Sunday Supplement: As The Knights Draw In…

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

Have you noticed the nights drawing in? Last night driving back from Ascot for the last time, the pall of imminent darkness enveloped me. At the rate at which the weeks fly by at my age, it’ll soon be Christmas. Some people dread the prospect of another bout of winter shopping frenzy. For me it means we’ll be on the way to the longest day again.

I’ve probably already propounded to you my theory on time and the increased rapidity with which the weeks pass as one gets older. At primary school the terms were, well, interminable. Summer holidays stretched endlessly. No wonder, at five years of age a year equaled 20 per cent of one’s total experience – in fact less as for the first part of that time feeding and sleeping comprised the bulk of that knowledge.

At my present age, a year is less than 1.5% of my total experience, so it whizzes by, although I must admit to rather large memory gaps. I reckon the Queen, who is more certain to spend five consecutive days at Ascot every June even than myself, has trained herself to remember just about everything that’s happened in the most remarkable of lives.

I bet she remembers the Annus Horibilis a decade or probably more ago when family troubles dominated the pages of the red tops. To come through that into the serene calm waters she enjoys in her 80’s as the most popular person in the country’s history, possibly owes more than a bit to horse racing in general and the Royal meeting in particular.

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Every day at Ascot, between 50 and 70 thousand people have the chance to watch the Royal parade down the course. Some don’t bother of course, but the absolute certainty with which the horse-drawn carriages enter the gates at the top of the straight at 2.00 p.m. sharp and proceed down the immaculate course with the Queen smiling and waving to both sides is truly a symbol of the unchanging order of things in a sometimes embarrassing country.

I’m lucky to have a good vantage point from which to watch the slow unfolding of the ride and as she turns under the stands and through to the parade ring, first-time watchers, especially from overseas, invariably are astonished that they can get so close to a reigning monarch.

Also young and not so young girls out for a jolly on what is now officially not to be known as Ladies Day, apparently, are equally enthralled by the sight. One discordant note yesterday as I walked past the group of so-called bookmakers lining the top end of the paddock were their prices on the Queen’s Hat betting.

I know anything is fair game nowadays, but to bet on the colour of her hat an hour before she shows up, and have around a dozen different hues offered with a best price of just 6-1 as one lady (?) of the species did (total 270% when I last looked) was simply scandalous.

It’s funny to think that there was ever a worry about the Queen having a runner in Ireland or visiting the country so closely connected with ours, although obviously with such a long history of discord between them. When she did eventually get there for a four-day visit in May 2011, among the stopping points were the Irish National stud and the Aga Khan’s stud at Gilltown on the second day, and on the final day, a trip to Coolmore.

Just as the connection with Ireland’s most famous studs will have contributed to the general warmth that the visit engendered, so her racing connection, clearly the passion of her life, endears her to the lovers of and those who are connected in their working lives to the sport. In short it humanizes her in a way that few other areas of her life and responsibilities can.

So what could have been more emblematic than for her to win the biggest race of all on her own racecourse, the Gold Cup, with the filly Estimate. They were talking down Sir Michael Stoute as being on the downward path after the less-than-normal success rates of the past couple of seasons, but as ever when given the proper tools, he never fails to do the business.

Estimate, heroine of last year’s Queen’s Vase, stepped up both in class and distance to win a thrilling race over two and a half miles, holding off the tough Simenon and giving the Queen the distinction of being the only reigning monarch to win the race in its 217-year history.

True, she has had more chances of doing so than anyone other than Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901), but it was wonderful all the same, and the wonder of it all is that within three years, granted the excellent health and strength that has carried her through the family vicissitudes and ardours of office, she will set a record of tenure of her job that nobody alive today will be able to watch being broken. That’s a proper record. No wonder God Save the Queen is sung so lustily by sportsmen either awaiting competition or having won a gold medal, or the crowds at those events.

When I sat down to pen these words, I envisaged possibly a sidebar on the Queen and her victory, and a bigger chunk on the legacy of the late Sir Henry Cecil and the dignity with which his widow Lady Jane Cecil dealt with the aftermath of winning the Ribblesdale Stakes with the Khalid Abdullah-owned Riposte.

It took even more stoicism for Jane and especially owner Sir Robert Odgen to deal with the post-race collapse and death of Thomas Chippendale after their colt won a dramatic Hardwicke Stakes which also featured a spectacular mid-race fall for the Paul Hanagan-ridden Ektihaam.

While the screens at the far end of the track could not disguise the horror of Thomas Chippendale’s unfair demise, Hanagan and many in the crowd were relieved that the old solid rails and concrete posts are now much less dangerous plastic, otherwise the former champion jockey would probably have broken his back, with such force did he land on the rail. Also, the way in which he went head-first into the turf, the old soft hats would have afforded none of the protection that the latest models provide.

The week was wonderful for so many reasons. I missed my slot here last week, stuck as I was in the wilds of Durham, but for which I’d have said my bit about Sir Henry. I got to know him well enough to visit Warren Place quite often in the days when I was an advisor to Prince Ahmed bin Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation, when Henry’s skill brought the Prince wins in the Derby with Oath, the Juddmonte with Royal Anthem, and the St James’s Palace with Dr Fong, among many others.

I also had the cheek to ask him to train Hitman, a colt I’d bought cheaply, and with a partnership including Peter Mines of the Jet Stationery Co, had the good fortune to see him win a big handicap at Newmarket’s July meeting (in a course record that beat Royal Anthem’s) and finish third in the Gordon Stakes.

So I knew at first-hand just how good he was as a trainer. But as a man, the kindest thing he ever did for me was to write the foreword to a book I wrote.  Rest in peace, Henry.

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