Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Royal Meeting: Day One. Or, things do not go exactly to plan.

My fingers are actually shaking as I write this. My heart is banging like a big bass drum. It is because finally, after all the anticipation and the discussion and the questions and the waiting, the Royal Meeting is finally here.

My special holiday for the occasion did not get off to a flying start. My mind was so mazed with trying to work out whether Animal Kingdom would win the Queen Anne that I could not sleep. I finally drifted off in the smallest of the small hours, and slept straight through my alarm. My cunning plan had been to rise at seven-thirty, rush to the shop to buy the Racing Post, get out the notebook and give forensic attention to the form. Instead, I was cantering about like a loose horse all morning, hours late.

Even though I am officially on a break, I still decided I must do my HorseBack work. I had another plan for that: go very quickly there, take five pictures, rush back, do the Facebook page for which I am responsible, and then turn all my attention to the racing. Instead, when I got there, I was so enchanted by the lovely herd that I ended up standing in a field for fifteen minutes, looking out over the Deeside hills, chatting to two of their dearest mares. They stood, calm and dozy, like two auld wifies in their Scottish fastness, happily giving me their heads for some love and scratching. My heart stopped beating wildly for ten minutes, and stillness descended.

So now there is no time for the forensic form. I’m going to have to bet on gut and love, which is how I often gamble anyway. I’m all in on the global star Animal Kingdom. Despite the fact that Ascot represents an entirely different test from anything he has faced before, I think he has the mighty class to see him through. It’s a bit of a fairy tale, if he can do it; to come from the tough dirt of the Kentucky Derby to the emerald green straight mile of the Royal Meeting would be a story indeed.

The extraordinary thing about Ascot is that three of the most thrilling and highest grade races of the whole meeting come on the first day, boom boom boom, like silver bullets from a pointed gun. The reason that the whole week is so delirious is that all the superstars are here, primed for the occasion. It is the moment in the season when horses should be in their pomp. They have cast off their spring rustiness, felt the sun on their mighty backs, gained race fitness and experience. The babies will have had their education; the veterans will be remembering all their talent and moxy. Trainers will have laid out runners especially for this moment, bringing their precious cargo carefully to their crest and peak. And yet there are still mysteries. Not all the stories have yet been told; there is always the space for an improver to come out of the pack like a joker.

It is magnificent because it is steeped in history and the kind of absurd but lovely pageantry and pomp that only the British can really do without embarrassment. When the Queen is carried up the straight mile in her carriage pulled by the splendid match greys, three hundred years of tradition come with her. Even in these rushing, technological days, gentlemen still doff their shining top hats, in a rather touching display of old world courtliness.

It is a festival of beauty too. Ascot is one of the prettiest courses in England, from the gleaming sweep of its storied straight mile, where last year Frankel soared into immortality, to the wooded bends of Swinley Bottom, where so many dreams have been fulfilled and crashed. In the quiet of the pre-parade ring, where the horses are saddled in the dim cool of serried boxes, venerable old trees spread their benign branches over the equine athletes, in their last moment of calm before the hurly burly starts.

And there are the horses themselves, an aesthetic feast of perfect confirmation, shining coats, gleaming muscle, intelligent heads. A finely-bred thoroughbred in the month of June gladdens the eye like almost nothing else. Last year, when I flew south for the whole five days, it was not just to watch the racing; I wanted to gaze on all those brave, bonny creatures until I could look no more. I ruthlessly refused to socialise. I just wanted to fill my head with beauty.

And so it shall be today, this time on the television. I’ll have a few bets, but Ascot is famously impossible. My old dad used to fly abroad for the week, because it was the only way he could avoid the temptation of the betting shop, where he knew he would lose hundreds of pounds. Going on holiday was cheaper, he used to say. I want Animal Kingdom to win like the champion he is, and I’ve had a few quid on his lovely back. I’d like to see Toronado run his race, after disappointing in the Guineas, but at the same time, it would be tear-jerking to see Dawn Approach avenge his Derby debacle. If Lady Cecil could win with Tiger Cliff in the long-distance test, for the memory of Sir Henry, there would not be a dry eye in the house. Although I think the dark horse Homeric might run a huge race at 12-1. I can’t work out the sprints at all, because I can never work out the sprints.

So I will be shouting Come on my son, but not for much money. Mostly for love and beauty. They are all champions, these brilliant creatures, and over the next five days, they shall give more pleasure than they know.


No time for pictures. Just one, of the two dear, dozy girls with whom I spent the morning, about as far away from hats and trumpets and champion bloodlines as you can get. But none the less lovely for all that:

18 June 1 18-06-2013 10-42-37

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