Chris McGrath: Ascot faces awkward question of how to come to terms with modern class divide
Saturday 14 June 2008
Between Epsom last Saturday and Royal Ascot on Tuesday, this is one of those racing weekends that seems to snag silk on barbed wire. But some may yet find it apt that the favourite for the day's biggest prize should happen to be called Ancien Regime.
For two opposing schools may share an uncomfortable sense of incongruity about the pageant at Ascot next week. To one, the divisions traditionally ornamented there nowadays seem ridiculous. To the other, the new Ascot, with its futuristic grandstand and equivocal demarcations, betrays a gorgeous heritage. Both sides will agree that something has changed, either on a national or a local scale; that the social conditions of the ancien regime, for better or worse, no longer apply.
And that is the dilemma for Ascot's management, as they seek to staunch gruesome losses at the turnstiles last year. They obviously have to honour the legacy that gave Ascot a defining role in the British summer. But equally they must not just reflect change, but anticipate it – as they did, indeed, with their sumptuous new grandstand. The notorious problems with its sightlines somewhat weaken the description "forward-looking"; but at least they aspire to being avant-garde, rather than ancien régime.
For now they must persevere along an awkward road. In 2007, they haemorrhaged 12 per cent of the aggregate five-day gate for the previous year, the first since the redevelopment: down from 312,700 to 274,970.
Undoubtedly they suffered from a rather intolerant press reaction to the 2006 meeting, which they did very well to stage at all. While they met an ambitious schedule with a confidence that must have shamed those supervising the reconstruction of Wembley, at much the same time, it was pretty precarious. Last year came the backlash, and it must be hoped that a perceived decline does not develop a life of its own.
For the reality is that Ascot's greatest problems are not of its own making. Instead they arise from being woven so deeply into the nation's cultural fabric. You can still, no doubt, see elements of the old, discredited Britain there; and you can also see modern Britain there, too, brash and morally insensate – in the limousine park, or in the belching herd nudging towards the railway station after racing, like cattle to market. Ascot's problem is also Britain's. How do you dismantle the class system, and still do things with class?
Bounty on the fast track to sprint glory
Enough of the phonies. How about the ponies? And, specifically, how about this Ancien Regime?
First of all, credit where it is due. The £100,000 Betfair Sprint Handicap at York is worth more than most of the handicaps at Royal Ascot, which remain scrupulously – or recklessly – unsponsored. And Timeform Charity Day will once again have the Knavesmire teeming.
Ancien Regime owes his status to two runs at Newmarket last month: the first radiantly suggested that he needed to be dropped from seven furlongs to six; and the second confirmed as much, as he quickened decisively before hanging left, rallying to win cosily. His discerning trainer entered him for no less a race than the Golden Jubilee Stakes next Saturday, suggesting that even an 8lb higher mark would not stem his progress. At the odds, however, the idea of him again hanging across the track from stall 17 is an alarming one. Admittedly there is a surprising lack of blatantly progressive types in opposition, and a chance is accordingly taken with VICTORIAN BOUNTY (3.25) at 33-1.
He beat another of the other leading fancies today, Fathsta, on level terms at Salisbury before running sixth behind Ancien Regime at Newmarket. Fathsta has since put up two excellent displays over an extra furlong, latterly when second in a Listed race at Epsom last weekend, but Victorian Bounty is all about pace and can confirm the Salisbury form on 2lb better terms. As for that defeat at Newmarket, he is 8lb better off with Ancien Regime and will be much more at home on this track, which tends to favour speed. The icing on the cake would be rain, because he might also have found conditions at Newmarket a little too firm.
Ask The Butler (2.15) looks an improved horse for his new stable and will take a lot of beating in the opener, while Inspector Clouseau (4.0) might just make his experience count against the two unexposed top weights.
Channel 4 also has cameras at Sandown, where Corrybrough (3.40) i s unmistakably top of the bill. Handled with typical patience by his trainer, Henry Candy, he looks destined for the top sprints and can outclass his rivals here.
Big steroids debate casts giant shadow
This has surely been one of the more peevish weeks in racing history. First, the Derby: a magnificent affair for horses, and a graceless one for people. Then came the Belmont Stakes, where Big Brown's derailment only intensified the debate over the manners and methods of his trainer. And now things are coming nicely to the boil for Royal Ascot, where British trainers and their rivals from Australia seem liable to end up shaking each other warmly by the throat in the parade ring.
The second and third debates are connected by the stain of steroids, openly and legally administered to Big Brown, and also used in the past on Takeover Target, the Australian sprinter.
Whatever the merits of individual cases, there is no doubt that the adventures of Big Brown have belatedly concentrated minds in the United States. On Thursday, at Royal Ascot, Yeats has the chance to show the world that a horse bred to last can win a championship race over two and a half miles three years in a row. The same day, a hearing in Congress will consider breeding, drugs and breakdowns in American racing. Its brief will include "commercial breeding practices that emphasise speed and precocity over durability, the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs and other medications, [and] track surfaces."
Among the witnesses to be called is Rick Dutrow himself, the trainer of Big Brown. He will doubtless say what he thinks, as usual, despite his chastening experience in the Belmont. He has not changed his ways since, certainly, in the absence of any tangible reason appearing to blame Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, for his defeat.
Much as there were those who gnashed their teeth over Jim Bolger's triumph at Epsom, many observers were candidly delighted by Dutrow's comeuppance. Last week he mocked the way Smarty Jones was trained during the build-up to his own Triple Crown bid in 2004.
Ironically, there is a school of thought that Dutrow himself "undercooked" Big Brown in between the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont. This was partly by accident, in that the colt was briefly held up with a foot problem, but also partly by design. Either way his comments, as one rival noted with satisfaction, "came back and bit him on the butt".
Curlin connections shine the light
The upstart Big Brown certainly has a natural foil in Curlin, the champion older horse – not least in terms of his owner.
Jess Jackson specified a tough drugs regime as one of the reasons for sending Curlin to the Dubai World Cup in March. He has also been prepared to rock the boat like few others over malpractice in the bloodstock market, and neither does he merely talk a good game. He could easily have cashed in Curlin as a stallion after he won the Breeders' Cup Classic last year, but is now contemplating switching him to turf for a crack at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in the autumn.
Today Curlin has his first race since his Dubai romp, in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. In the same spirit of adventure, he concedes 10 to 15lb to all his rivals, and tries to become the first horse since Skip Away, 10 years ago, to carry 128lb in a Grade One Handicap.
Jackson wants Curlin to be measured by deeds, rather than words. That kind of thing will get you a bad name among bloodstock professionals. Among the rest of us, however, he should be celebrated as a knight in shining armour.
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