CHIEF SINGER, 1983 COVENTRY STAKES
Of all the two-year-old races staged at Royal Ascot, the Coventry Stakes has always been my favourite. Maybe because conquering the six-furlong challenge confers a greater likelihood of the winner turning into a top-class miler, maybe even a Guineas winner?
Mill Reef, Dawn Approach, Canford Cliffs and Henrythenavigator all won the Coventry Stakes (Canford Cliffs almost made this shortlist - sensational in 2009) before going on the brilliant careers at three years of age.
CHIEF SINGER was not just brilliant but a bit of a one off. Let start by telling you that Chief Singer won the Coventry Stakes on his debut. Let that sink in for a minute. That simply does not happen? Four years ago, Buratino won it for Mark Johnson on his sixth start!
Trained by Ron Sheather, Chief Singer was the most beautiful jet-black horse with flashes of white about his face and legs. His form ended up more eye-popping than his looks. He helped elevate jockey Ray Cochrane to the big time.
Legend has it that Lester Piggott chided Cochrane on the way to post with Cochrane inviting Lester to take a good, long look at Chief Singers face "because in a few minutes all you will see is his backside!" True or not, a nice line, and they clearly knew Chief Singer was top-class.
He only ever ran once more as a two-year-old, flopping badly so when he reappeared in the 2000 Guineas the following May, it was guesswork as to what he could achieve. Happily, he ran second to El Gran Senor, one of the best milers of all time, with a plethora of top-class horses trailing in his wake. Indeed, it was probably one of the best classics in living memory.
Back to Royal Ascot, he trotted up in the St James's Palace Stakes and then to drop back in trip and bolt up in the July Cup over six furlongs was trolley sensational. Chief Singer was a remarkable horse. Here’s hoping that this year’s Coventry Stakes winner can engage and delight us in a similar way.
DAYJUR, 1990 KING’S STAND STAKES
With Battaash's brilliance still so fresh in the mind after his fantastic win at Haydock, and a tremendous rematch between himself and Blue Point looking sure to be one of the standout highlights of this year’s Royal Meeting, it’s an absolute pleasre to turn the clock back nearly thirty years and recall the golden summer of 1990.
There was nothing golden about the weather on King’s Stand day 1990. It poured down and the ground turned soft. DAYJUR’s trainer, the great Major Dick Hern had expressed concerns, but he was calmed during a lunchtime conversation with owner Sheikh Hamdan Al Makhtoum, who insisted that Dayjur would take his chance nevertheless.
The sprinting landscape has changed so much since Dayjur; he was a three-year-old and these days would-be odds-on favourite for the Commonwealth Cup. He came to Ascot, like Battaash, following victory in the Temple Stakes (run then at Sandown Park) which was the first indication that he potentially top-class. But as so often, Ascot proved to be the acid test.
Umbrellas up all over the track, Dayjur was sent off third favourite but destroyed the field with the minimum of fuss. He beat Ron’s Victory comfortably with the pair six lengths clear of anything else. The efficiency of the destruction was the gripping aspect of the race and it was no surprise that Dayjur went on to prove himself one of the very best of all time.
For the record, Dayjur then had a small break before his amazing win at York in the Nunthorpe, he was similarly sensational in the Haydock Sprint Cup and then won the Prix De l'Abbaye with Willie Carson virtually pulling him up in the final furlong. Famously, it was only the shadow at Belmont Park that prevented a perfect end to the year!
Follow that Battaash.
BLACK CAVIAR, 2012 DIAMOND JUBILEE STAKES
In the summer of 2012, a little foal was finding her feet in New South Wales. Her first summer, a glittering career ahead of her. She would be toasted the world over as one of the very best we've seen. Her name was Winx.
Amazing to recall that on her birthday, September 14th 2011, another Australian great, BLACK CAVIAR, had already made it thirteen wins from thirteen starts and was being prepared for a new season in Melbourne. Work was well underway to tempt her and her connections over to the Royal meeting. That he was successful in doing so was very possibly Ascot supremo, Nick Smith’s finest hour.
Black Caviar won eight races between the autumn of 2011 and the late Spring of 2012. Eight! And four of those were at Group 1 level. So, a racing megastar. And she was coming to Ascot. It’s impossible to overstate what box office she was.
People wearing racing colours was still an infrequent event but this day, Diamond Jubilee day, Ascot was awash with a sea of colour, mostly the salmon pink and black spots synonymous with this femme fatale of racing’s big screen.
Trainer Peter Moody was edgy. Understandably so, for his pride and joy had lost the sparkle in her coat. Maybe in her eye too? Punters weren't put off. She was a six to one ON favourite. "Her biggest challenge" surmised commentator J A McGrath as they loaded the stalls...my knees were knocking in the commentary gantry just because she was horse racing’s queen and I for one didn't want the crown to slip. Not here. Not on this day.
When those stalls broke open, there was a Cheltenham-esque roar, quite unlike anything I had ever experienced at Ascot. The place was absolutely jumping, and the mare was doing her part. Two out she had a comfortable lead looking every inch a point and shoot job. Moody’s memory was etched with anxiety. "I was concerned half a mile out, she never travelled like she can".
The last furlong was a struggle with the ace French sprinter Moonlight Cloud fast closing. Not enough drama? Jockey Luke Nolan then eased down; completely stopped riding. I still reckon he misjudged the winning post. He admitted "maybe I got caught short, but she got the job done. I s*** myself!" Nolan wasn't on his own. In my own commentary I said: "if he’s been beaten, they'll never allow Nolan back into Australia."
She hadn't been.
She never was beaten. We didn't see her anywhere near her best but by God, she was good enough.
FRANKEL, 2012 QUEEN ANNE STAKES
When listing any list of sporting favourites, you have to include the best of the best. No discerning football fan could leave Lionel Messi out of an all-time top first eleven any more than you could exclude Muhammad Ali from the tally of great fighters.
FRANKEL won five of his fourteen races at Ascot but only two of them came at the Royal meeting. In 2011, his three-year-old year, saw one of his least exciting victories in the St James's Palace Stakes. Of course, this was his follow up race to the 2000 Guineas; he must have had a pretty tough race at Newmarket, brilliance like that always comes with a price.
Still, he continued on his way to greatness and by the time of the Queen Anne Stakes the following year, he was ten wins from ten starts and his return to Berkshire was for just his second race of his four-year-old year.
Against him, Excelebration, the poor horse who was to be hammered five times by Frankel and the previous year’s Jersey Stakes winner Strong Suit. But it matters not the opposition, the weights and measures, the science can take a back seat for once.
What Frankel did this day remains one of the most glorious sights we've ever seen at the Royal meeting, or anywhere else, for that matter.
ESTIMATE, 2013 GOLD CUP
The single best day I've ever enjoyed at the Royal meeting.
"She's got to up her game and she's only favourite because of who owns her." So stated Sir Michael Stoute before the race, in his own typical style, managing expectations as per normal. As ESTIMATE powered to the line, the images of Stoute watching on, constantly swiping real (or imaginary) sweat from his brow, gave way to those of the Queen, proud owner, who simply oozed joy and delight from her best seat in the house.
Has the Queen ever been seen to be more "herself" than during those four pulsating midsummer minutes? Even a senior CBS News anchor in America remarked, "Her Majesty’s displays of public emotion are exceedingly rare". Indeed.
Estimate had indicated that she had the potential to reach the staying summit with a truly decisive victory in the Queen’s Vase over two miles the previous year, on what was only her third career start. She was obviously good.
Back to Ascot the following spring, Estimate won the Sagaro Stakes in decisive fashion to set up a Gold Cup challenge. More would be required from her and whilst Stoute may well have had a point about the influence of patriotic punters, she was sent off 7/2 to win a wide-open renewal.
Against her were the previous year’s winner, Colour Vision, and third, Saddlers Rock. For France, Top Trip had targeted Ascot ever since being narrowly beaten in the Yorkshire Cup at the Dante meeting whilst Simenon, the horse who made Estimate work hardest of all for victory, was returning to Royal Ascot having won both the Ascot Stakes and the Queen Alexandra Stakes within the space of four days in 2012.
Never worse that fifth throughout, rider Ryan Moore had only one brief scare turning for home. Tracking Colour Vision turning for home, would a gap appear on the outside of Godolphin’s defending champion?
It opened like a chasm and there was little Simenon could do about it. A narrow win, but a decisive win, summed up beautifully by commentator, Ian Bartlett; "a happy and glorious day".