Author: Nicholas Godfrey
Although it may not rival Dubai in international terms, it says much for the success of Royal Ascot’s drive to attract interest global runners that this year’s contingent, featuring high level horses from five countries outside Europe, can be regarded as slightly lacking in lustre. Of course, all it would take is a victory or two from Wesley Ward’s formidable array of 2yos, or a prominent showing from Japan’s Deirdre in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes or Aussie speedball Houtzen in the King’s Stand, and we’d all be talking about a vintage collection. Mind you, they have quite a lot to live up to. Take your pick: Choisir stunning the racing world with his trailblazing sprint double in 2003 or Takeover Target touching our hearts on an annual basis for taxi driver Joe Janiak?
Lady Aurelia scorching the Berkshire turf or Tepin overcoming the odds stacked against her to thwart Europe’s specialist milers in the Queen Anne? Or, more than anything else, the day the world turned salmon and black for Black Caviar and the ‘Wonder from Down Under’ maintained her unbeaten record in heart stopping fashion in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes in 2012? Who will ever forget poor Luke Nolen, dubbed ‘Flukey Lukey’, and his notorious ‘brainfade’? From Australian sprint superstars to Wesley Ward’s rocket fuelled 2yos, so many of the most memorable episodes in Royal Ascot’s modern era have come thanks to the influx of horses, trainers and jockeys from beyond Europe. This is elite competition, and an elite collection of horses from the four corners of the world have come to play.
They don’t all win, of course; for every Black Caviar, there’s an Animal Kingdom, and for every Cape Of Good Hope, there’s an Able Friend. Win or lose, however, the annual consignment of long range visitors has become a hugely welcome addition to the summer showpiece. Royal Ascot has long been the most prestigious meeting on the British racing calendar. But what has changed since the turn of the millennium is that the meeting’s flag is firmly planted on the world map, to the extent that even the most committed xenophobe needs to have a quick glance at the global form book. Since the little known and virtually ignored Australian sprinter Choisir blasted through Royal Ascot with his pioneering efforts under Johnny Murtagh in 2003, the meeting has been graced by a steady stream of international luminaries. That wasn’t always the case, though it would be wrong to suggest there was never any long range interest in days of yore.
Triple Crown hero Omaha and Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count both ran with credit in the Gold Cup between the wars; the former’s epic stretch duel with Quashed in 1936 has gone down in racing folklore. But the limits of transatlantic travel meant both horses were switched to British yards for the purpose; though they were flying under an American flag sentimentally and emotionally, they were officially trained in Europe. In the more recent past, Royal Ascot (and British racing generally) were in grave danger of being left behind as the sport became a more global concern: prestigious, of course, but with a worrying whiff of the parochial compared to lavishly endowed attractions elsewhere like the Breeders’ Cup, Dubai and Melbourne, or even the Japan Cup and Hong Kong International Races. Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing and communications, takes up the story.
“No continent travelled more horses continentally than Europe but that hadn’t been happening in reverse,” says Smith, who took over from Nick Cheyne as international recruiter in 2004. “The board at that time had the redevelopment in mind”, the new multi million pound grandstand opened in 2006, “and Ascot made a conscious decision that we wanted to take Royal Ascot to the next level. “We were becoming very strong within Europe, race promotions were being made and we had world class facilities, so it was a natural extension of that to try to internationalise the action on the track. It became established much quicker than we thought it would but it wasn’t easy to do and it remains a difficult thing to do, especially with the rise of several new races around the world.” Given the level of drama provided by continental visitors since Choisir kicked open the door in 2003, and the royal meeting is minus a truly headline act from among the transcontinental visitors.
Frankly, this is a case of pure bad luck more than anything else. Such is the current level of US interest in Royal Ascot that a trio of Breeders’ Cup winners, namely Newspaperofrecord, Bulletin and Stormy Liberal, featured among initial entries for this year’s meeting. For various reasons none of them will be taking up their Group One opportunities, and the plain fact is that there aren’t that many superstar names to go about. Sure, Beauty Generation from Hong Kong or Almond Eye from Japan would have been more than welcome but how many other real ‘five star’ turf performers exist? Sure, there are plenty of Aussie sprinters, and their relative absence since the glory days that came after Choisir is a cause for concern.
In fact, there hasn’t been an Australian winner since Black Caviar turned Royal Ascot pink and black with her heart stopping success in 2012; the advent of the Everest, the world’s richest sprint, in Sydney has certainly brought about a change of focus down under, where richly endowed sprints seem to show up every other week. As such, a trip to Royal Ascot may not be quite so attractive as it once was, not least because the home team also seem to have smartened up their act, with races like the King’s Stand and Diamond Jubilee no longer such obviously easy pickings marked for export. Nevertheless, ‘top drawer’ Aussie attractions like Winx and The Autumn Sun, now both retired, were at times considered Royal Ascot possibles (admittedly, the latter rather more than the former this time around) so it is not as if Britain’s summer showpiece has fallen off the radar.
Once the Beauty Generation team extend their sights overseas, the world’s number one specialist miler will be top of the Ascot ‘hitlist’ for 2020. Moreover, even if there is no household name among this year’s international contingent which lacks an obvious headline act, there is a pleasing diversity among a cosmopolitan cast list featuring four continents. Okay, it’s not the Dubai World Cup card. But then again, it doesn’t need to be.