It is slightly depressing that a major sporting fixture can be most immediately identified in public consciousness by the dress code for spectators.
But, at Ascot this week, hats will be worn, as they have been since the first meeting at the Berkshire course in 1711. A racing certainty, though, is that none will have been of the corked variety of affectionate stereotype. When Queen Anne founded her racecourse, the visit of the first Englishman to Terra Australis, James Cook, was still 59 years in the future. And, before the adventof the white man, there were no horses in Australia. The first equines to set foot on the continent arrived with Governor Phillip and the First Fleet in 1788.
Obviously, in 300 years, the development of the sport has progressed on both sides of the world. The racing and breeding industries in Australia and New Zealand have been producing world-class competitors for some time, even if their forays to these parts were once limited and their excellence was largelyunappreciated, notwithstanding Balmerino's excellent second in the 1977 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Australian sprinters are now acknowledged as collectively the best on the planet. But it was only eight years ago that Choisir announced them as such by sensationally taking both top-level Royal Ascot contests in his division: the King's Stand Stakes on the meeting's first day and the Golden Jubilee Stakes on the last. Where he led, others followed, with wins for Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast and Starspangledbanner.
Down Under, blindingly fast high-class horses are as ubiquitous as kangaroos. And, like another Aussie trademark, they keep coming back. This year's wizards from Oz are the four-year-olds Star Witness, with Tuesday's King's Stand Stakes as his prime target, and Hinchinbrook, bound for the Golden Jubilee Stakes on Saturday. Both have been based in Newmarket for their build-up to their raid and seem to have taken their 38-hour door-to-door journey to Suffolk in their powerful strides.
But then the breed-em-rugged idea of the Australian athlete is not a cliché without foundation. Sunshine brings benefits to equine, as well as human, development, from the hours horses can spend outside soaking up the rays to its effect on the very oomph-filled grain they eat. The Danny O'Brien-trained Star Witness is favourite for Tuesday's five-furlong dash and may also take in the six-furlong feature five days later. The colt goes into the fray off the back of a flop at Flemington in March, for which O'Brien blames Jeremy Clarkson and another form of horsepower. "There was a Top Gear rally, with cars at full throttle from first thing, near where he was stabled," he said. "The noise was unbelievable and by race-time he was a mess. But he was super-impressive in a barrier trial just beforehe got on the plane."
The King's Stand and Golden Jubilee are just two of seven Group 1 contests during a week which spreads nearly £4 million over 30 races in five days. But the purses are not the only draw for Star Witness and Hinchinbrook. They are, perhaps alarminglyfor the rest of the world, not even the best of their ilk back home; the sensational unbeaten mare Black Caviar, Hinchinbrook's Peter Moody stablemate, and the gelding Hay List are demonstrably better.
"The two that are here are the best sprint colts in Australia," said Moody's assistant Jeff O'Connor, "but they are not getting the chance to win at the top level. "
The appearance on Wednesday of Australia's best colt in any division is also part of that bigger picture. The mighty middle-distance star So You Think, formerly with Bart Cummings, has transferred to Co Tipperary-based Aidan O'Brien to maximise his potential as a future progenitor in both hemispheres.
Already an early favourite to go one better than Balmerino at Longchamp in October, he will bid to enhance his reputation in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes. The imposing five-year-old is still a national icon back home. And three Australian winners at Royal Ascot would be some hat-trick.Reuse content