Thursday, June 02, 2011
My Kingdom for a horse!
Just two days to go before The Derby....
This piece of mine appears in the Daily Express.
Neil Clark: It's the sport of kings but it’s an obsession for our Queen – and this weekend she could finally have the horse-racing winner she so desperately wants...
This Saturday afternoon just after 4pm a lifetime’s ambition for a certain 85-year old lady could be realised.
She’s one of the richest women in the world. She owns palaces, vast tracts of land and fabulous art treasures but there’s one thing the Queen doesn’t own and desperately wants: the winner of the Epsom Derby. This year Her Majesty’s colt Carlton House is the red-hot favourite for the classic horse race, as long as he overcomes a last-minute injury. A royal winner in a royal wedding year would be toasted throughout the land. And for the Queen victory would be the end of a 60-year quest to win flat racing’s most famous event.
The Queen and horses is a love affair going back to her childhood. As a small girl she and her sister Margaret loved to ride their 30 toy rocking horses. She listened with rapt attention in her high-chair when her grandfather King George V told her about the exploits of his race horses. He even bought her first horse, a Shetland pony called Peggy, for third birthday. The then Princess Elizabeth enjoyed her first day at the races at the age of 19 when, in May 1945, she visited Ascot. The young Princess’s interest was further enhanced when she was presented by the Aga Khan with a beautifully bred filly called Astrakhan in the late Forties.
In 1949 she celebrated her first winner when Monave’en, which she co-owned with her mother, another huge racing enthusiast, won at Fontwell. It was in 1953, the year of her Coronation, that the Queen came closest to winning the Derby when Aureole finished second behind Pinza. A year later the Queen’s horse Landau headed the field with three furlongs to go but faded in the closing stages. Although the Queen’s nine Derby runners have not been victorious so far, she has enjoyed plenty of success as an owner and breeder, particularly in the first 25 years of her reign.
In 1977, as Britain celebrated the Silver Jubilee, the Queen’s famous racing colours – purple body with gold braid, scarlet sleeves and a black velvet cap with a gold fringe – were carried to victory in both the Oaks and the St Leger by Dunfermline, ridden by Willie Carson. Despite the Queen’s failure to win another classic since, her enthusiasm for the sport has remained undiminished. “She could have been a trainer,” says Ian Balding, who was a royal trainer for 35 years. “She is a natural with horses. If you go round stables with her she wants to look at all the horses, not just her own. There are times when I would advise an owner not to stand too near some horses because they could kick. In her case I don’t have to say it.”
The Queen follows racing on a daily basis. A 2007 TV documentary showed British Airways staff, preparing to welcome Her Majesty on board a flight, being told that the Racing Post, the daily racing newspaper, had to be provided as it was “essential reading” for the royal party. Part of the Queen’s passion for racing derives from her love of horses. She once said that if she were not the Queen she would have liked “to be a lady living in the country with lots of horses and ponies”. But racing also allows her to relax and be herself. For, while the Queen has to adopt a serious – and at times stern – public persona on account of her official position as head of state, racing allows her to show emotion. Despite her vast wealth Her Majesty, in common with millions of ordinary Britons, loves the thrill of a flutter.
IN 1992 television cameras showed her delight when she won the royal party’s Derby sweepstake, snapping up a grand sum of £16. It was rumoured that the Queen had a private wager on her horse Barber Shop when he lined up for the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup but unfortunately he was unplaced. The Queen’s knowledge of the sport is phenomenal – it has been said that if she ever appeared on Mastermind, then her subject would be fl at racing. It’s never far from her thoughts. In his book Racing’s Greatest Characters, Graham Sharpe relates how once when Her Majesty was giving the Queen’s Speech to Parliament she inadvertently said “National Hunt” when she meant to say “National Health Service”.
The Queen’s jockeys testify to her expertise. In 1999 American Gary Stevens revealed the instructions Her Majesty had given him before he rode her horse Blue Print to victory at Royal Ascot. “It was like following a road map,” he said. Interestingly the Queen’s love of racing is not shared by her husband. “The secret of a happy marriage is not to have the same interests. It’s one thing not to argue about,” Prince Philip said recently. Although the Queen’s official commitments mean she is unable to attend as many meetings as she’d like she does “ring-fence” her two favourites: the Derby and Royal Ascot. “If it were not for my Archbishop of Canterbury,” she is once reported to have said, “I should be off in my plane to Longchamp [a racetrack in France] every Sunday.”
When she is otherwise engaged she catches up with the big races that she has missed on video and is delighted when her duties allow her to indulge in her great passion. On the third day of her recent visit to Ireland, Her Majesty visited not only the Irish National Stud but also had a private tour of the Aga Khan’s Gilltown Stud, where she saw one of the greatest flat performers of the past 20 years: the 2009 Derby winner Sea The Stars. Now for the first time in decades the Queen has a great chance of savouring Derby success herself. Her racing manager John Warren has described Her Majesty’s reaction to Carlton House’s recent victory in the Dante Stakes, a race which is a key Derby trial.
“We were on the phone during the race and there was so much screaming… we were both so excited. She is thrilled and this will mean so much to her.” That said, Warren has stressed the Queen’s love of racing is not dependent on her winning. “The Queen’s big thing is not to lift trophies. Competitive is a word I never associate with the Queen.” Her nerves will be put to the test even more by news that her colt has suffered an injury, which could rule him out of Saturday’s showpiece.
But such last-minute scares have not prevented big race success in the past and Her Majesty will know that if her talented colt does make it to the starting gates she could be a few minutes away from achieving something she has dreamed of since her youth. If that does happen, then the sport of kings will have become the sport of queens.