A Yank’s Reflections on Royal Ascot
By Mary Perdue
Why American horse racing fans should make this a bucket list item and what to expect
For the first time ever, NBC Sports televised the entire five-day Royal Ascot meet June 20 through 24, giving American audiences a unique, in-depth experience of this annual one-of-a-kind event up close and personal. The on-site broadcasts from British television station ITV, which made up the bulk of the coverage mixed in with seasoned racing presenter Nick Luck representing NBC, was as the Brits say, “perfectly splendid,” and after delightedly watching more than 16 hours of the best British racing has to offer, here are some things that stood out:
Nothing Tops the Queen: Pageantry The 91-year-old monarch opened each day’s festivities, (photo) arriving in a horse-drawn carriage with much pre-race speculation about what she will be wearing. Fans line her route hours in advance to catch a glimpse and members of the royal family are in attendance throughout the meet. The Queen personally presents trophies and awards to suitably awestruck jockeys, trainers and owners and is even represented by a runner or two.
Green, Green Everywhere: All races are contested over grass, and landscaping is immaculate with panoramic views. Some races are run on the “straightaway,” a mile-long stretch of turf with no turns.
Fashion: Ascot’s dress code is strict, and a feeling of elegance and true style permeates. Top hats and tails are de riguer, even for the track farrier, who removed his only to replace lost shoes during post parades, but who kept his dress shirt and tie in place all the same.
Top-Notch Horses: Although most are European-based, some horses do ship in from other continents, which makes Ascot a truly international competition of the highest caliber. More American-based runners participate, which makes it especially exciting to root for the connections we know. Also, there are many older horses running, including some seeking repeat victories from the previous year’s meet, and even one horse who ran in two different races the same week.
How the Race is Won: Every race on the card for the entire week during Royal Ascot is a stakes and some Americans had to have been surprised by some of the longer distances considering anything over 10 furlongs in the United Stakes is rare. The longer races during Royal Ascot week included the Ascot Stakes, the Gold Cup and Queen Alexandra, all run at a distance of about 2 ½ miles or farther. Because the courses at Ascot aren’t the traditional ovals American racing fans are accustomed to, large fields are common and one race had nearly 30 starters.
Everything Sounds Better with a British Accent: Viewers were treated to some interesting pre- and post-race interviews with trainers, jockeys and owners. Some expressions, such as, “he’ll need a good lie down after that,” and, “he’s a cracker,” or “who do you fancy?” certainly made some wonder. Americans also learned regular British racing terms, such as “punter” (bookie), “going behind” (for “at the post”) and “cheekpieces” (a form of blinkers) as well as on-air discussions of the length of the strap on the Queen’s handbag.
Nobody does it like ITV: Really exceptional coverage. Every commentator and on-air presenter was extremely knowledgeable about racing. They seemed to have instant and immediate access to all connections including grooms and jockeys, right after a horse won, and the accompanying jubilant walkovers from the track to the winners enclosure provided some of the meet’s best moments. Exciting behind-the-gate shots included Commonwealth Stakes hero Caravaggio rearing up prior to the start. Overall, viewers may have felt closer to the horses than at any American track. A special shoutout is in order for coverage of the post race inquiry in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, won by The Tin Man, where stewards questions and jockey responses were broadcast live in real time.
Hearts on Their Sleeves: Paradoxically, the Brits seem to show more overt affection to their horses after a win. Horses were exuberantly petted and kissed, offered water multiple times in the winner’s circle, and splashed with water to cool down immediately even when sporting the Royal Ascot winner’s blanket. Grooms in particular seemed to have a more personal stake in their horse’s win than stateside.
Random Weird Stuff: Some oddities during the week included American starter Princess Peggy being knocked down by a bicyclist a few days prior to her start in the Albany Stakes, a shirtless beer drinker nearly hitting rider Andrea Atzeni with a pint on his way to post in the Duke of Edinburg Stakes and runner Wisconsin missing the turn and making an unplanned detour to the outside rail in the Queen’s Vase.
Big Orange: His win in the Gold Cup was the meet highlight. The brave gelding led for most of the 2 ½-mile race and held off last year’s winner — the hard charging Order of St. George — by a nose at the wire.
Legacy of Scat Daddy: The recently deceased American sire was represented by an incredible four winners throughout the week — the spectacular Caravaggio, Lady Aurelia, Sioux Nation and Con Te Partiro.
Highland Reel Reels Them In Again: Last year’s Breeder’s Cup Turf winner ran down all his rivals in the stretch to capture the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, and has now amassed a total of six grade/group 1 wins over three continents.
Coolmore and Godolphin Neck and Neck: Each had six winners during the meet, with Coolmore narrowly edging Godolphin for total placings.
More Winners for Ryan Moore: Moore emerged as the meet’s winningest jockey with six tptal victories for the week.
If you go: Next year’s dates: June 19-23, 2018, for more info: www.ascot.co.uk