At this very moment in fields across Britain and, no doubt, the world, four and a half tonnes of pink and green strawberries are quietly turning red in the early summer sunshine, blissfully unaware of what fate has in store for them. Much the same goes for 6,000 lobsters currently minding their own business on a sea bed somewhere, not to mention a grand total of 5.6 tonnes of salmon but, in little more than a week's time, all will have played their part in the Royal meeting at Ascot, the grandest festival of horse racing which the sport has to offer.
Cheltenham has less formality and fewer reminders of a time when the ruling class ruled and the rest of us knew our place. Yet even that great meeting cannot quite match the spectacle of the Royal Hunt Cup, or the sense of history which attends the Gold Cup on Ladies' Day. At Ascot yesterday, as the course held its annual press call with five leading trainers, the hanging baskets were in full bloom and, though there has been no rain in this corner of Berkshire for almost a month, the track, the winners' enclosure and the Royal Enclosure lawn were all a lush, dark green. Tuesday's opening day cannot come soon enough.
Oddly, there are still a few Grandstand tickets left for that first afternoon, although all will no doubt find an expectant owner before long. The remaining three days have long since sold out both in the Royal and Grandstand enclosures, and so too the Silver Ring on Thursday, Gold Cup day. The Silver Ring will still be open to pay-on-the-day punters for £15 on other days, while for just £3, there is the Course enclosure in the middle of the course, where anyone can turn up on any day, and no-one cares what you're wearing.
There were 72,000 people at Ascot on Gold Cup day last year, and almost a quarter of a million over the course of the week and, given that there is now a Group One event every day, and no end of Group Twos and Threes and fiercely-contested handicaps, there will surely be no drop-off this time around. While Gold Cup day is always the most popular for historical reasons, many observers believe that the Prince Of Wales's Stakes, the Group One centrepiece of the second afternoon, may well be the finest race of the meeting, and John Gosden, the trainer of Observatory, is certainly one of them.
Observatory won the seven-furlong Jersey Stakes at last year's Royal meeting and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes over a mile at Ascot last September. Next Wednesday's race will be over another two furlongs still, but Gosden was confident yesterday that his colt will last home.
"Observatory has won over one mile, one and a half furlongs and I am sure he will stay" the trainer said. "When he beat Giant's Causeway here over a mile he took the whole of the straight to get there. When Dubai Millennium won the race last year, there wasn't any real depth, but this year we have a pretty vintage crop and to me it looks the race of the week. With Fantastic Light, Hightori and Kalanisi it is as good an older horse race as you would find anywhere in the world."
Fantastic Light, who won the Tattersalls Gold Cup for Godolphin at The Curragh last month, will again have Give The Slip, last year's Ebor winner, in the race as a pacemaker next week. "He needs a good pace at a mile and a quarter and Give The Slip does a good job," Saeed bin Suroor, his trainer, said yesterday. "Fantastic Light is a brave horse and always gives his best. He worked yesterday with Give The Slip and worked really good, winning by five lengths."
Suroor also admitted yesterday that he cannot be sure whether Marienbard, the Yorkshire Cup winner and the joint-favourite for the Gold Cup, will see out the two-and-a-half mile trip. "We ran him at York to see if he was good enough for the Gold Cup and we were happy with him," the trainer said. "The way he works and trains he can stay the trip but it is a new distance for him."
There was one supplementary entry yesterday for the St James's Palace Stakes on Tuesday, when Andre Fabre's Vahorimix was added to the race at a cost of £20,000. He will renew rivalry with Godolphin's Noverre, who beat him a head in the French 2,000 Guineas, while Black Minnaloushe, the Irish 2,000 Guineas winner, is also expected to be in the field.
Godolphin, who have had at least one winner at every Royal meeting since 1990, will also look forward to a big run from Mutafaweq in the Hardwicke, while Gosden expects good performances from Al Ihsas (Jersey), Crystal Music (Coronation Stakes) and Valentino (Queen Anne). Yet as he admitted yesterday, "if you get your horses here in good form and condition and the ground's good too, that's what you want. After that, it's roll the dice."Reuse content