Four days of horseplay fit for a Queen

Kevin Darley, last year's champion jockey, looks forward to the Royal Ascot meeting which starts on Tuesday
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The Independent Online

Ascot has been a very lucky track for me. I had four Group winners there last year, two of them [Romantic Myth and Observatory] at the Royal meeting, which helped me towards my first jockeys' title.

But you have to have the horses. I haven't been to Royal Ascot every year because I've had rides elsewhere. Great as it is, there's no point riding a loser at Ascot if you can find a winner at a smaller meeting.

You start to think about the Royal meeting about a month beforehand, when the horses you are meant to be riding are starting to improve and are earmarked for certain races. Riding arrangements for Ascot tend to be made a long time before.

Last year it was quite scary as some of the northern jocks told me before I went down that I could come out of there as top rider. And I wasn't far away. I had a really good book of rides. It was 17 rides through the Royal meeting, whereas the previous year I had gone down there for the one day and just three rides.

Going to Ascot with a realistic chance in proper races gives you a tremendous buzz. When you are in at the top end that's what it is all about. I drove myself down to the meeting in my BMW. Generally you get there about an hour before, but, with a meeting like Ascot, you make it that little bit earlier.

It's a different buzz at the Royal meeting, it doesn't bear any resemblance to the day-to-day stuff. You've got jockeys coming in from abroad and the general atmosphere is a lot different.

Maybe on the first day you'd walk down the straight to the turn. And walk it again if there is any overnight rain. It's a funny track. I think it was Sir Gordon Richards who said that when you think it's time to go at Ascot you should count to 10. You need a lot of luck, as well as having the right horse, down the straight track. Once the races start to materialise, over the road from three and a half down, you get horses who have been up the front dropping back. That's when the trouble comes.

The round track is difficult because in spite of the fact that it is a galloping track there isn't a long way in the straight, about two and a half furlongs. Everything seems to happen just before the turn. The secret is to have your horse in the right position to get a clear run. It's a wide track but you can be made to look a fool by getting shut in.

It's very quiet at the starts considering the occasion, but the receptions when you come in are something different. You walk in through the old gates there and it's just a mass of people. It's a great thrill to know you've played a part in pulling the whole thing off. That you weren't just there for the day out.

There are two or three considerations you take before you go out to ride there. How you want to ride your horse, where the pace is going to come from and where the fancied horses are drawn. And general things like finding a horse to follow through the race.

As soon as caps are called to be put on you sit at your peg and go through the draw and how the race might be run. Refresh your mind as to how the whole thing might happen.

Ascot is unique. It's a different occasion from the moment you walk out of that weighing room. Everybody is dressed differently for a start. But once you get through them and have maybe signed an autograph or two you are focused on the race.

You feel that extra bit of tension pre-race but once you are actually on the horse that goes and you are focused on the race. You sense the nerves from the trainer and owner as well.

Romantic Myth made it particularly special for me last year because it was for a northern yard. She was the one that I had been particularly geared up for. From day one Romantic Myth had looked like being a Royal Ascot filly, but with fillies you never really know if they are going to make it. She took it all in her stride and I don't think there's been an easier Queen Mary winner in a long time.

John Gosden told me that when Observatory [the winner of the Jersey Stakes 12 months ago] was at Newmarket he always showed the potential of a top-class horse, but that he was overwilling, that he would bolt and give you too much. But he went to Manton and he was a totally different horse.

Ascot takes a lot out of horses, but, thankfully, it sent him the right way. He switched off in every race afterwards and he ended up beating Giant's Causeway in the QEII. The horse didn't get the recognition he deserved for that, but I think he'll prove this year that was no fluke. He's a serious horse.

Jimmy Lindley was telling me at the jockeys' challenge in Cyprus that in the old days the jocks would stay down for four or five days at Ascot and there would be time to recharge. Now there are the night meetings to break it up and it gets a bit hectic.

I've ridden in Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland and Cyprus over the winter and I can tell you there is no atmosphere like a British weighing room and all the jocks that have retired will tell you they miss that camaraderie more than the riding itself. Basically we see our colleagues more than we see our families because of the work schedule.

We have a special day at Royal Ascot. After the last you chill out and a tradition at the meeting is that whoever has ridden the big winner of the day gets the champagne in. But by the time we're allowed some the valets have had most of it, so you get a bit of the dregs.

After that it's back to the hotel. On the way out you pick up a paper and you're already scanning through the next day's runners. There are always more winners to find.

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