Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Royal Meeting.

In the end, because I gave myself permission not to write the blog, I wanted to write the blog. I am stupidly cussed.

I was thinking, as I rode this morning, getting the mare to do her dowager duchess dressage diva schtick, which she eventually did after some persuasion, about the things about Ascot that I shall miss and those I shan’t.

In the very old days, I used to see my father in the Irish Bar, usually with a tall elegant gentleman whom he would introduce as ‘my friend Bill.’ My friend Bill, charming, very funny, dry as a bone, and so self-deprecating it was as if he had done a course, turned out to be a man of some distinction. I only discovered much later that he had fought with the Royal Hussars in the Second World War.

Eventually Dad turned against Ascot. He grew tired of the hats and the heels and the cocktail party crowds, and he lost so much money there each year that he said it was cheaper to go on holiday, so he would firmly take himself off abroad.

For a long time, I agreed with him. Pushing through crowds who are all looking the wrong way (at each other rather than at the horses) became rather dispiriting. There is a yahoo element that is a little bit sad. But however crowded it becomes, however many absurd tottery shoes there are, and self-parodying braying hoorahs, and people who don’t know a pastern from a hock, through it all runs the enduring element: the finest thoroughbreds in the world. So I went back.

I had forgotten how beautiful Ascot was. The new stand is perfectly hideous, but it is well-laid out and convenient, and it cannot take away from that ravishing emerald sward that opens up in front of it like a history book. The history lives, out on that storied course. It was Queen Anne who started the Royal Meeting, because she wanted something nice and close to Windsor, and it is from Windsor that our own dear Queen comes, trotting down the straight mile in her open carriage with her match greys, an elegant echo of her ancestress. A band, usually someone like the Welsh Guards, strikes up, and all the gentlemen take their top hats off and wave them, with old school courtesy, at their monarch. I understand perfectly well all the arguments against a hereditary monarchy, in this day and age, but when I see that, I get chills up my spine, and I love the Queen and all who sail in her. No race meeting in the world has such a beginning.

Up where the old paddock was, there is now the pre-parade ring, a gentle calm before the storm, with ancient trees and quiet grass, and a perfect hidden place right at the end where one can observe the dazzling athletes, walking round like old dressage horses, before they are saddled. It’s as hushed as a church service, and the only time I’ve seen it mobbed was when Black Caviar flew over from Australia, and every single trainer, even the jumps boys, poured into the place to catch a glimpse of the super-mare. In my secret spot, away from the crowds, there is usually just me and another reminder of the old Ascot, a lady of venerable age and immense chic (and sensible shoes), with whom I made friends, both of us being wild about the fillies.

I can’t go this year, and I shall miss that moment of communion in the pre-parade ring, the extraordinary privilege of getting up close to that much equine beauty and talent. Television can’t quite capture the full majesty of the thoroughbred; it’s as if half a dimension is missing. Frankel, who brought me back to Ascot for his rampaging Queen Anne victory, was much more fine and delicate and handsome in life than he was in front of the cameras. It sounds odd, but there’s something too about getting the smell of them, and seeing the relationship they have with their lads and lasses, and being able to look into their deep eyes.

I’ll miss the wild roar that starts when a favourite hits the front and starts to motor, a soaring, swelling sound, so visceral that it runs right through your body, so overwhelming that it brings on magical thinking. In that Frankel Queen Anne, I quite genuinely wondered whether the roof would come off the stands.

I’ll miss running into my racing friends. I like seeing George Baker, with whom I used to go and watch Desert Orchid when we were in our raw twenties. He loved racing so much that he chucked in a perfectly respectable job and took out a training licence. When I see him, he twinkles at me, all those old memories still alive, and says, with some amazement: ‘I’m living the dream.’ I’ll miss going to see the horses with James and Jacko Fanshawe. James Fanshawe is not a trainer that many people outside racing have ever heard of, he is so modest and low-key, but he’s a flat specialist who has won two Champion Hurdles. Most National Hunt trainers have not won one Champion Hurdle, so for a flat trainer to win two is something out of the common. He’s a horseman to his bones, and watching him assess a young sprinter is one of my all-time great pleasures. (His brother sold me the red mare, so the Fanshawe family is very, very high in my hall of fame.)

I won’t miss the frantic dash to the train and the panicky picking up of the tickets and the failure to find a seat and the rather tiring uphill walk to the course. I won’t miss the crowds and the queuing and having to canter my way through the throng in my sensible boots to see my equine heroines and heroes, and getting stuck with a dead bore just when I want to go and see a Best Beloved in the paddock. I’ll miss my sneaky half pints of ice-cold Guinness and making friends with the random American military gentlemen who seem to favour the Guinness bar. (I love a bit of gold braid.) I’ll miss the august old gents in their special uniforms who guard the entrance to the Royal Enclosure. I’ll miss the atmosphere.

But the television is a good show. Channel Four Racing, after a rocky start with its new team, have settled down into harness now, and Nick Luck with his sharp tailoring and his sense of humour and his enthusiasm has grown into an outstanding broadcaster. I can watch the replays and see clearly the pattern of each race. I don’t get that on the course, because my race glasses are usually shaking too much. I’ll still have a great shout, and Stanley the Dog will bark and jump up and down, and I’ve even shipped it in a bit of Guinness, which is very, very naughty on a school day.

It’s all power and glory. The best in the world, up against the best in the world. They are flying in from Australia, America, France, Ireland, Hong Kong and Japan. All those hopes and dreams, all that thought and care, all that breeding and brilliance will be out there, where the flying hooves thunder down the track. It really is like Christmas and Easter.
Here is the old lady, many of whose cousins will be running today, very happy that she is no longer required to do all that galloping at top speed nonsense:

16 June 2 3456x5184

I’m hoping that the cream will rise to the top today, and that Solow and Gleneagles do the business. If my old friend Sole Power can weave his way through the field with his thrilling late run, I shall cry tears of joy. And my each-way bet is the very lovely Buratino , a juvenile who is more exposed than his rivals, but with such a turn of foot that I hope he might see them off.
Be lucky, my darlings.


  1. There IS "something" about being there -- the smells, yes, and also feeling the vibrations from the horses as they thunder around the track....Magic.

  2. Thank you for saying what became of the old paddock, as I wondered, not having been back to Ascot since it was made over. I don't see much familiar now except the royal procession and the quality of the horses. Damn, tearing up now at the memory of a lovely Irish filly (eons ago) named Katies.

    Congratulations on your very successful day. A random thought: will be very different to watch the royal procession when it is not led by a queen who lives and breathes horses. So special now.


  3. Ascot's loss, when the old queen dies, will be Chelsea Flower Show's gain, maybe, if and when the P of W is King Charles.


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