Animal out to rule in royal kingdom

The global challenge at Ascot this week is more diverse than ever, but the main events may still be regally crowned

Click to follow
The Independent Online

We're now used to sporting occasions having the rather silly notions of an official beer or an official snack, but not many adopt an official jeweller. Other than Royal Ascot, perhaps only the darts World Championship would be a contender. But then, this week's racing extravaganza in Berkshire is as much about style as substance. The best horses will be there, but sadly the best frocks will earn more hashtags.

It has long been thus and the Regency dandy Beau Brummel can be blamed; it was he who decreed that "men of elegance" should don "waisted black coats and white cravats, with pantaloons". Obsession with fashion snowballed thereafter and as early as 1864 a turf writer warned that Ascot should not be "entirely a question of new bonnets, elaborate toilettes and Fortnum & Mason".

But however peripheral to the main event, Ascot's traditions are part of what keeps it in global public consciousness and persuades those from overseas to take up the challenge on the track. This week, horses from eight nations are scheduled to compete, bringing a degree of now necessary international credibility to what is, with purses of £5m on offer, this country's richest fixture.

For hard-nosed bloodstock men, the pageantry is an add-on, the prize-money important enough. But the real payday would be the value of victory in a Group One race at Royal Ascot on the CV of a stallion. The meeting is a showcase, for example, for the global breeding potential of Animal Kingdom, who will start his second career in New South Wales and then Kentucky after contesting the Queen Anne Stakes tomorrow; for South African bloodlines, through sprint star Shea Shea in the King's Stand Stakes; and for the qualities of Fastnet Rock, the sire of the Australian raider Sea Siren in Saturday's Diamond Jubilee Stakes.

But what better environment in which to do business, and maybe make an indelible mark on a week that promises so much and will, for the first time, be on terrestrial television in its entirety? Any sport is nothing without its history and there is a plenitude of opportunities to weave a motif into Ascot's tapestry. Even if not quite as literally as Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV, who used to take her woolwork to the races.

In the meeting's opener, Animal Kingdom's quest against 12 rivals will be to become the first Kentucky Derby winner to win at the Royal meeting. He is only the fourth to make the journey from the States, after Reigh Count, Twenty Grand and most recently Omaha, who was beaten inches in the 1936 Gold Cup as a four-year-old. After a titanic head-to-head battle in the home straight, the judge's verdict went against the US Triple Crown hero in favour of the filly Quashed, but with no photo finish in those days there must be the suspicion it was a hometown decision. Animal Kingdom, trained by the Maryland-based Graham Motion, now may have an additional role, as avenger.

Like Animal Kingdom, who won the Dubai World Cup in March, Shea Shea comes on from Meydan, having taken the five-furlong Al Quoz Sprint in a blistering 56.41sec course record. He would be a first winner at the meeting for his trainer Mike de Kock and the rainbow nation. For the Aussies, though, victory at Royal Ascot is more commonplace than at, say, Lord's.

The relatively recent efforts to promote the meeting as an international festival in the image of those in Dubai and Hong Kong first bore fruit 10 years ago when Choisir won both the meeting's top sprints and blazed a trail of thunder from Down Under since followed by Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast and, most gloriously, Black Caviar last year.

At Royal Ascot, Derby winners at Epsom are historically not as rare as those from Churchill Downs but, in the modern era, rare enough. The last to win at the meeting was Royal Palace in 1968, since when only two, 1970 Gold Cup runner-up Blakeney and Sir Percy, have turned up. On Wednesday, Camelot is scheduled to try to follow in Royal Palace's hoofprints, and redeem his own reputation, in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes.

If milestones and performances have their place, so does emotion. And the recent death of Sir Henry Cecil, whose genius gave him a record 75 winners at the most competitive of fixtures, starting with Parthenon in 1970 in the Queen Alexandra Stakes and ending with Thomas Chippendale in the King Edward VII Stakes last year, means this week will lack nothing in poignancy. His widow, Lady Jane, has eight entries, the first being Tiger Cliff in tomorrow's Ascot Stakes. There will be a minute's silence for the great man before the Queen Anne Stakes, won so memorably by his superstar Frankel 12 months ago. And should Tom Queally bring Tiger Cliff – or any of his Warren Place stablemates, who include Frankel's half-sister Joyeuse on Friday – home in front, expect more than a minute's cheering.

Any such ovation would be tinged with much sadness. There would probably be a happier reception for a winner for Frankie Dettori, who returns to his favourite course tomorrow. But on Thursday comes the opportunity for uninhibited toppers-in-the-air on a special anniversary. In 1953 the Queen celebrated her Coronation month with the first of her 21 Royal Ascot winners, Choir Boy in the Hunt Cup. Sixty years on, the Sir Michael Stoute-trained filly Estimate carries her gold-braided purple and red silks as favourite for the Gold Cup. It could be another stitch in the weave of the sport and industry whose fascination is exemplified over five days in Berkshire.