Four different decades are represented in Royal Ascot Roll of Honour for the Saturday, encompassing a dynamic duo from the 70s, a pair of speed queens from afar, and the all-time king of Royal Ascot.
QUEEN MARY STAKES: LADY AURELIA (2016)
It’s a good job she walked the walk, because Wesley Ward talked the talk on her behalf before the race: ‘She’s really something, awesome good, I’d say she’s quicker than Acapulco.’
There are certain laws and logic governing the levels and limits of the thoroughbred, ratified by thousands of races year in year out whereby we become conditioned to what is and isn’t possible; and what Lady Aurelia did in the 2016 Queen Mary was so outrageous as to seem impossible.
Watch every race of Royal Ascot 2020 live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) from Tuesday 16th June to Saturday 20th June.
Lady Aurelia blitzed her 16 rivals, the race won by halfway, and even more impressive was how she powered on, seven lengths clear at the line, the widest winning margin in the Queen Mary since Mumtaz Mahal – one of the most important broodmares in history - went in by 10 lengths in 1923.
Once is coincidence, but twice isn’t chance in horse racing, and Lady Aurelia returned to Royal Ascot the following year with another spectacular sonic boom in the King’s Stand. In just two races, in just two minutes, Lady Aurelia flew into Royal Ascot folklore, the American queen who’s the fastest I’ve seen.
CORONATION STAKES: MARLING (1992)
Even for Royal Ascot, the roll call for the Coronation is especially evocative, stocked with the finest fillies and families that have been the backbone of the sport for a century. One of the more spectacular winners was as recent as 2018, in Alpha Centauri, but for memorable wins within meaningful campaigns there were two fillies I kept coming back to, who arrived one after the other in the early-90s, namely Kooyonga and Marling.
I sought some help from a wiser head than mine for a casting vote and Jim McGrath said he loved both but would plump for Marling who, in his mind, up until her last two subdued showings, ‘should have been unbeaten,’ referring to the 1000 Guineas in which she failed by a head to catch Hatoof.
She more than made up for it in the Irish equivalent and then the Coronation, in which she held off Culture Vulture - the pair some six lengths clear – when her acceleration and attitude shone through, as was also the case when she got the better of Selkirk in an epic battle for the Sussex Stakes later that year.
‘Easily the best filly I’ve trained’ was Geoff Wragg’s assessment of Marling, a real Royal Ascot heroine, because she had also won the Queen Mary there as a two-year-old.
COVENTRY STAKES: MILL REEF (1970)
The highest Timeform rating ever was the 147 achieved by Frankel in the Queen Anne. In their 70 years of assessment, only six other horses have recorded ratings above 140. One of them is Mill Reef, successful in the Derby, Eclipse, King George and Arc in 1971, but prior to that he had been an outstanding juvenile, in a year of outstanding juveniles, sharing the stage with My Swallow and Brigadier Gerard.
He was beaten a short-head by My Swallow - who had home advantage - in the Prix Robert Papin, but in his other five two-year-old races Mill Reef was unstoppable, including a devastating display at Royal Ascot in the Coventry, which he won by six lengths, some say eight, but either way he never saw another horse nor came off the bridle.
In his book The Story of Mill Reef, John Oaksey described his appearance at Ascot: ‘Under the gleaming mahogany coat the muscles of his forearms and second thighs rippled like sleepy snakes as he danced light-footed round the tree-lined paddock, long ears cocked to the unfamiliar sights and sounds, the blend of explosive power with easy natural grace was unforgettable.’
The legend he became was a legend that began in the 1970 Coventry, and that’s why Mill Reef is a must for me.
ST JAMES’S PALACE STAKES: BRIGADIER GERARD (1971)
First up, an honourable mention for Tudor Minstrel, a champion of his era (1940s) and the horse of the century for some observers, as he would have been a suitably starry selection for either the Coventry or the St James’s Palace. But, equally, how can you leave out Brigadier Gerard?
Probably the closest comparison to Frankel from history, Brigadier Gerard’s 2000 Guineas was style as well as substance, overwhelming Mill Reef and My Swallow by three lengths, that pair the favourites with huge reputations, justifiably so, but The Brig’s rider Joe Mercer later said ‘I had never been so confident before a race.’
The similarities stretch to the St James’s Palace Stakes, because it was a surprisingly close shave for both Frankel and Brigadier Gerard, the Guineas presumably having left a mark, though the ground at Royal Ascot was like a quagmire in 1971, some mitigation for Brigadier Gerard getting up only in the last stride, and the rest of his career was almost as phenomenal as Frankel’s, and certainly more varied, bar one blip at York.
Brigadier Gerard was a giant of British racing, in an era of giants, and for that he has to be on the list, even though his Royal Ascot win itself wasn’t a command performance.
DIAMOND JUBILEE: BLACK CAVIAR (2012)
The Wonder from Down Under.
If anything illustrated how big a deal Black Caviar was and how huge a deal her Royal Ascot mission was, it’s that the race was beamed on a giant screen in Melbourne’s Federation Square, despite it being the early hours of the morning local time.
Britain had Frankel; Australia had Black Caviar. Frankel produced the most majestic moment Royal Ascot had ever seen at the start of the week; Black Caviar, at the end of the week, produced perhaps its most dramatic.
Even on unfamiliar territory, so far from home, her stunning speed and star status were reflected in her odds – as short as 1/6 – for the Diamond Jubilee, and, though not so electric as she can be, she had assumed control in the final furlong when her regular rider, Luke Nolen, geared down, sat up, and almost got caught out as Black Caviar read his message rather too literally and only scraped home in the end by a head and a neck in a photo finish.
It turned out that she had damaged a suspensory ligament and pulled muscles in her back, explaining why the Black Caviar we saw at Royal Ascot wasn’t the Black Caviar we saw in awe on TV from the other side of the world. Her class was behind her perfect record, 25 wins from 25 races. Her courage was behind her most meaningful victory, at least to us in Britain, where we might lovingly remember her as an ‘almost’ horse, because she almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and almost did the unthinkable by out-headlining Frankel at Royal Ascot 2012.
WOKINGHAM STAKES: LADDIES POKER TWO (2010)
It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.
Plans are paramount in racing, for not only in the race but also getting to a race. In the history of Royal Ascot, there have been some well-executed plans, and then, on another level, there’s Laddies Poker Two.
Absent for 20 months, Laddies Poker Two was available at 25/1 at the beginning of the week of the 2010 Wokingham. On the Saturday morning she was 10/1, and by the off she was 9/2 favourite, ominous given who owned her: Messrs Smith, Magnier and Tabor. Primed to perfection by Jeremy Noseda, Laddies Poker Two won - from near last to clear first – as Johnny Murtagh liked, setting a new course record that stood until Blue Point came along.
It was her last race, but it wasn’t her last act at Royal Ascot, because her daughter Winter did something in 2017 that only Attraction had done before by completing a clean sweep of the queen-making mile races for 3-y-o fillies in the Coronation Stakes, following on from the English and Irish Guineas.
A Royal Ascot winner, by a Royal Ascot winner (Choisir), who produced a Royal Ascot winner in Winter. Horses like Laddies Poker Two are the heart of the heritage of Royal Ascot, and her name was the bane of many a bookmaker.
QUEEN ALEXANDRA STAKES: BROWN JACK (1929-34)
We might have inadvertently saved the best for last, for the ultimate Royal Ascot legend and a race that represents the horse more than the horse represents the race.
In his biography of the horse, Robert Lyle recounted the scene in the aftermath of Brown Jack’s sixth straight win in the Queen Alexandra: ‘I have never seen such a sight anywhere, and especially not at Ascot. Eminently respectful ladies in the Royal Enclosure raised their skirts and ran with as much dignity as possible to meet the victorious horse and rider.’
Barred from contesting the Gold Cup, because he was a gelding, Brown Jack instead made the Queen Alexandra his own. Oh, and the year before he turned his attention to that particular race, he had won the Ascot Stakes. And the Champion Hurdle.
Brown Jack had a steam locomotive named after him, he has a statue alongside the paddock at Ascot, created by Sir Alfred Munnings, and his skeleton was even displayed for many years at the Natural History Museum.
Racing is known as the sport of kings, and Royal Ascot is the king of the sport, but Brown Jack is the king of Royal Ascot.