Human monarchs are never a rarity at Royal Ascot, but only occasionally do you see a sovereign on the competitive side of the running rails. Yesterday in Berkshire the throng of racegoers looked on as the rare equine king that is Rock Of Gibraltar contemptuously took the main race of the day, the St James's Palace Stakes, on the first afternoon of the five-day Golden Jubilee meeting.
It was a cosmopolitan if not similarly democratic crew which parted the Golden Gates before racing at the top of the course in the Royal carriages. Among their number was the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, the Prince Consort of Denmark and the Queens of Denmark, Sweden and all that she surveyed. There must later have been some white-gloved hands going together when Rock Of Gibraltar added to the 2,000 Guineas and Irish equivalent he had already collected this season to take his successive Group One-race record to five. Ordinary colts do not do this.
The great horse, and we must now certainly say great, is appropriately owned by a member of the popular monarchy of the modern age, Alex Ferguson. Fergie from the Govan shipyards has been transmuted to Sir Alex and the morning suits of Royal Ascot (at least he had the good grace to have his topper at Freddie "Parrot Face" Davis level yesterday). But nothing much has changed about the man's addiction to victory. Ferguson dreads the day when economic necessity means that Rock Of Gibraltar will be whisked away for stud duties. "I'm enjoying just having him [on the track]," the owner said. "This is a great release for me and you can't get better than winning five Group Ones in a row."
Fergie was there with the chosen few on the green stripes of the paddock lawn yesterday, scrutinising the magnificent, shiny beasts which circled before the big race. Rock Of Gibraltar apart, Ireland's premier house of Ballydoyle stables was represented by Landseer and Sahara Desert, the latter a pacemaker. It was the Rock who stood out however, his great humps of muscle behind the saddle conveying a sense of huge power.
It was, as the draft had suggested, Sahara Desert who made the pace after the stalls flapped open. It was not, however, a burning speed and board game tactics were employed in behind as the big horses gathered for their challenges.
Dupont, aptly in a yellow leader's jersey, was the first to break from the pack and strike for home. Then, though, came Landseer and finally and conclusively came Rock Of Gibraltar. The 4-5 favourite pounced kindly just over a furlong from home. It was a quick, clean kill as he swiftly erased any notion of victory by the others. Landseer was one and three-quarter lengths in arrears at the post, with four lengths further back to Aramram.
A first and second in the day's premier contest would be a considerable feat for most trainers. Not so for Aidan O'Brien, who had been seen in earnest conversation with his three jockeys under the paddock tree. Such success over here is pretty much old potatoes for an Irish trainer who has provided the forecast in the 2,000 Guineas and Derby this season.
Ferguson admires O'Brien, his determination to the task in hand. Nostalgically, he likes to think he is peering into a mill pond when he looks at the 32-year-old trainer. "Aidan's the best trainer in the business and it's a real pleasure to go to see the man work and the care for the job he has," the owner said. "There is a sort of mirror image about it to see him working the hard way with concentration, dedication to the job and sacrifices made.
"People who are successful do these things. Particularly in my early years, I sacrificed seeing my family growing up. It's not a welcome sacrifice, but it is one you need to make to get to the top. People like Aidan do that."
Rock Of Gibraltar is likely to be kept on the go as he attempts to outdo the achievements of another Ballydoyle horse, Giant's Causeway, who won here two years ago on the way to establishing five consecutive Group Ones. "They are very different," Michael Kinane, his jockey, said. "This fellow is very free-running and you've got to shut him down a little. The other one did it on his own terms, which was why he lasted. He always had a bit up his sleeve. This fellow is more giving."
O'Brien, who also won the principal juvenile race, the Coventry Stakes, with Statue Of Liberty, sets out again today with Hidden Dragon in the first. Yesterday's opener, the Queen Anne Stakes, was won for the third year in succession by Michael Stoute, who saddled No Excuse Needed. It was a short-head success from Tillerman, whose rider, Richard Hughes, clearly thought he had won judged by his stiff-armed salute after the line.
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