Last March, I went to Buckingham Palace to interview the Duke of Edinburgh about his sporting life, or at least his multiple roles in the sporting life of the nation.
After all the security checks, and the rather enjoyable saunter across the forecourt with a thousand tourist eyes upon me, fighting the temptation to pay homage to the man from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, I was escorted by a palace press officer up a grand staircase and installed in the charmingly named Sunshine Room, on what is known as the Principal Corridor.
While I was waiting for the Duke, I had a chance to inspect a right royal array of knick-knacks cluttering the polished surfaces of the Sunshine Room. They had all been presented to the Queen and Prince Philip by this or that head of state, doubtless before being passed on to a handy equerry or lady-in-waiting and never thought of again. But today, in the 59th year of the Queen's reign, it could be that one gift knocks all the intricate glassware, all the onyx and marble and ebony, all the first editions and forests and pandas, into a (very large) cocked hat. His name is Carlton House, he was given to the Queen by Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, and he is the strong favourite to win the Investec Derby.
To put that in context, it's 30 years since the Queen even had a runner in the race, and not since the 1909 victory of Minoru, owned by her great-grandfather Edward VII, has a horse owned by a reigning monarch won British Flat racing's most coveted prize. Derby contenders are rare beasts. Lester Piggott – who did bag her the Oaks, but so long ago that she was still a young mother of two – will be among the large crowd at Epsom Downs this afternoon willing Carlton House to make 2011 truly a year to remember for the old girl; in fact, it's 4-7 that winning the Derby would eclipse the pleasure of seeing her grandson walk down the aisle. Even Prince Philip might get a rush out of it, although he told me that day at the Palace that he doesn't share the Queen's interest in horseracing, insisting that it's healthier that way; one less thing to argue about.
What, though, of the other royal personage in this story? At least one respected sports writer has suggested that, if Carlton House wins, Sheikh Mohammed's smile will be through gritted teeth. After all, he has still not seen a winner of the Derby in his own Godolphin colours. But a source close to the sheikh assure me that his joy will in fact be unconfined. And let me reveal my source. It is John Gosden, the Newmarket trainer who knows the sheikh well, and knows Epsom well. He won the Derby in 1997 with Benny the Dip, and fields a "legitimate outsider" today, Masked Marvel.
Gosden has seen plenty of the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Carlton House. "My horses work at the same time as Michael's so I've seen him working a lot this spring. He's consistently very impressive, and he won the Dante [Stakes] in a race that I don't think was run to suit him at all. So he won the best trial, in style, and I can see why the bookmakers closed him down quickly. He has a big public following, and he's an outstanding favourite."
As for the suggestion that Sheikh Mo, as he is universally known in racing circles, except possibly by the Queen, will harbour some ambivalence in the likely event of Carlton House justifying his favouritism, Gosden told me this week that, "For the record, nothing could be further from the truth. He always asks me how the horse is, always asks if I've seen him. He and his wife are completely over the moon about this. He wanted to give a proper horse as a gift, and no one will be happier if this horse wins than the man who bred it. In fact, he can't talk about much else at the moment."
Healey sparks a scrum for holiday rugby coaching
As one of the most versatile of rugby union utility backs, Austin Healey was always good at finding gaps in a defensive line, but it took a businessman called Ed Rusling to help him find a gap in the market. Last summer, Healey and his former England team-mate Will Greenwood climbed on to the stage at the swanky Forte Village holiday resort in Sardinia, and asked if there were any parents who fancied bringing their children along the following day for a spot of rugby coaching.
It was all very informal, but one of the dads in the audience was Rusling, who sniffed a business opportunity. The result is Super Skills Travel, a company marketing family holidays inclusive of coaching by sporting "legends", another of whom is Michael Vaughan, who has landed the Caribbean gig. Meanwhile, my son Jacob has spent the last few days in Sardinia being taught rucking and jinking skills not only by Healey and Greenwood, but also the latter's father Dick, himself a former England captain and coach, who was drafted in as a forwards specialist. Almost 70, Dick Greenwood went to Sardinia expecting to spend the week bouncing his grandchildren on his two replacement knees. Instead, he spent every morning having his two new knees, and two new hips, tested by scrummaging 12-year-olds. His surgeon would have been aghast. Jacob and the other kids took it all in their stride; the watching dads could hardly contain their excitement.