I had what they call the festival fever. I always do. Because for what other reason would someone who went to bed at 1am the previous evening be running through a checklist of competitions that they had made proper entries into at 5am, quietly showering in the bath so as not to bother the rest of the family, all of whom had to be at their various destinations by 9am.
Swoop? Check. British Fantasy Racing? Check. Telegraph Royal Ascot? Check. On The Other Hoof competition? A look back through my Facebook messages suggests that indeed, this is a check. After a quick shower, it’s back into my bedroom where the boom of the Racing Postcast quickly testes my reflexes in silencing my phone at 5.45 am. The dressing begins much in the style that any good jockey would; Underlayers on first, including the much vaunted undershirt, my saviour during the jumps season especially when exposed to the heights of Haldon Hill.
#TheBerkshireVenue in the hottest British month of the year is much less subject to the biting winds that freeze through to the bone, so no other special measures were taken. The previous night had seen a long debate about what shirt could be worn, with the waistcoat saved for this once a year occasion missing a three piece suit that mother Kedjanyi was certain lay in my dormant room in Bristol. We had settled on what I know as Sue Magnier pink, the colours so recognisable to proper racing fans and successful in the St James’s Palace, today’s feature race, with Excellent Art previously.
The choice of suit was brown, a choice harder to explain than Tom Queally’s tactics on Frankel when landing his first Royal Ascot win, although they did match nicely with a pair of brown slim shoes.
By now the time was seven and I was in the equivalent of the pre parade ring; The morning run-through with the parents where my afro was combed through to perfection with a brush and manner rather rougher than the one than the one used by the master of Ballydoyle, Aidan O’Brien. Breakfast, just the few slices of toast, went down with The Morning Line, one of give during the week. The sight of Nick Luck in a top hat did put the idea into my head to go and grab my small bowler from the drawer in my room, but sadly the combination was ill fitting. So too, for mother Kedjanyi, was a combination of alcohol and supermarket bag. A competitive spat followed, with Mother afraid of public judgement, not only on the train, but especially at #TheBerkshireVenue. The compromise suggested – that I carry my Kronenbourg and Guinness in a female oriented Burberry clutch, which would then have to be attached to my side during the day’s proceedings – was as unacceptable as sportswear at the venue, so I stepped into the car dry. This was fixed at Exeter St Davids – a quick matter of going to the Londis and coming back with four of Ireland’s finest. At least they were cold.
Onto the train. This presents one of the day’s greatest challenges, finding the correct seat. Correct has two definitions, depending on whether the ticketing system, about as reliable as Mad Moose in the starting stalls for CrossCountry, but generally consistent for First Great Western, has done its job. Mine hadn’t quite proven upto the task, so much like the riders in any of the week’s round course handicaps, was to gain a good proper position. Patience proved to be the key here, the small field allowing me to gain a railside spot next to the phone charger with the table. The next 40 minutes were spent finishing a piece about who the top jockey and trainer were likely to be in my eyes in which I made the first of many incorrect statements from me in the week: “He can be taken on”. That he I was referring to was a certain gentleman by the name of Ryan Lee Moore, whose exploits over the coming days would prove to be quite significant. I settled back into my seat and went through the A-Z of previews for the day, (At The Races to Timeform, in this case), trying to convince myself that agreement with my choices was a healthy choice.
At Taunton I was reading through the Racing Post when the second bright spark of the day came into life. We were at Taunton when I noticed the first fellow racegoer of the day, sitting across from me on the table seat, a standout in the busy crowd of new travellers. After some more mid race scrimmaging I ended up sitting across from the new racegoer, who was as excited for the day ahead as myself. After genial introductions and pleasantries were exchanged, we got to the matter at hand, racing. It turns out that Tiffany, decked out in Derrick Smith purple and a floating silvery hat, is an aficionado of the sport. “I have an ex racehorse and shares in a racehorse, along with a mare at home.” I reply that I don’t have any of the necessary qualities needed for being involved with horses, and she replies modestly about how “it’s only a small thing”, which leaves one wondering about what else there is going on in her life. That can wait until after we’ve discussed the day’s racing, however.
The easiest thing about the Queen Anne Stakes is to identify that it’s a corker. Picking the winner is much harder, although we come to a mutual agreement that the stiff mile is a negative for the hugely impressive Able Friend. I explain my love for Night of Thunder, boosted by the hope he’ll improve physically for his Newbury return and the stable’s excellent record in this race. We both discuss the worry of Toormore improving more than he does. Solow’s chances are obvious, although at such a short price he is is hardly my idea of the banker some would make him out to be. Much of the field is quickly eliminated on grounds of class, although Cougar Mountain is a horse I still have in my tracker, albeit one who’s proven disappointing since showing such promise last year.
The Coventry is a race that takes a good part of the journey, for we are at Castle Cary when we begin and at Frome when Tiffany and I have finished, with an each/way wager on Air Force Blue the suggestion after Round Two’s price collapse, although the options are many and varied.
The Kings’ Stand revolves around Sole Power for me, although I could not escape the impression that Shamal Wind made. Tiffany was a big fan of Muthmir, me of Mecca’s Angel, although she was to be withdrawn before the start. With a strong pace on, I suggested Jack Dexter as an outsider.
Tiffany, like many suggested that Gleneagles was the standout of the day and I was not keen to take him on back on this fast surface, although not at the price. My suggestion was Andre Fabre’s Make Believe on the basis that there was to be precious little pace in the race, just like the French Guineas, although I wa of the the opinion that it had been a flattering victory. He was the obvious bet without the leader in the market, wasn’t he? Consort of course came into calculations.
We had passed Newbury racecourse Tiffany was all ears on the Ascot Stakes, where Clondaw Warrior looked to be outstandingly handicapped based on his Irish flat form and Broxbourne, that most treasured of things, a true stayer at this stiffest of tracks, was also the subject of a good word. This of course, only left me against Lycida, Ray Ward, Fun Mac and Digeanta, so despite my confidence in the leniency of the handicapper, we were going into the unknown for sure.
The Windsor Castle Stakes was just as much of a lottery but the numbers to have onside were those from the leading race through the season weren’t they? The price on Steady Pace had evaporated although he had to be respected while we were yet to see the best of Areen. The hype horses had been barking about Soapy Aitken, but the obvious link was there; Round Two, the horse you got excited about if you possessed so much as a pulse, had beaten Washington DC in good style at the Curragh, a signal in itself for the 11/2 shot? Of course, one would have to be a fool not to recognize the each/way certainty signpointer of Jim Bolger running Ard San Aer here too. Day sorted. Game by the bollocks, as those of twitter fame will tell you.
It was time for the Swinley Bottom of my train journey, the crossover from Reading to Ascot. A test as undulating as it is brutal, with a testing but electronically aided rise to begin with and a steep descent soon afterwards, we had a finish made all the more difficult by several barriers. With freshness in the legs, me and my new raceday friend made it onto the shuttle to Ascot with ease.
Save the walk of excitement to #TheBerkshireVenue, I said good day to my travelling companion and walked through the sunny gates. The paddock resplendent as ever, the bandstand ready to accommodate thousands of dangers at the top of their voices post racing, the grandstand resplendent as ever, the lawn bars doing a heaving trade and the great and good making their way through. A circle of the parade ring quickly bought me towards a delightful group of ladies dressed in pink who went by the name of the Tootsie Pops. Standing out radiantly in a cluster near one of the media entrances to the parade ring. Putting their own rather nicer flavour on ‘All bout dat bass’, Megan Trainor’s one time body positive hit. Far be it from me to judge, but this new updated version was superior to the single that was on the airwaves.
In agreement with me was one of Twitter’s longest standing sports punting figures, Kev the Punter. Down from bonnie Scotland for the week’s festivities, Kev was in a fine mood, having savoured the delights of Berkshire the night beforehand in some style. Decked in a far more suitable shade of black than I was, we preceded to put the world to rights on a variety of issues while trading fancies for the day’s racing. He was most keen on the Gallic charge of Solow in the Queen Anne, as well as taking an outside chance on Goldream in the Kings’ Stand.
I headed into the concourse, and found a surprise waiting for me. Well, Gary Lineker was waiting to get into the Royal Enclosure most likely, but he did stop for a quick selfie along with his companion, a mot kind gesture and a fine start to the day. That couldn’t have been topped for many, but my Ascot was off to a faster start than a Wesley Ward juvenile. It was a darker shade of pink that stood out heading towards the concourse as On The Other Hoof Megafan ™ Hattie Fuller made her way into the course, and after a customary dash we did get to exchange pleasantries. She was yet another one of those ridin’ Solow for the Queen Anne, although it’s pleasing to see that she felt the same about Shamal Wind as I did and shared the wisdom of going two against the field for the Coventry (surely the only thing to be done) and gave potential a chance with the hugely promising Consort in the St James’s Palace, amongst others. She’d also had a long journey to get here, albeit it an eventful one.
On our rather shorter foray to the paddock, we found On The Other Hoof’s host, Luke Elder, topped and tailed to perfection with an ensemble that drew feeling of jealousy as intense as Dermot Weld is methodical. Working through the week for BeIN Sports – although with considerably less banter and Partidge style blogs – and Dubai Racing TV to boot – one had hoped that this wouldn’t be the only fleeting glance I would catch of him, although the odds were rather against me being able to spend the time I’d hoped with him through the week.
We were joined by Joe De Souza, a previous colleague while racemaking. He too had outdone me, as he’d had the foresight – and being without prescription glasses, shaded in Ray Bans. Joe, along with Kev, was more than happy with the price for Goldream in the Kings Stand, and one of the many who had Glenagles being unable to lose the St James’s Palace.
With the luxury of extra glasses unafforded, we chatted as the clock ticked down to the first. Luke was quickly called to his duties, leaving me time to stretch my legs. I know that Channel 4 are fond of setting up al fresco on the Bollinger Lawn, because as a human with eyes who cannot always afford to make it to #TheBerkshireVenue, I do have the pleasure of watching their coverage, and with plenty of time still in hand, I wandered over past the bottom of the concourse stairs – catching a glance of Paddy Power in fierce conversation over the phone – and took a stoll to see none other than everybody’s favourite fashionista cum bettor, Gok Wan, eyeing up shots and style tips over the day, along with pretty much all of the C4 fashion team). As kind as man as exists in fashion – even by today’s body confidence giving standards – Gok took the time to say hello and have one of his runners take a selfie with me, to much adulation from envious uni fashion students on my Facebook page. I bask in the lawn for a moment before deciding that it’s placepot time, as raceday heads ever closer.
The rounds have already started, with Joe kindly offering to start the proceedings. With this free drink I decided to plump for Stella’s new 4%, a light beer which slid down the pallet easily but had an odd finish, similar to that of a drifting horse straying off a true line.
The placepot is one of those things that can either seem like the most simple or the most complicated thing in the world beforehand, but on the first day of a Festival it is only to be attacked with confidence.
Hattie went for Solow and Toormore (Queen Anne) Air Force Blue and Round Two (Coventry), Pearl Secret, Sole Power and Shamal Wind (Kings’ Stand), Gleneagles and Consort (St James’s Palace), Statuatory and Elishpour (Ascot), and ended with Areen and Nepslurit in the Windsor Castle.
I went for Solow and Night of Thunder, copied her for the Coventry, did the same while I left out an outsider in the King’s Stand, and then did the same for the St James’s Palace, because great minds think alike, of course. Clondaw, Broxbourne, Washington DC and Ard San Aer would carry the mantle in the latter stages.
Hattie’s round. I changed up back to Guinness, a tactical choice with the Royal Procession approaching and precious little left in the bank account for proper betting – the kind of sums that Dave Nevison and Brian Gleeson screech about as the runners go down to post were miles out of my league, the kind of sum life changing to a student. Joe and Hattie charged onto the Stella with the ferocity of the runners chagrining down the straight course. I tracked this pace with heavy drags of stout to add to my already outrageous buzz.
When the favour was returned, we talked pace and tactics. There was universal agreement about a lack of an out and out gallop in the Queen Anne and the St James’s Palace, while I was hopeful about the gallop in the Kings’ Stand for my charge horses from the rear. We all knew that there’d be pace in the two juvenile contests, courtesy of the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Those questions went to the back of the mind after the end of the Royal Procession. The National Anthem evokes various amounts of pride in people, as does the Royal Family, but for this week of the year, both sit as well with me as the most patriotic Brits. A booming rendition of God Save Your Queen resonated through my every being as I took a spot to catch one of the many standout horses through the day. The Hong Kong Champion Able Friend, attended to by two members of his suitably decked entourage, carried a presence through his sheer size. Shaped like a heavyweight boxer, John Moore’s champion displayed tremendous girth, the kind of physical presence that an a-list, 90’s style heavyweight boxer would have displayed in his prime, lugging from side to side around the ring with the swagger that had him 1/5 on the Hong Kong Tote. Not being one for paddock judging, I took a look at the whole field, standing to admire Solow, before taking leave for the first time this week.
Having rushed to the Grandstand, the true nerves began to set in as I saw the runners go down to post, stable lads scurrying back to their positions past the post, the usual scrimmage for a good grandstand spot. I pick my spot at the furlong pole, in line with the big screen at the grandstand; It is evidently the thinking man’s choice, as there are a clutch of media men – those who will provoke just as much envy from me this week as any – are in a box, presumably commentating for the pleasure of those overseas.
And it’s finally here The runners come to full sight of the grandstand, and for the first time this week, we could see hear the roar of the crowds beginning to rise. Hughesy was asking Toormore for more, winding up in typical fashion. Solow was following behind while a quick glance to the big screen gave me a hugely exciting lift as Night of Thunder was duking it out with him. He hit the front. All was well with the world. Solow extended his advantage. I looked back to the big screen. Still second. I looked to the grandstand. He was retreating, the stride shortening. I glanced up at the big screen and Estoterique had come to battle Solow with Toormoore rallying and Cougar Mountain finding a late burst. The crowd screams the favourite home, as Guyon pulls out more and more from him to seal a French 1-2 with Cougar Mountain third. Night of Thunder finishes fifth, and the post race stomach sinking feeling begins, beaten only by the fact that Able Friend, awash with sweat, trailed in for a lonely sixth.
I made my way back to the paddock, to watch the hero return, the highlights playing over and over on the big screen, embedding the disappointment in my mind. It’s an odd feeling when one is empty as others are happy, for all that one could share in the delight of Maxime Guyon and Freddy Head – thinking to the future, as always, in the post race press conference.
Finnegan’s withdrawal in the Coventry turned quickly from disappointment to concern as it was announced that he’d been withdrawn with colic as I made my way to the stands, not particularly interested in the paddock shapes of the season’s leading juveniles. Spot sealed, we went again.
The Mark Johnston battalions were quickly visible, Beaverbrook and Ode To Evening, and that most frustrating of things happened; Groups. The runners merged back into the middle coming to the two pole, where it became apparent that Round Two was not dossing or finding a second gear for Kevin Manning. As he dropped out my heart sank, only to find itself again as the sight of Ryan Moore, like an assassin in black, drove himself to the front on Air Force Blue. However Buratino had been cantering in behind and the only surprise about the race was that he didn’t win by further upon reflection. However, quotes of 8/1 about Air Force Blue made for fine each/way comfort.
A quick meet up with Hattie and Joe – riding Solow after the first – bought some quick pre race reflections on the Queen Anne, most of them happy for all but me; how quickly 12/1 can go down. I’m boosted by my each/way place though, and look forward to the Kings’ Stand Stakes.
What a stupid idea that was. With a lack of all out competition for the lead – the final time was the fifth fastest, although I believe that was at least in some part thanks to the ground – coming off the pace proved to be more difficult than I had hoped as a back to from Goldream nosed out Medican Man and Muthmir with Pearl Secret and Sole Power making ground at the finish, but all too late. Upon watching the big screen replay, I also saw my big each/way flyer Jack Dexter making ground hand over fist, after which I drew up a petition to enforce a minimum speed limit for all 5 and 6 furlong races run at Ascot, measured by sectional timing of course.
The St James’s Palace is one of the best contests for purists in the whole year, and puts the grandstand to the best possible use as the best 3yo milers in Europe blast down the stretch. I’d been lucky enough to see Kingman spreadeagle the field last year and while I was not anticipating a similar performer to come out of the crop, I was hoping for a similar battle down the stretch. Make Believe was not a horse that had taken my imagination but a price of 8/11 for him to beat all but Gleneagles seemed reasonable for a French Guineas winner, especially one as impressive as he had been. There was no pace on either, all the better for Peslier to get to the front and start doing his thing. It appeared that was what he was going to do from the stalls and he turned in second. And then just like 90% of my horse today, to reverse a phrase that urban youth like to use, he “went from 100-0 real quick” as Gleneagles put on a fine show for the crowd and Latharnach took second from the front running Consort.
This was beginning to become a rather desperate day on the betting front. A phonecall from good friend AND photographer Michael Harris, suggesting that our regular meet take place at the unsaddling box, was a welcome relief, as was one of Ascot’s very reasonably priced – by Royal Week standards – hot dogs. This was savoured atop the parade ring as the quickfire answers of Aidan O’Brien handed the mantle and praise over to his son Joseph, who apparently is responsible for the day to day running of the bet 3yo miler in Europe.
We were now in last chance saloon territory. The Ascot Stakes was a race that had a shortlist of 10 when I originally started looking at it and that, if anything had grown after reading previews in the morning. Clondaw Warrior had been backed into 5/1, a short price even taking into account the fact that no runner is shorter than their SP in this day and age. But it as surely a good sign. I mean, what big race winner isn’t supported through the day and before the race? Broxbourne too was lurking on the outside of the market leaders. A clutch of runners came out to force the early pace, the thundering of hooves evident of a good gallop, key for my grand old stayer Broxbourne, with Clondaw Warrior at the rear of the pack. Martin Dywer may not be known as a mindreader but his pressing on Balios, getting the field strung out, was a positive sign. They came to the home turn in a pack, my fingers more crossed than a monument in Vatican City. And then the boom came. Ian Bartlett’ ‘s exclamatory instruction to “look to the right” prompted a big roar as Clondaw Warrior came down the outside, if not with a thundering run, then a hearty crackle. I counted down the places. 17th, 16th, 15th, 14th, 13th, 12th, 11th. Then the also rans started to retreat. A quick look for Broxbourne revealed no immediate progress, and all thought turned to the tussle at the front of the field. Ray Ward had every chance at the front of the field but was now being mown down by Richard Hughes on Fun Mac, with the two quickly sweeping past. The last furlong came. Ray went to the tiredness Ward. Elishpour and Noble Silk stuck on down the inside but this was all about the two upfront, duking it out. They traded punches like Marciano and Walcott, Dempsey and Firpo, Foreman and Lyle, Ali and Frazier, Tyson and Holyfield. Half a furlong to go. He’s in front, and may stretch away. Hughes has other ideas. Fun Mac grabs the lead back like a toddler through the ‘mine phrase’. Last 50 yards. To and forth. Crowd screaming. Lungs roaring. Hooves pounding. “Ryan got him home.” Bartlett declares, to the screams of the crowd and the personal delirium of yours truly. And thereforth, the curse was broken. I zig-zagged around the grandstand, not know what to do, declared my love for Ryan Lee Moore – and yes in full – before rushing through the concourse.
Michael, whose attention to detail could put Dermot Weld and Aidan O’Brien to shame, was waiting patiently at the post testing section in Car Park 1. This would require me to leave the course, so many thanks here go to the kindly doorman who let me out of the course. With time running down until the Windsor Castle, I went through the hoardes of onlookers leaving for the day and set out at a moderate gallop down the high street. I am always told “It’s just down the high street” when asking for direction, an answer which of course is annoyingly true at #TheBerkshireVenue given that Ascot dominates the high street itself. After going from left to right for what feels like a run longer than the Queen Alexandra Stakes, taking me through the media and jockeys carpark, I finally came to the right crossing. Horsedrawn carriages took groups back into town while the prime athletes of the day were crossing at, luckily for me, fairly regular intervals. After getting into the carpark, I was then confronted with the sight of a thousand car picnics at once as men in tailcoats, their lady companions quaffing champagne. Another quick phonecall, even with the battery this perilously low, was needed.
Go to the horses and you shall find Michael. The post testing enclosure quickly becomes here and the well dressed, tall gentleman with DSR in hand, was waiting patiently for my new hero Clondaw Warrior. He’d not come through yet, so he caught shots of Ray Ward and Elishpour while we chatted about the finer points of life, Dressage and family. Unsuccessful with one, but thankfully just getting along with the other, I listened to a cautionary tale of how even the finest showjumpers and cross country riders could lose a prominent position across eventing, a tale that would reap itself in a similar fashion for many connections across the week. We shared a hearty laugh and a look back upon the day, where he showed a freakishly talented headshot of Gleneagles. I headed back to the course through the far side enclosure, near where the Furlong Club is, and made my way back to the grandstand for the Windsor Castle.
My money was with Washington DC, and Ard San Aer, which was not a wise wager based on the performances of Round Two and Black Beach. My anxieties about this were eased greatly by seeing Timeform’s Calum Madell, who would quickly reveal had endured just as a tough a day as I had, alongside Joe and Hattie. He was with Soapy Aitken and Opal Tiara in the get out stakes, which was a “A proper get out stakes after today”. Hattie and Joe were with Areen, torpedoed in the National Stakes, and Nelsuprit, one of a growing number of horses unable to catch the Coventry Stakes winner.
Much of my shouting had been restrained to the last four furlongs of the day, but the raw speed of the Wesley Ward trained runners led me to exclaim to all and sundry at #TheBerkshireVenue to “LOOK AT THE YANK!” after just two of the five furlong. The runners streamed toward us, with the left eye catching the near side group, towed into proceedings by tte pink blur of Ruby Notion. There were a whole host of other runners, Washington DC chasing clear of the pack in my mind, a temporary illusion that was quickly dispelled by Ian Bartlett’s relentless listing of contenders. Areen. Steady Pace. Soapy Aitken, which gave Calum much needed new life. The final furlong. Washington DC was fighting off more threats than the American Government claims to, with Areen barging Ruby Notion to come to his quarters while Steady Pace close late and Soapy Aitken on the scene. The final 100 yards came. Areen got closer and closer, and the race quickly turned into the line v Washington DC, and just like in the movies, the Americans won.
I let out a booming roar for Ryan Moore, in line with many of the casual punters who were already merry enough for singing in the bandstand. Calum, who was to come back in fine style later in the week, took defeat well, a smile on his face despite several bad blows and exclamations of “the worst day.” He had to leave swiftly, sadly not to be seen for the rest of the week. Hattie’s each/way wager on Areen had come to fruition, leaving her happy although given how much alcohol we’d ingested, none of us was what we’d call sad – yet. Joe, who had landed a tidy punt on Gleneagles, was in a similar stats, although we both seemed to point out Hattie’s state happily, a tactic that at the time seemed fair. It would not be the last time I saw them this week, thankfully.
Calum had to rush off, taking the time to ask me when I’d next be on a racecourse that wasn’t Ascot. My wallet said that would be a long time away – there are plenty of working weeks between now and the Arc De Triomphe, along with a meeting with the man at SFE England.
With the day saved by Ryan Moore my post racing drink – a Kronenbourg, one of four from the fantastically good Tesco Express – was far better than I’d ever imagined it. After a squashed train to Reading, I sat down, and stretched my legs. Tiffany, who had backed two winners that I had advised, saw me, much to my delight. We nailed two spots on the 20.24 back to the WestCountry, and reminisced fondly upon a day that had left us both wanting more. Luckily for me, tomorrow, tomorrow I was to go again.