What a day.
I didn’t think, after the imperial procession that was Frankel’s Queen Anne, an opening day at Ascot could ever match it again. And yet, somehow, the Royal Meeting awoke, stretched itself, and put its dander up. There was more drama and delight than you could shake an ebony walking stick at.
First there was the sombre business of the day, done with elegance and grace. There was a minute of silence in memory of Sir Henry Cecil. Ladies in extravagant hats bowed their heads and clasped their hands, almost as if in prayer, and gentlemen stood ramrod straight, their top hats by their sides.
On the television, Clare Balding said a very clever thing and true thing. She said: ‘I always think the best way to remember someone who has died is to keep talking about them.’ I remember that exact thing after my father died. All I wanted to do was speak of him and his glory days. It’s a way of keeping the lost ones alive in all our hearts.
And there is so much to say of Sir Henry Cecil, especially in this week, the space of some of his greatest triumphs and most extraordinary records. He had seventy-five winners at the Royal Meeting, a number that may never be matched. It is so far ahead of the herd, stretching into the realms of myth.
Then it was time for the American star to come and dazzle us. Anticipation was intense. But, in the way of thoroughbreds, with all their mystery, Animal Kingdom did not run his race. There was no obvious excuse. He did not settle and raced too freely and then fizzled out, falling tamely back through the field, his fine brilliance extinguished.
It’s always sad to see a champion not give his running, but up at the front an Irish horse finally fulfilled his promise. Declaration of War is one of the apples of Ballydoyle’s eye, but he was sadly disappointing last time out, and there was suspicion he was a bit of hype, not quite as good as they all thought. I had an each-way saver on him, because those Ballydoyle boys know what they are talking about, and I could not believe they would send him to Ascot for nothing. He did run his race, and won beautifully, starting to look as if he will make up into the good horse they all thought he was.
But then the real drama unfolded. Amazingly, against the odds, Dawn Approach was back. He had imploded so fatally, so publicly, so humiliatingly, in the Derby, that the connections could hardly speak, except to say that he would be put away and there were no plans. Suddenly, without warning, Jim Bolger announced that his mighty colt would be back for Ascot.
This was not what anyone expected. The Derby is not even three weeks ago. For a horse to boil over like that could leave not only physical but mental scars. Up until that terrible moment, Dawn Approach had had everything his own way. He had dominated good fields, always had luck in running, never encountered anything to shake his famous sang-froid. His record was unblemished. He was the boss horse indeed, alpha to his hoof tips. Would he come back so quickly with his appetite for the game undimmed? Could his star shine again?
To complicate matters, the lovely, strong colt Toronado, the equal apple of the Hannon eye, who had had his own disaster in the Guineas, was also returning to the track, on another retrieval mission. And then there was Magician, so dominant in the Irish Guineas, but who had suffered a freak accident in his last week of preparation. He was having a nice relaxing time in the equine spa when a swallow flew straight into his forehead, and the horse leapt out and bashed his legs. He had missed a piece of work, so his carefully calibrated training schedule was interrupted.
The question marks hovered over all these lovely equine heads. I adore them all and could not choose between them. I went back and forth, like a confused metronome. But there, suddenly, was Dawn Approach, coming into the pre-parade ring, looking exactly like his old self: athletic, shining, utterly relaxed. That’s the fellow I know, I thought. On pure instinct, I put the house on him. I suddenly realised that I wanted him to redeem himself more than I could say.
I had a bit each-way on Toronado, for loyalty and love, and paced about with screaming nerves as the horses went into the stalls.
And they were off. Dawn Approach once again fought for his head. Poor Kevin Manning, who had had such a nightmare in the Derby, was fighting to settle his horse all over again. Manning is a quiet, interior jockey. He does not showboat. He is a man of very few words, and has said little about the whole debacle. He puts all his energy and talent into riding, not talking. I could not bear it if the same ghastly battle was going to be waged all over again.
But then, miraculously, as if Dawn Approach was remembering his true self, he dropped his head and settled into his big, rolling stride, balanced his strong body, and began to race. Now the story would be told. Would the Derby exertions and his early exuberance take its toll? Could he see it out?
He powered down the outside. Toronado, who had sat quietly out the back, came to join him. The duel which had not materialised in the Guineas looked as if it would finally be joined.
And then a horse on the inside jinked left, creating a disastrous domino effect. The horse outside him was hit, who crashed into Dawn Approach, who bumped into Toronado. Both the principles veered and lost their stride. This kind of thing can be enough to finish a challenge. It’s not just the loss of vital rhythm; that sort of barge at forty miles an hour can shock a horse into submission. But these two were made of doughty stuff. Kevin Manning and Richard Hughes got their fellows rolling again, and the two brave colts stuck their heads down and charged into the final furlong ahead of the rest, matching strides.
On the television, Simon Holt was shouting. In the room, I was shouting. My mother, a quiet polite person, suddenly yelled, at the top of her voice: COME ON KEVIN. Stanley the Dog went nuts.
The real Toronado, the stellar colt that the Hannons loved and believed in, was finally revealing himself. For a moment, he drew ahead. But Dawn Approach is not just brilliant, he is brave. He stuck out his neck, put his ears flat back, got a bullish, bugger off look in his eye, lengthened once more, and flashed past the line a nostril ahead.
The beautiful bold chestnut was redeemed. The risk paid off. Jim Bolger, one of the cleverest and canniest men ever to train a horse, was right. The crowd went wild. The drama rating ricocheted off the scale.
And that, my darlings, was, in the words of the song, a thrilling, absolutely chilling Ascot opening day.
I’m not sure we’ll see anything to match it.
Today, the ladies move into the spotlight. There is the Duke of Cambridge, for the older, polished fillies, and then the Queen Mary for the babies, raw two-year-olds who are still revealing their potential. There are so many I love that I can’t split them, and this will not be a betting day for me, but a watching for sheer love day.
If Chigun could win for Lady Cecil then I would expire from happiness, but she has the talented Duntle and Dank to vanquish.
I love little Oriel in the Queen Mary. She had no luck in running last time out and I’d adore to see her have her revenges.
And then there is the fascinating rematch between the progressive Al Kazeem and the old conqueror Camelot. Camelot, the Derby winner of last year, suffered a severe bout of colic over the winter and had to have an operation to save him. No one knows how much this takes out of a horse. He was thoroughly beaten by Al Kazeem last time out, and there is no scientific reason to see him reversing that form.
But again, Ballydoyle must be keeping the faith, to bring him back here, onto the highest stage of all. And there is almost nothing I love more than seeing a once-dominant horse reduced to underdog, with all the doubters and knockers out in force (last year’s three year olds were an average bunch; the Derby form does not add up to a hill of beans; etc, etc) and then, once again, having his day in the sun. So I’d love to see Camelot come back to his rampant best, and I’ll have a tiny loyalty bet from the heart.
Who knows? Day Two may give us drama again. It is Ascot. The Queen is there, with her match greys; there are crowds in improbable hats; there are Welsh Guards with trumpets. The best horses in the world are gathered. Anything could happen.