By Zoey Bird
Being asked to whittle my favourite Royal Ascot moments down to just five was always going to be tricky, with so many to choose from but then again, it’s fair to say there are a handful that really do stick out!
CHOISIR’S SPRINT DOUBLE (2003)
The first of those memories to stand out is Choisir’s Sprint double. I’d only recently started working in racing and the 2003 meeting was my first Royal Ascot professionally. The whole occasion was spellbinding! I’d been before with my family for a day out but working there all week, well, it was like having a backstage pass to the best festival in the world ever, where I got to see all the super star horses up close and personal.
I remember being intrigued by Choisir; he was Australia’s first runner at the meeting and physically he was shaped more like a bull than a long lean racehorse. Then, there were those enormous eye shields (which weren’t really fashionable at the time), the combination of which made him take on this alien like presence in the paddock. Well, he was foreign to most, I didn’t know much about his trainer and he was overlooked in the betting at 25/1 for the King’s Stand Stakes.
All eyes were on Oasis Dream before the race and for much of the race, but then Choisir was out in front and was not stopping. He powered up the centre of the course, bagged the rail and readily accounted for the aforementioned subsequent July cup winner, with Acclamation in second and Elusive City further back in the field. Wow!
Watch every race of Royal Ascot 2020 live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) from Tuesday 16th June to Saturday 20th June.
Then, on Saturday he was back for more in the Golden Jubilee Stakes. He wasn’t double figures this time, neither was he favourite, largely because no horse had won two races at the meeting for two decades but also because he had to give weight to the flying filly Airwave and stay an extra furlong. Just like four days earlier he powered up the centre, came across to the rail and hung on bravely under Johnny Murtagh. Choisir was a monster, a sprinter like I had never seen before. The Australians came and conquered and they weren’t finished there…..
BLACK CAVIAR (2012)
Nine years had passed and in between the Australians had won the King’s Stand Stakes with Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast but none of them came with the reputation of the mare Black Caviar. That was partly due to her being unbeaten in 21 starts but also down to her very bullish trainer Pete Moody who had been touting the idea of running her in England for two years, then in 2012 it was game on for the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.
She arrived off the plane sporting a compression suit, something that you’d expect a downhill skier to wear, not a racehorse. The media attention on her was massive, on a par with her fellow peer and celebrity Frankel. The Australians came to Royal Ascot in their droves to watch her and the anticipation surrounding her run was immense but then physically she was far from impressive in the paddock; hairy and sluggish she stood out for all the wrong reasons.
In the race her young jockey Luke Nolan barely moved a muscle and unfamiliar with the stiff finish he eased down a stride from the line. I’ll never forget the gasps from the crowd. Everyone muttered, “has she held on/has she won?”. She had…just.
It was the strangest atmosphere I’ve ever encountered after a big race where a horse as celebrated as that had actually won the race. It was quiet, unforgettably quiet as she walked back in. Everyone, was just relieved she had won and I personally felt slightly embarrassed and even sorry for the connections. Here was Black Caviar, the super star sprinter that could have/should have won by at least a length or two but instead she scraped home, luckily!
Four days earlier the highest-rated flat horse ever; Frankel took center stage in the Queen Anne Stakes. Unbeaten in 10 starts, and a similar price to Black Caviar at 1/10, of course he was expected to win but it was the way he did it…again! The Queen Anne was now the first race of the meeting and what a way to open it.
The stalls flung open and out jumped Bullet Train in front, the pace maker for the mighty Frankel who was settled in behind with old rival Excelebration upsides, matching strides. They were galloping at 36mph, then 37mph, then Tom Queally moved Frankel to the front with 3 furlongs to go notching up 38mph. Only Excelebration could keep up.
Tom changed his hands, Frankel lengthened his stride and went further and further from his rival and won by 11 lengths. Absolutely awesome. I had tears in my eyes and goosebumps on my arms. Greatness in whatever form it takes never fails to move me and Frankel embodied that, and he’d done it again.
ST JAMES’S PALACE STAKES (2013)
I’ve chosen to include the St James’s Palace a year later not as much for the horses themselves more for the race it produced. Dawn Approach was the outright favourite having won the 2000 Guineas but refused to settle in the Derby, (wouldn’t have stayed anyway), and was back to his optimum trip.
Theoretically the race was his to lose, but then 2 furlongs from home, he was pushed along, Magician then nearly knocked him off his feet and suddenly from the rear the Craven winner Toronado was there upsides him. The race was on. The pair of them matched strides for 2 furlongs, nothing between them.
They flashed by the winning post in a single outline. It was so close! Kevin Manning wasn’t sure if he’d won on Dawn Approach but he had in fact beaten Toronado by a short head. The last two furlongs were a real thrill to watch; you couldn’t have called it between the pair.
It was a proper race and there was more to come. The pair were to have another spectacular duel a month later on the Sussex Downs when Toronado gained his revenge at Goodwood.
LADIES DAY (2013)
Royal Ascot 2013 has to be my most memorable meeting of all, due to the cumulative events of Ladies Day. There was of course a great atmosphere and great anticipation as Her Majesty The Queen was expected to win the Gold Cup with Estimate, her Queen’s Vase winner from the year before.
Half an hour before we had the Ribblesdale Stakes, which turned out to be the starter on a day that flat racing served up a feast of sport and heartwarming stories like no other. Everyone wanted Riposte to win, formerly trained by the most loved and celebrated figure in racing, Sir Henry Cecil, who had sadly died just a week earlier.
Ridden by Tom Queally for Prince Khallid Abdullah, the filly took off and scored in scintillating fashion much to everyone’s delight. Seeing Lady Jane Cecil and Tom Queally hug Riposte in the paddock and tribute the win to the late great Sir Henry was as emotional as it gets on a racecourse. There wasn’t a dry eye on track.
On to the main course; where we went from remembering one of racing’s most esteemed icons to watching another, as Her Majesty the Queen stood in the paddock resplendent in purple but looking a little nervous ahead of the Gold Cup.
She had no reason to fear as Ryan Moore had Estimate in the perfect position to attack a furlong from home but was hounded right to the line by Irish raider Simenon, fortunately the pair held on bravely and the racecourse went wild. The cheers were as loud as I’d ever heard and the gasps of Ahhh that soon followed equally so.
I’d worked for At The Races that morning but had the afternoon off so watched the races as I often do from the stands just below the Queen’s box. You can’t really see into the box due to the privacy glass but nevertheless a camera was on the Queen’s face and as Ryan Moore crossed the line in front the Queen’s reaction to the closing stages was re-played for everyone to see on the big screen. The usual stoicism had been dispensed with and replaced with animation and expressions of sheer joy at winning the Gold Cup. Just brilliant!
And is if that wasn’t enough; for desert we had Joanna Morgan win the Britannia Handicap, one of the most hard-working and talented women trainers around. If Ladies Day had ever lived up to its name, it had in 2013. Thank you Ladies for my most memorable day’s racing….ever!