So what was your excuse? For the Royal Ascot away-day. Some primary school teachers from Southend would have us believe that their collective attendance on what was euphemistically described as a "staff training day" in midweek, was all about "team building". As for His Honour Jeremy Roberts QC, it was something of a judge's jolly. Well, he had to adjourn his Old Bailey trial, didn't he, so that he could watch his horse run? The horse's name, incidentally, was Counsel's Opinion, who finished 12th of 20. Not so good judgement, I'm afraid m'lud.
It would be churlish to condemn them, or the near-300,000 others who have swarmed into this corner of the Queen's garden all week. It tells you something about the allure of this meeting, which, for all the social inequalities and idiosyncrasies, remains an institution that even a "modernising" government would tinker with at its peril. You could certainly comprehend the blackboard brigade and His Honour's determination to be there, particularly when, like yesterday, there were a couple of finishes which would have had the world's grouchiest equine-phobe on his feet.
If there was any bonding on display yesterday, it was mostly among the Australian contingent who witnessed an extraordinary performance by a chestnut colt, Choisir, who simply sets off in front, and, despite looking as if he must be overhauled, sticks his neck out and stays. And as Eamonn Andrews was prone to say, he's flown thousands of miles to be with you.
For the Ascot authorities, who had gone to considerable lengths to encourage competitors from abroad, it was a splendid vindication for their initiative. It produced in The Golden Jubilee Stakes, for the top sprinters, a classic duel between the globe-galloping Choisir, trained near Newcastle (the Aussie one) by a jovial Paul Perry and Airwave, the three-year-old filly who hails from her trainer Henry Candy's yard in Oxfordshire. The latter had a reputation and a short price to defend. The former had already surprised everyone with his victory in the King's Stand Stakes on Tuesday.
In the end, the champagne was all Perry's as his charge established a track record time, but the celebrations were echoed by those Ascot thinkers who had convinced the trainer that his participation was worthwhile. Admittedly, it has not been all success for the invaders. Kate Winslet, an America-trained racehorse rather than the actress, had to be withdrawn before the start of her race on Tuesday. And another contender from the USA, Morluc, brought here by splendidly-named trainer, Randy Morse, finished last in Choisir's race. Not every horse can adapt to its new environment as the remarkable wizard of Oz evidently does.
But that shouldn't defeat the principle. As Mark Johnston, the meeting's leading trainer, with five winners, enthused: "A bit of nationalism helps. It's great for the sport. Of course we want to beat them and show we're better than them. It's no good us congratulating ourselves about our horses' performances in isolation and convincing ourselves that we are good. We have to prove ourselves internationally, as they do in other sports.
"I particularly enjoy going to Germany and winning there. They get so much pleasure from running against us. I had one runner in the Breeders' Cup and I thought the atmosphere there was disappointing. The American punters had no idea that was an international competition, and they were just interested in which number had won. That's not what we want.
"But all credit to the Australians who have come here with this horse. They're a great nation at telling us how hard it's going to be when we go over there, and then knocking us down when exactly that happens. But this is the first time they've actually come over here and taken us on."
Johnston himself did not add to his impressive total yesterday, the culmination of his team's first four days' work, with victories coming in the Queen Mary Stakes (Attraction), Chesham Stakes (Pearl of Love), Norfolk Stakes (Russian Valour), King George V Stakes (Fantastic Love) and Queen's Vase (Shanty Star). His Zindabad, however, was third in the Hardwicke Stakes.
For the Scot who originally qualified as a vet at his local Glasgow University, but now trains no fewer than 180 flat horses at his base at Middleham in North Yorkshire, it is the reward for his diligence, and that of his wife Deidre, since he established himself as a trainer in 1987. It was in that first year that he watched Henry Cecil finish leading trainer at Royal Ascot with seven winners, and promised himself: "One day that could be me." He reflected yesterday: "I'd say it's quite easy to climb to a reasonable level. But after that it's extremely competitive."
He has won a Classic, the 2000 Guineas with Mister Baileys, but admits: "There are lots of ambitions unfulfilled, classics and big international races. They're the biggest draw now, like the Dubai World Cup. That's where the huge money is. And prize-money is where it was all about." He added: "I always said that I wanted to get to the top and if at any time I was failing to make any progress I'd pack it in and do something else." That his stables now accommodate such a number of horses confirms that progress has been constant. His preparation is meticulous. Like the best head-teacher, he claims to know the individual characteristics of every horse. What he doesn't know his staff do.
A perfect example of team-work. Perhaps the Southend teachers would benefit from a day out in Yorkshire.Reuse content