On this day, four years ago, there were two fairy tales at the Royal Meeting. There were two stories of such high emotion, such blazing glory, such impossible odds that I hardly have words to describe them. I am, however, all about words, so in my instinctive way, I wrote them down. I’m so glad I did. They are stories I never want to forget. Best of all, in a lovely act of synchronicity, they are stories of two great fillies and two great women.
(For my non-racing readers, Sir Henry Cecil, one of the greatest and most beloved of all trainers, had died not long before the meeting. His widow had taken over his licence and she and the team at Warren Place were keeping the string going even as they dealt with their grief. It was a time of keen loss for the whole racing world.)
On the 21st of June 2013, this is what I wrote:
All meeting, there were two things I quietly, almost secretly, dreamed might happen. They were in the hardly-dare-hope category. Then, after all the drama of the week so far, they suddenly both happened, as if they had been inevitable all along.
Yesterday morning, with my forensic betting hat on, I had picked Lady Cecil’s nice filly Riposte for the Ribblesdale, because she was the only one of the principles who had winning form over the distance. Ascot is a deceptively testing course. From a distance, on the television cameras, it looks gorgeously smooth and flat, but in fact it has nuanced undulations and a stiff uphill climb.
Trainers are not idiots. They do not want to be disgraced on this biggest of stages. They will not send horses here if they think they will not stay. But still, that little D by the side of Riposte flashed at me like a beacon.
I took eights first thing, for a paltry amount. I was still flinty and scientific, admitting doubts; the filly was stepping up in class, she had something to prove. I was damn well not going to let my heart rule everything.
I’ve been watching the Cecil horses all week, hoping and hoping, longing for the memory of Sir Henry to set the crowd alight. There was a close call with Tiger Cliff, but, as the days went on, I started to resist the siren song. Dick Francis once wrote that there are no fairy tales in racing. I sternly bashed down the fired expectations.
But as the off grew closer, even as Winsili wavered and then hardened as the favourite, I decided that my lovely Riposte would give the best riposte of all. I threw last-minute cash at her, in the way I often do, as if the horse herself would detect my lack of loyalty if I ratted.
I did not say any of this out loud. I was watching with my mother and I did not want to raise the old lady’s hopes. I said, diffidently: ‘I quite like the look of this Riposte.’ And that was all.
As the stalls smacked open and Simon Holt began his call, Riposte imitated her close relation Frankel in his last start on this very course.
She fell out of the stalls, completely missing the break. Oh, well, I thought, privately, that’s that. It’s very difficult to remedy that lost start. Tom Queally had to roust her along without setting her alight. For a moment, as he pushed her into the race, it looked as if she might boil over. But then the good girl came back to herself and settled into her running. She wasl on the outside, towards the back, but she had found her rhythm.
At half way, she had settled and was running well within herself. But there were still only two horses behind her. Then Queally, cleverly, patiently, started to creep into the race, his sympathetic hands nursing his girl along.
And then, at about two out, he did something radical, even rash. He gave Riposte a great push, asking for a huge burst of speed. She put on her sprinting shoes, passed five horses in a matter of seconds, and hit the front. In a flash, she was out on her own; nothing in front of her but a wide, searching sward of green.
Would she last up that testing incline? Would that intense effort have taken too much out of her? Would she get lonely out in front, all on her own?
All these questions muddled through my mind. But the lovely filly had every answer. She never deviated, running straight and true to the line under only hands and heels, spread-eagling her field.
Without at all meaning to, I burst into tears. I do this in big races in which I am absurdly emotionally invested. I did it for Desert Orchid, all those years ago, when he defied a mud-splattered afternoon and fought his way up the murderous Cheltenham hill, running on fumes and guts and glory. I did it for Kauto Star’s great comeback at Haydock on that dour autumn day, when everyone said he was finished. I did it for Frankel at York, when people were not quite sure if the wonder colt would see out the mile and two.
It is what my old Irish godmother describes, vividly, as ‘tears coming out at right angles’. I don’t think I’d realised until that moment how much emotion I had invested in that good filly, how the memories of Sir Henry rode on her honest back, how the thought of that grieving team at Warren Place had infected my racing spirit.
Normally, when a jockey passes the post in front at the Royal Meeting, there is the instant flashing smile of victory. It is the dream of every rider on the flat to win here. But Tom Queally did not smile.
He did that thing with his mouth that you do when you are fighting tears. The muscles tightened and the corners turned down and the face set. He is not a man of public emotion. One sensed that if he had been alone he would have cried like a baby. As it was, he was fighting to hold it together on this most public of stages.
He put his hand out and ran it over Riposte’s ear, with the exact gentle touch that Sir Henry had for his fillies. As the camera angle shifted, the jockey’s back was slumped and head bowed, as if in defeat.
The microphone was stuck in his face, and he said, on a long breath: ‘It’s been a tough, tough week, and I know a lot of people are struggling. But it’s great she did as well as she did and I’m sure Henry’s looking down and helping us.’
Queally had that raw, disbelieving look on his face that I remember so well from when my father died. The lovely victory must have brought it all back for him. Sir Henry’s death was not a surprise; he had been ill for years. But with men like that, impossible thinking sets in. You believe they will defy the docs and live forever. I had a message from someone who lives in Newmarket only today, saying she still could not believe that she would walk down the street and not see him. Men like that are institutions, stitched into the life of the place they embody. Death seems stupid and impossible.
The camera pulled back to show the stalwart travelling head lad, his face bleak as granite. The young lass, leading in her conquering heroine, dissolved into streaming tears.
Then came the most poignant moment of all. Lady Cecil, who has taken over the licence from her late husband, rushed forward in the winner’s enclosure, going straight for Queally. The two hugged, and in that hard embrace you could see all the tension that comes with great loss. There must have been so many moments on the Heath when it was the three of them, so many breakfasts, so many post-mortems, of triumph or disappointment. There is a thing, when you lose someone, of wanting the person who understands the most. In that winner’s circle, at Ascot, with the colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah shining like a beacon just as they had in Frankel’s last, mighty victory, I think that for Lady Cecil Tom Queally understood the most.
At this stage, Lady Cecil’s face had the raw, undefended look of someone who has suffered tearing loss. But she was in front of the world. She had to step up to the microphone. Clare Balding, with every inch of her sensitivity and professionalism, conducted what must have been one of the hardest interviews of her career. She knew all these people; she had grown up with them; there was no disinterested distance for her. But she was on national television; she had to ask the questions.
Looking back on it now, I am amazed that Lady Cecil did not just walk away. Connections who have nothing like her excuse have turned from the microphone; I’ve watched famous owners ruthlessly snub post-race interviewers. And yet, in one of the most graceful acts I have seen on a racecourse, she generously offered herself, in all her loss, squaring her shoulders and lifting her face up in its naked emotion.
She looked up to the sky, gathered a faltering smile, and said: ‘First of all, that was for Henry.’
There was a terrible pause.
‘For the Prince, and for all the staff at Warren Place.’
Then she rallied. ‘I don’t really have the words to say what I am feeling.’
Bugger everything, I thought; there are no words. And yet this tremendous woman kept on. ‘He was just adored, by so many people. I mean, people who’ve never met him, just loved him. And...’ She shook her head, running out of words. ‘What can I say?’
Another sympathetic question from Balding; another brave answer.
‘We hardly dared dream that we would have a winner. I just thought, God he would have been relishing this. Everyone knows how he loves Ascot.’
And there it was, the present tense. The most revealing, moving moment of all; the marker that the master of Warren Place is not yet gone in the minds and hearts of those who loved him.
She tailed off, and Clare Balding moved in to rescue her. ‘You need say nothing more, you’ve been so brave, so strong. Well done.’
But Lady Cecil was not finished. Like her lovely, fighting filly, she took another run at it. ‘Keeping busy is what’s keeping us all going. If we had nothing to do, I think we’d all fall to bits.’
Clare Balding, the seasoned pro, faltered herself, in the midst of that boiling cauldron of emotion. Suddenly hardly able to get her own words out, she said, almost in a whisper: ‘It’s the best result of all.’
And the sweetest thing was that the cameras then cut to Riposte, being led away, her intelligent ears pricked, her kind eye gleaming and bright, her head held high. The good ones, the competitive ones, seem to know when they have won. Tom Queally said once of Frankel that as the colt seasoned and grew in stature, he began to understand that the noise and acclamation which should really alarm a flight animal was in fact a homage. ‘He soaked it all up; he knew it was for him,’ Queally said after York.
Riposte is not in that legendary category. She is a nice filly, with a lovely talent and a willing attitude; she may rise to some heights, but perhaps she will not go down in history like her imperious relation. But all the same, in that moment, she had a little look of eagles in her fine eye.
There were many things for which Sir Henry Cecil was famous. One of them was being good with fillies. Wining the Oaks eight times was not a fluke. Bizarrely, there is sexism in the horse world just as there is in the human. People talk of fillies and mares being difficult, unpredictable, hormonal. Mare-ish is a horrid, lazy insult, casually hurled. But I think what Henry Cecil knew is what anyone who has loved and worked with a female equine carries in their heart. If you are gentle and kind and patient with a filly, she will give you everything, every last inch of loyalty and trust and fighting spirit. So it was intensely appropriate that in this dramatic week, in this Royal Meeting which started with a minute of silence for its native son, it was one of his girls who came good for the old fellow.
As the emotion subsided, there was the rushing realisation that this was not yet the end of the drama of this extraordinary day. The very next race was the Gold Cup, the showpiece of the week. It is two and a half miles, a colossal distance. Most flat horses are simply not bred to run this far. There was a huge field, although because of the fast ground runners were dropping like flies. The promising High Jinx was out; Dermot Weld decided he could not risk the delicate legs of Rite of Passage. At the top of the market, driven there by a combination of sentiment and hope, was the ravishing bay filly, Estimate.
Estimate belongs to the Queen. Last June, I was there to watch her win the Queen’s Vase, to extravagant emotion, in the jubilee year. I fell in love with her then and I have followed her ever since. She is a lightly-built filly; she does not look like a mighty stayer. But she has a dreamy temperament and the will to win, and she is improving all the time.
On paper, she had something to find. The trip was four whole furlongs into the unknown; on strict official ratings, she was well down the field of fourteen. She would have to produce a rampant career best.
As I had with Riposte, I resisted my stupid soft heart, and tried to find the rivals who would bring her low. Simenon was the danger, I decided, with proven form at course and distance, and the wizard that is Willie Mullins in charge.
But again, as the start neared, I gave in to the heart, and bashed all my money on the little mare. Yes, she was up against the boys; yes, it was a fairy tale too far; yes, she had something to find on the book. But blast it, I wanted her to win more than anything, and if anything could find that little bit extra for the big occasion, she could.
She is such a kind and genuine horse. Channel Four showed a clip of her in her stable, and she was as dopey and dreamy and affectionate as a dear old donkey, nuzzling up to her lass, making silly faces, soaking up the love of her faithful human. It made me fall more in love with her than ever. Bugger the book I thought; this is my girl.
And I switch into the present tense, because it feels in my head as if the drama is happening all over again.
As Estimate goes round the paddock, with her owner watching intently, she shows all of her big race temperament. On a warm day, there is not a hint of sweat on her bay flanks. Then, suddenly, without in any way becoming flighty or over-wrought, she gives two little bucks. They are balanced perfectly on the fulcrum of exuberance and determination. They sketch an arching parabola of intent. My mother and I look at each other, hope rising in our eyes.
‘She’s ready,’ we say to each other, in trembling voices. ‘Oh yes. She is ready.’
The late cash comes pouring in, perhaps from the seasoned paddock watchers, perhaps from the sentimental royalists. Estimate shortens in to 7-2, veering violently from sixes this morning. I add my cash to the party. I’ve loved this horse for a long time; I damned if I am going to let my old loyalties lapse. I can see all the doubts for what they are. But my money must be where my mouth is.
Estimate comes out onto the course, on her own. She canters down to the start with her head high and her ears pricked, collected and balanced, looking around her as if taking in every inch of the fine spectacle. She has a little white snip on her dear nose, and, in my fevered mind, it starts to blaze like a flashing sign.
And, they are off.
The sultry summer’s day turns misty, and through a sudden murk, Estimate’s white flash shows brightly. She takes up a good position, one off the rail, four lengths off the pace. Ryan Moore lets her down and gets her beautifully settled, so her natural rhythm can assert itself. Her long, narrow ears go back and forth in time with her hoofbeats.
Past the packed stands they go. The faint sounds of whistles and applause can be heard, before they are off again into the country, where the race will begin to unfold.
The massive white-faced German raider is running strongly in front, tracked by the two staying stars, Colour Vision and Saddler’s Rock. Estimate is tidily tucked in behind. Into Swinley Bottom, she is perhaps the most well-balanced of the entire field, happy in her dancing rhythm.
Four out, the field bunches up. ‘There is Estimate,’ says Simon Holt, his voice rising, ‘with every chance.’
Jockeys are starting to crouch lower now, not yet kicking on, but indicating an increased momentum. Ryan Moore is rocking Estimate gently into a quicker pace. Colour Vision, who won this last year but has been disastrously out of form ever since, is suddenly full of running. The brilliant Johnny Murtagh is releasing Saddler’s Rock. Simenon is unleashing a withering run down the outside. In the midst of this, in a small pocket of her own, Estimate is quietly running her race.
And then Moore asks the question, after over two miles of searching turf, and Estimate answers. The answer is: Yes.
She surges forwards, chasing the mighty grey in the Godolphin colours. She gets past him, inch by inch, but the race is not done. Two big fellas come charging at her, down the outside; the Irish Simenon, the French Top Trip.
All three horses are now in full cry. They are so close together you could not put a cigarette paper between them. For a horrible moment, I think that the slip of a girl will be swallowed up by the roaring boys.
At home, in our house, with the indigo Scottish hills visible though the window and the bluebirds questing at the window, everything erupts. I am on my feet, bawling at the top of my voice. My old mum, who has seen Nijinsky and Mill Reef and the Brigadier, is shouting: ‘Come on, Ryan’. Stanley the Dog, who clearly believes we have suffered some kind of catastrophic event, is howling and jumping and barking his head off. Only the sensible Stepfather sits silent, riveted to the action, a small oasis of calm in the storm.
I look away, unable to watch, convinced the brave filly is beat. It’s too much to ask; it’s too much to hope. She’s never been anywhere near this distance before; only the very best fillies are capable of beating the colts. She’ll fade, fold up, be done on the line.
But I turn back, and there she is, with her little head stuck out, her glorious stride lengthening not shortening, every atom in her body speaking of her will to win. I gather one last stupid howl of hope.
GO ON GO ON GO ON, I shout, ignoring the family, ignoring the leaping dog, ignoring everything except the fierce battle of those last, terrifying strides.
Simenon’s determined head comes up to Estimate’s shoulder, the great momentum of his powerful quarters pushing him forward. Will the bloody finishing post never come?
Somehow, somehow, the good filly keeps going. It is as if she is saying to the others: no, boys, not today. Today is my day.
And there, at last, is the line, and she has a precious neck in hand, and Ryan Moore is crouched up almost at her ears, carrying her over the finish.
‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT,’ I shout.
As if my entire family is deaf, I yell again: ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.’
We hug, we jump in the air, we weep idiot tears of joy.
It’s just a horse. It’s just an old lady in a lilac dress. It’s just a race.
On any rational level, it is hard to know which is more absurd: the racing of horses or the hereditary monarchy. But humans are not rational animals. Even in the most empirical of us, the magical thinking sometimes overwhelms. I can’t help it: I love the Queen. I love her for her dignity and restraint and good old British stoicism. I love Estimate, for her sweetness and strength and bloody-minded determination not to give up. I swear she had a Fuck You Boys look in her eye as she flashed past the post. And I love racing, where these beautiful herd animals may show all their mighty, fighting qualities.
And so I shouted and cried and leapt in the air, even though I am forty-six years old and I should know better.
The filly came back to the paddock, the Queen walked down to greet her, the crowd went insane. People did not know what to do with themselves. The little golden cup was presented, and the Queen, who really has been around the block more than most, who has been coming to Ascot since the fifties, who knows all about the dreams of horses not quite coming true, stared at it as if she had never seen it before. She looked as delighted and disbelieving as a child.
And that, my darlings, was Ladies’ Day at Ascot, when four tremendous females, two equine and two human, wrote a story that will stay stitched into the memory of everyone lucky enough to have witnessed it.
PS. I can't show you pictures of Estimate and Riposte, for copyright reasons. Today's photograph is of my own little dancing thoroughbreds, not as talented on the racecourse as those mighty girls, but as much of a champion in my own heart.