No matter what the experts make of the crop, you can only judge a vintage when you come to sample the wine. At the start of the week, diehards were still hankering for the old Ascot; and the horses themselves threatened a fairly humdrum meeting. But while a depressed economy was duly reflected in attendances, and betting turnover, this has unmistakably become the year the 2006 redevelopment came of age.
Events yesterday introduced a new, sentimental dimension to a meeting already guaranteed a place in Turf folklore by the ground-breaking achievements of Yeats, Scenic Blast, Canford Cliffs and Wesley Ward. First a sunbeam from the last century illuminated the fading pomp of Henry Cecil, whose 71st success here – ending a seven-year itch – just happened to be called Father Time. And then another cherished survivor, Barry Hills, was saluted after Ghanaati suggested herself perhaps the best filly he has trained with a sumptuous performance in the Coronation Stakes.
Both men have had grave health problems over the past year or two, but this was a day when they could aptly be toasted in the finest of old wines. Hills, indeed, was on his way from hospital (where he had been treated for blood poisoning) even as Ghanaati delivered the most invigorating of tonics. In his absence, the 1,000 Guineas winner had been entrusted to two of his sons – Charlie as assistant trainer, Richard as jockey – and as she burst clear of the field, so she released billows of emotion.
"This means more to me than any race I've ever won," said her rider tearfully. "I nearly lost my dad. Thank God I didn't. I'm very proud, and admit I've worn my heart on my sleeve. Dad helped me this morning [on the phone] when he said: 'Keep her safe and she'll do the rest.' I kept that in the back of my mind."
The old patriarch's confidence was not misplaced. Though the field included other Classic winners in Elusive Wave, from France, and Again, from Ireland, Ghanaati hurtled clear two furlongs out. While Reggane and then Rainbow View closed late, Ghanaati was never menaced in crossing the line two lengths clear – in the process trimming the record for the round mile set by Henrythenavigator last year.
"There are two women in my life – my wife, and this filly," Richard said. "She's aptly named because in Arabic, Ghanaati means 'My Love'. She's the best filly I've ridden, without a doubt, and she's definitely improved. Charlie prepared her beautifully." This had clearly been quite a rite of passage for that young man. "It's been lovely to look after so many fine horses, but it's been a long five weeks," Charlie admitted. "Dad had started getting on the phone a bit more lately, so we knew he was improving. He had radiotherapy last year, and still thinks he's 30. I doubt very much whether he has ever had a filly as good as her, even after 40 years. She's so professional, a beautiful stamp of a filly. She's still relatively inexperienced – that was only her fourth run – so hopefully she has the right attitude to improve again."
Almost uniquely nowadays, for the Maktoum family, Ghanaati was bred by Sheikh Hamdan from a Coolmore stallion, Giant's Causeway. But the dam represents one of his finest families – also containing Nashwan, Nayef and Unfuwain – and Ghanaati herself will doubtless be contributing to Shadwell pedigrees some day.
Likewise Habaayib, who won the Albany Stakes for Ed Dunlop. This had been billed as a showdown between Aegean – ranked best of the Ward juveniles – and Lillie Langtry. But the American filly did not take to the turf, while the heavily backed Ballydoyle hope could not quite get there in the middle of the track. Meantime Habaayib had shown terrific acceleration along the favoured stands rail, earning a Stan James 1,000 Guineas quote of 16-1 from the sponsors. But she may not stretch her speed over a mile, and Lillie Langtry could yet remain the better prospect at 12-1.
Chachamaidee ran on nicely for Cecil in third, a prelude to the success of Father Time in the King Edward VII Stakes. The colt returned to a fervent public reception, and his trainer drawled words of self-deprecation just like old times. "That was lovely," Cecil said. "It gives you a tingling feeling. The public has always been very good to me, and perhaps I've fallen in love with them as well."
Father Time may now be prepared for the Ladbrokes St Leger. His trainer meanwhile remains without peer here, his lifetime record placed in perspective by the fact another winner for Hills, Giganticus, took his own score to "just" 23. But Cecil might have been speaking for both of them as he looked forward to a break in Florence, before more chemotherapy. "Healthwise, I'm not tip-top," he said. "But I'm still alive, aren't I?"