How’s this for five degrees of sporting separation? In 1936 the Kentucky Derby winner Omaha came to England to run at Royal Ascot. During his time there he was under the care of trainer Cecil Boyd- Rochfort.
Eight years later, Boyd-Rochfort became the stepfather of Henry Cecil. The best of Cecil’s record 75 winners at the Royal meeting was Frankel, who took last year’s Queen Anne Stakes at odds of 1-10. The odds-on favourite for this year’s Queen Anne Stakes is Animal Kingdom. And two years ago Animal Kingdom took the Kentucky Derby.
The presence of a winner of the most revered prize in the States at the most famous fixture in Britain is a real rarity. Animal Kingdom is the first to make the journey since Omaha, who was beaten by a short-head in the Gold Cup, and before that there were just two: Twenty Grand, who ran seventh in the Queen Anne Stakes in 1935, and Reigh Count, runner-up in the 1929 Gold Cup.
But then, like many of their human compatriots, American racehorses tend not to leave their homeland; indeed, Animal Kingdom is only the second Run For The Roses hero since Omaha to race outside North America. In those intervening 77 years the sole other has been Silver Charm, winner in 1998 of the third running of the Dubai World Cup.
Historically, the logistics of travel were a bar to international competition; it took Omaha 10 days to get here by road, rail and sea. But also, racing on dirt, as opposed to grass, was and is America’s own, like baseball. There is racing on turf in the States, and it is not as despised as once it was, but dirt tracks are the mainstream; a different regime, with its own programme and little need to seek rewards away from the back yard.
Nowadays racing, and the breeding industry behind the sport, is globalised; top horses jet from continent to continent for major prizes as a matter of course, and eight nations will be represented at Ascot this week. But those from the US are still the least inclined to grab their passports and the Dubai World Cup, run on an artificial, non-grass, surface, has been the only regularly successful lure, as its riches were for Animal Kingdom, who trousered £3.68 million when he won at Meydan in March. But for the modern thoroughbred colt, racking up notches on his CV as a potential stallion is as important. Animal Kingdom is now owned by an international consortium of horsemen, including his Kentucky-based breeder, Barry Irwin, and his future lies at Sheikh Mohammed’s Jonabell Stud in the States, and John Massara’s Arrowfield in Australia.
Animal Kingdom has already shown a rare versatility on different underfoot conditions. And, though it may be an arcane distinction to the outsider, victory in the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday would make him unique among his breed as a top-level winner on turf, dirt and artificial surfaces. “Winning in Dubai was about the money,” said Irwin, “but Ascot has the prestige, and a Group One win there, as well as back home and in Dubai, would give him an extraordinary stallion credential.”
The venture is audacious, but Animal Kingdom is already a special one. His talent is in the formbook, but allied to that is a resilience that has enabled him to bounce back from career-threatening injuries twice and a temperament that allows him to cope with the stresses of travel and changes in environment.
Since leaving Dubai, the imposing five-year-old has been stabled on the peaceful Berkshire Downs near Lambourn. “He is an exceptionally calm, laidback horse,” said his trainer, Graham Motion, “and an intelligent one. He was unbelievable at Churchill Downs; for all of [Kentucky] Derby week you’ve got everyone swarming in and out the barns all day, with fans trying to grab a bit of mane hair as a souvenir, and on the day it’s 150,000 people in a fish bowl. But he just takes everything you throw at him.
“We’ve had a heart-rate monitor on him while he’s been in England and it’s shown he’s got a remarkably efficient cardiovascular system. He can train hard and has an excellent recovery rate.”
Animal Kingdom’s final workout before Ascot, five furlongs uphill, was timed at just over a minute, which would be impressive for a sprinter, let alone a specialist over a mile and mile-and-a-quarter. Motion, 39, is based at Fair Hill in Maryland but was born and raised until his teens in England, and the culmination of Animal Kingdom’s world tour has been charged with mixed emotions. As much as anyone he will be conscious on the meeting’s opening day of the absence of Royal Ascot icon Cecil, who died five days ago.
“I was brought up near Newmarket,” he said, “and it was watching and admiring him that set me on my career as a trainer. He was such a role model; it’s almost impossible to describe what racing owes him. I remember when a filly of mine [Shared Account] beat one of his [Midday] in the Breeders’ Cup, he was so gracious. And I was absolutely overwhelmed to be playing on the same stage.”
As he plucks at another heartstring by trying to follow in Frankel’s hoofprints in the Ascot opener, Animal Kingdom will have the assistance of top US rider John Velazquez, who has ridden both horse and course and on Friday in New York notched his 5,000th domestic victory. “I know coming here is business,” said Motion, “but I like to think there’s a sporting aspect, too. Ascot has been on my bucket list but I never imagined I’d have the horse to do it as it’s such a huge challenge. There are so many variables – the straight mile, the possibility of soft ground – that I’m not sure I’d make him an odds-on shot, but we’re not ducking anyone.”
Tuesday will be the swansong for the big chestnut with the bright white star on his forehead, and the end of an era for Motion. “I’m trying not to think too much of that,” he said. “I’m so proud of the way he’s time and time again come back from adversity. I know you shouldn’t get too attached to them, but how can you not with a horse like him? He’s just a nice guy.”
Animal Kingdom is the week’s star attraction, but not the only one:
On Tuesday the South African sprint champion Shea Shea will try to become the Rainbow Nation’s first Royal Ascot winner in the King’s Stand Stakes. The opposition includes Kingsgate Native, who won five years ago and returns from stud.
On Wednesday last year’s Derby hero, Camelot, is on a reputation-restoring mission in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. And humbly-bred two-year-old Baytown Kestrel, who had an auction price-tag of £400 two months ago, takes on the bluebloods in the Queen Mary Stakes.
On Thursday Estimate will bid to give the Queen her 22nd winner at “her” meeting, 60 years after the first, Choir Boy in the Royal Hunt Cup, in her Coronation month. The filly is favourite for the Gold Cup.
On Friday Frankel’s half-sister Joyeuse has the chance in the Albany Stakes to provide a tear-jerking tribute to Sir Henry Cecil. The two-year-old is now under the care of Cecil’s widow, Lady Jane.
On Saturday French filly Moonlight Cloud looks for compensation in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, in which she was beaten by inches last year by the Australian Black Caviar. Sea Siren will represent Antipodean interests this time.
Body and Soul kept together
Royal Ascot, with its prestige and £5 million purses, is all very well, but for those more accustomed to bread and butter than cream, £62,250 will do very nicely, thank you, writes Sue Montgomery.
Not that Tim Easterby has not struck at the Berkshire extravaganza – he has had four winners there, though none since 2004 – but taking yesterday’s richest contest, the Macmillan Charity Sprint, at his local track, York, was a good day in anyone’s ledger.
The winner, Body And Soul, saw off Moviesta by a neck under Duran Fentiman (pictured). “We’d had the race in mind for her for a while,” said Easterby, “as we decided not to do anything fancy with her this season, just go for the money. She’s been eating well, but her coat’s still like wire, and we’d only been half training her. But she’s good, and we’ll think about the Ayr Gold Cup later on.”
Body And Soul started a well-backed 7-1 favourite. It was a good day for punters seeking ammunition for the week ahead, with the market leaders also capturing the other feature sprints. Morawij, at 10-11, took the Scurry Stakes at Sandown by a diminishing neck and Kingsgate Choice got up by a head in the Scottish Sprint Cup at Musselburgh at 6-1.
The first two in the 1,000 Guineas, Sky Lantern and Just The Judge, were among 19 fillies in Friday’s Coronation Stakes at the latest round of entries for Royal Ascot. The bookmakers’ view is that Just The Judge, who went on to take the Irish Guineas after her Newmarket defeat, will get her revenge, making her 5-2 favourite.