gone on the bend, and taken the field a bit by surprise. But James Doyle was alive to the move, shook his own fella up so that he would not have too much to do, and in the end, reeled in Mukhadram in a thrilling finish.

Suddenly, the young jockey was all blinding smiles and eloquent words. The bleak start to the day was forgotten.

That lovely victory would have been enough for anyone. But in the next hour, the improbable happened. A dear old handicapper called Belgian Bill suddenly decided to have his day in the sun, and in the muddling cavalry charge that is the Royal Hunt Cup, he powered through the huge field, ignoring a pocket here or a lack of gap there, and put his determined head in front. (According to his trainer, the auld fella loves a bit of trouble in running, as it keeps him amused. That’s the kind of horse that really captures my heart.)

At 33-1, Belgian Bill might not have been on James Doyle’s list of sure things for the meeting, but the old horse made it look inevitable, and the price in hindsight stupidly long.

It was an enchanting result for another reason. The trainer, George Baker, has been going for about five years, and this was his first winner at the Royal Meeting. That is a huge milestone in any trainer’s life. It makes all the wet Wednesdays at Wolverhampton and the demoralised trips back from Ripon worth it. The memory of that moment will brighten the dark winter mornings and warm the heart when the snow lies thick on the gallops. ‘It’s what you dream of,’ said Baker, smiling with disbelief.

James Doyle, by this stage, looked as if someone had transported him into a fairytale where he was riding unicorns heralded by choirs of angels. But it still was his day at the office, so after the sunshine and congratulation, he had to run back into the weighing room to change into the vivid yellow colours of Rizeena. Many of the races at Ascot are impossible, but the Queen Mary seemed particularly hard to unpick. It was a big field of very talented fillies; one of those things where you could make a brilliant case for six or seven. On impulse, I had twenty quid on Rizeena, because she’d won so impressively before, and because confidence does run down the reins, and James Doyle was at that moment the most confident man in three counties.

She bolted up. There was not a single moment’s doubt. James Doyle, who had never ridden a winner at the meeting before, who almost became a plumber, had suddenly chalked up three triumphs at the greatest flat fixture in the world in under ninety minutes. And the especially lovely thing about the last one was that it was for Clive Brittain, a trainer who is almost eighty, and who likes to do a special dance in the winner’s enclosure after a victory. Sure enough, there he was, doing a little soft shoe shuffle, joking with Clare Balding, who had to use all her professional skills not to break down in hopeless laughter, whilst the happy crowds clapped and cheered around him.

I am all about the horses. I love these thoroughbreds as if they were my own. I admire them for their beauty, their brilliance, their courage, their mystery. But yesterday was really about humans. One trainer is starting his journey, and one is ending it, and they would both have felt the exact same euphoria. And one jockey has suddenly had all his dreams granted, as if the fates woke up that morning and alighted on his good shoulders with all their beneficence and grace, and lent him wings.

My mother stirred herself. ‘What a very nice young man that is,’ she said.

Today, it could be the mighty moment for the Queen, if dear little Estimate could win The Gold Cup. I watched Estimate canter away with the Queen’s Vase last year to riotous applause, but this is a stiffer test, and there are plenty of good challengers to foil her dream. But if yesterday showed anything, it is that dreams do sometimes come true. So I’ll cross my fingers for Her Majesty and her lovely filly.

For the rest, I remain mostly baffled. I’d love Riposte to run a big race for Lady Cecil, and I think Mark Johnston might just have a chance with Maputo. The Johnston horses tend to be amazingly tough and genuine, as if there is something in the good Yorkshire water, and always give their running. My each-way fancy is Elkaayed for Roger Varian. I have never met Roger Varian in my life but I love him because he looks more like a professor of ancient history than a trainer and he is always so courteous and modest. And he has excellent tailoring.

But it’s Ascot; anything could happen. The only thing I do know is that there will be more stories to tell.

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