Many years ago, Dick Francis wrote that there are no fairy tale endings in racing. Yesterday at the Royal Meeting, a true racing fairy tale did come true.
Jennies Jewel, the nine-year-old mare from the small Irish yard, the winter horse most often seen slogging her way over the hurdles of Punchestown or Thurles in freezing weather, the mare who has played second fiddle to the stars from the big, powerful stables, stepped on to the grandest stage of all and had her moment in the sun.
It was a literal and metaphorical sunny moment. After glowering skies and torrential downpours, the sunshine finally arrived and cast its gentle beams down on the emerald turf.
Jarlath Fahey, the trainer of Jennies Jewel, has six horses in his yard. The Godolphin team was bringing eight times that many to this meeting alone. They had four horses running in the Ascot Stakes. Fahey was up against Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson and John Gosden and Dermot Weld, fresh from winning the Derby. His young jockey, Ronan Whelan, looks about fourteen but is in fact twenty-three. He is in the early days of his career, and he faced Ascot specialists, champion jockeys, tactical geniuses, old hands who were riding winners before he was born. Frankie Dettori won his first Ascot Stakes when Whelan was six years old.
Jennies Jewel did not know any of that. She did not know that she was in the presence of the Queen. She did not know that millionaires and billionaires were sending in their big guns against her. She did not know that the world was watching. She just knew that she felt pretty good about life. She preened in the paddock, looking splendid, cantered down to the post with the poise of a dressage diva, and set off in that long, long race with her dear ears pricked. Well, she seemed to be saying, this looks like fun.
The two humans did know it, but they were not daunted. ‘She’s so honest,’ they said. ‘She’s so straightforward. She just doesn’t know how to run a bad race.’ Whelan had so much faith in his mare that he sent her at once to the front and kept her there. Apparently, she does not like being crowded, so he decided to give her plenty of space and not get hustled and bustled in the twenty-strong field. He had a plan, and he was sticking to it.
I can’t tell you how difficult it is to go out in the lead in a top race and stay there. The rider has to judge the fractions to a second. The danger is that the horses in behind see a perfect target to aim at, and come and swamp you at the line. You can feel like a sitting duck.
Jennies Jewel might not be a championship horse in a champion stable, but she is genuine and brave and she stays all day. Every time the field came to her, she switched up a gear, giving a little bit more, so that soon she had the others strung out behind her like washing. She pointed her toe and pricked those charming ears and danced her way over Ascot’s storied turf. At the two furlong pole, I thought she was going to win by a street.
But then they started coming for her. One by the one, the horses who still had something to give mounted their challenge. She had found some of them out, and decent horses at the back had given up, but there were a few with petrol still in the tank. She fought off one, she fought off two, she fought off three. She’s going to hold on, I thought. She is as tough as teak and nothing can catch her.
But then, on the outside, picking up speed and storming home, came the terrifying flash of the Godolphin blue. Qewy was flying down the straight as if he had sprouted wings. I was screaming my head off. Stanley the Manly was barking hysterically. The commentator was roaring: ‘Jennies Jewel is looking vulnerable’. Oh no, I thought, she could not be caught now, not after all this, not in the dying strides, not in the shadow of the post.
For the first time, Jennies Jewel put her kind, bright ears back, flat to her head. You little tinker, she seemed to be saying to the impertinent Qewy, you are damn well not getting past me, not now, not today. Today, I am the queen and everyone else is my courtier and you can bugger off.
Qewy tried his best, but his best was not quite good enough. The courageous mare stretched out her neck, stuck out her head, found another starburst of heart and guts and sheer, cussed will to win, and flashed past the post, the winner by a neck.
The place went mad. I went mad. The mare lifted her head and surveyed the turf she had made her own and looked as calm and composed as if she had never had a doubt. ‘This is the stuff that dreams are made of,’ said Jarlath Fahey. ‘She’s all heart and determination. She really gives it her all.’
Ronan Whelan took his first winner at the Royal Meeting with happy aplomb. ‘What a tough mare she is,’ he said, beaming. ‘What a joy. It means a lot to me - I am best friends with Jarlath's daughter Keira, we went to school together and his yard is where I first went to ride out. Keira and I came racing together today and I said to her look at us, we were children and we went to school together and here we are at Royal Ascot. We can't win today can we? But luckily dreams can come true.’
When I looked through the form on the morning of the race, I kept trying to find something that could beat Jennies Jewel. I’ve loved her for a long time because she is so honest and brave. I’ve watched her scamper after Willie Mullins superstars, because she did not know that she was 33-1 up against the cream of the thoroughbred crop. She’s a real trier, and I love few things more in life than someone who really, really tries. As I looked at the other horses, I kept finding question marks – the trip, the ground, a long time off the track. Jennies Jewel had no question mark. I started to think that I could back her with my heart and my head. But all the same, this was a dream, and dreams surely can’t come true, can they?
Yes, they can.
Many wonderful things happened yesterday. The American supermare, Tepin, showed that she really is the empress of the world, beating the boys in the Queen Anne. The thrilling young colt Caravaggio laid down his marker for future glory. Adam Kirby burst into tears on national television after the smart sprinter Profitable fought off all comers. Galileo Gold confirmed his class, and the Dettori smile lit up the low skies.
But nothing, nothing gave me more joy than that bright, bonny mare leading them all from pillar to post in the Ascot Stakes, wearing her heart on her sleeve, her medals blazing on her chest, dauntless, determined, damn well not going to let anyone steal her moment of glory.