European Race Report: Royal and Regal

Published in the June 30 issue of The Blood-Horse
Prior to 1945, Ascot hosted just one meeting per year, the four-day "Royal" meeting in mid-June. The principal race, the Gold Cup, was first run in 1807, 96 years after Queen Anne inaugurated the sport at what was then called East Cote.

In 1822, King George IV commissioned a small grandstand with a surrounding lawn, the Royal Enclosure, where he lavishly entertained his friends. Three years later, the Royal Procession was inaugurated where the monarch and other dignitaries are driven the mile of the stretch in open landau carriages every day before racing.

Entrance to the Royal Enclosure is by application only and, prior to 1955, divorcees and bankrupts needed not bother picking up a form. Overseas visitors may apply through their embassies, but locals require the sponsorship of existing badgeholders who have attended a minimum of eight Royal meetings. Dress for gentlemen is morning coats and top hats, for ladies a "formal day dress with a hat covering the crown of the head."

The Queen owns Ascot and it is run by the Ascot Authority, established in 1913. Standards are high and tradition is everywhere. From Tuesday through Friday (June 19-22), the first of six races goes at 2:30 p.m., the last at 5:30 p.m. There is no sponsorship of the £6-million-plus in purses, so there are none of the ugly advertising boards and banners seen at other British courses to mar the view across Ascot Heath. With music performed by the band of the Grenadier Guards, the "Brits" get together after racing every evening in the grandstand for communal singing of "Rule Britannia," "Land of Hope and Glory," and other patriotic favorites.

Sounds ghastly, doesn't it? But Royal Ascot has a pull that is hard to resist. Attendance, while off 1.5% this year, comes in at more than 225,000 annually, with more than 70,000 in the house for Gold Cup day, traditionally called "Ladies Day." Aristocratic ladies usually save the best of their four designer outfits for Thursday's orgy of fashion and frivolity.

With so much peripheral activity, Royal Ascot's racing could be second-rate and only a few would notice. It is anything but, and purists are prepared to put up with almost any amount of upper-class imbecility for a group I on each day and 11 other group contests.

The group I races are the Gold Cup, at 20 furlongs, the St. James's Palace Stakes and Coronation Stakes, both at a mile for 3-year-old colts and fillies, respectively, and the Prince of Wales's Stakes at 10 furlongs for older horses. It was the latter that was widely considered the race of the meeting going in.

Elevated to group I last year, the Prince of Wales's found ill-fated Dubai Millennium victorious under Jerry Bailey. Godolphin was back this year with well-traveled Fantastic Light, winner of the 2000 Emirates World Series, while Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) winner Kalanisi carried the Aga Khan's colors for trainer Michael Stoute, and Observatory, conqueror of Giant's Causeway over the course in September, represented Khalid Abdullah.

Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT) winner Fantastic Light had beaten Kalanisi by more than three lengths in their first meeting of the year, the Curragh's Tattersalls Gold Cup (Ire-I), but the former had fitness on his side after running second in the Sheema Classic (UAE-II) in Dubai. Ascot punters opted for Kalanisi as their 2-1 favorite as nine entered the starting gate.

Godolphin pacemaker Give the Slip set solid fractions for Fantastic Light and enjoyed a daylight lead turning into the straight with less than three furlongs to run. At the two-furlong mark, Endless Hall reeled him in but he was quickly challenged by Kalanisi on his outside with Observatory between them. But when Frankie Dettori, who missed last year's Royal Ascot meet because of injury, pulled Fantastic Light out of a pocket, the issue was quickly decided. Sweeping down the outside, Fantastic Light sprinted clear in the final half-furlong to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Kalanisi with Gary Tanaka's French-based Hightori three-quarters of a length back in third.

"He (Fantastic Light) was second to Montjeu in the King George (Eng-I) last year but he really stamped himself a top horse in Hong Kong (Cup, HK-I)," said Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford of the 5-year-old son of Rahy. "The big races for him this year are the King George (12 furlongs, June 28) and the Arc (Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Fr-I, 12 furlongs, Oct. 7) and other top mile-and-a-half races as well as the mile-and-a-quarter races that are left, the Eclipse (Eng-I, July 7) and Juddmonte International (Eng-I, Aug. 21)."

Having missed the ride on Dubai Millennium last year, Dettori said: "This will never make up for it because Dubai Millennium was so special, but this horse is getting better and better. He got me out of trouble on the bridle and when I kicked him he just exploded."

Ascot's opening day found Dettori winless with a pair of seconds and thirds, the last race seeing him all over the course on 2-1 favorite Meshaheer in a self-admittedly ill-judged ride reminiscent of his effort on Swain in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). "I got a lot of stick yesterday, and I'm glad I've got the monkey off my back," the rider said before completing a triple on the second afternoon.

Kalanisi was found to have suffered a hairline fracture of his left foreleg after the Prince of Wales's, but it is hoped he can be prepared for a fall campaign after four weeks stall rest. Fantastic Light (trained by Stoute until Godolphin took him over) tightened to 2-1 favorite for the King George from 4-1 after the Ascot showpiece with Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) winner Golan a 5-1 chance. The latter appeared on his way to the Budweiser Irish Derby (Ire-I, July 1) in advance of the King George.

Continued . . .