306-year-old Ascot: Ward aside, Americans have much to learn – but it’s worth it
Gary West — as only he can — reflects on Royal Ascot:
In 1711, during a carriage ride from Windsor Castle, Queen Anne realized that Ascot Heath would be an ideal location for a racecourse. And so it was a few weeks later.
Horses raced at Royal Ascot 21 years before George Washington was born and 77 before the Continental Congress ratified the U.S. Constitution. Ascot’s inaugural Royal Meeting preceded the opening of Saratoga by 152 years, the first Kentucky Derby by 164 and the Breeders’ Cup by 273. And so in an era of fungible celebrities and simulated experiences, at a time when nearly everything seems to be the aftermath of a vanished world, there’s Ascot, a sprawling, enduring tribute to a sport that celebrates the essential.
Most of all, with its five days and 30 races, Ascot teaches the value of brevity and quality, over excess and quantity.
Modern Ascot is a place of commerce, entertainment and sport. It’s never going to be mistaken for a classroom, and yet, for the attentive visitor or observer, Ascot has lessons to teach. And Todd Pletcher is a quick study.
His trophy case back home cluttered with Eclipse Awards, Pletcher journeyed to Ascot to saddle American Patriot in the Queen Anne Stakes on opening day. An improving winner of the Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland, American Patriot provided some perspective on the quality of the competition and the difficulty of winning such a stakes. Quite simply, he was never involved at Ascot. A Grade 1 winner in America, American Patriot ran in spots, passing a few horses late to finish 11th, 14 lengths behind Ribchester, whose credentials as the best miler in the world became, with the win, lapidary. Miss Temple City, who won the Maker’s 46 Mile last year and, more recently, the Matriarch at Del Mar, showed some brief speed in the Queen Anne, but she disappeared when the running got serious, finishing 13th.
“It takes a superior kind of horse to win one of those races,” Pletcher said about the major stakes at Ascot and the challenge they present for Americans. “The single most important factor is that you have to take the right kind of horse. I think it shows just how special Tepin was that she could go to Ascot and win (last year’s Queen Anne).”
Yes, most American trainers have much to learn about invading Ascot, and Pletcher sounded as if he was taking notes. An Ascot sojourn, he said, represents a logistical challenge. Most American horsemen, much less familiar with the demands of international racing than, say, Europeans, could easily find themselves in strange circumstances. The cost alone can be intimidating — about $30,000 for a horse’s round-trip excursion. Traveling to England for the Royal Meeting, a trainer wouldn’t go directly to Ascot, but rather to a yard in Newmarket. Ascot has stalls for only about 100 horses, or those racing on a given day.
“The single most important factor is that you have to take the right kind of horse. I think it shows just how special Tepin was that she could go to Ascot and win.”
American horses are also going to be much less familiar with the kind of course they’ll find at Ascot, where some races are run on a straight and some around a turn and all of them, at some point, uphill. Only American horses with experience at Kentucky Downs or down the hill at Santa Anita have seen anything remotely like Ascot’s course.
“The course,” Pletcher said, “is more demanding than American courses,” The trainer pointed out that Ribchester set a course record of 1:36.60 for the mile, a clocking that would hardly turn a head at Belmont Park, or Santa Anita or Churchill Downs.
Race selection is vitally important, too, Pletcher said. The most successful trainers, of course, know where their horses fit and at what level they can compete when racing at home, but determining where their horses can effectively race and where they fit internationally can be a conundrum.
“The real key,” Pletcher said about taking an American horse to Ascot for one of the major stakes, “is you have to make a commitment to doing it, which is what Wesley (Ward) has done in recent years.”
Ward has been, by far, the most successful American at Ascot. He won for the first time at the Royal Meeting back in 2009, with his second starter, Strike The Tiger, in the Windsor Castle. And when Lady Aurelia took the recent King’s Stand Stakes by three lengths over an outstanding group of sprinters, she gave Ward his ninth victory at the Royal Meeting. But Hall of Famer Bill Mott also took a horse to Ascot this year. And Mark Casse returned, as did Graham Motion. The trend is likely to continue, Pletcher predicted, as more and more American horsemen make the necessary commitment.
As Americans venture to race at Ascot, they’ll learn the great racetrack’s lessons, which echo with tradition and history. American racing might learn, too.
Ascot remains intransigent in its insistence on the virtue of beauty and order. Just as racehorses define themselves by racing, at Ascot people can define themselves with acts of sportsmanship. Most of all, with its five days and 30 races, Ascot teaches the value of brevity and quality, over excess and quantity. The approach attracts huge crowds, about 60,000 a day, along with an international broadcast audience. And the crowds effervesce with youth and energy, not to mention a little champagne.
Yes, more Americans are sure to go. Sporting owners with horses talented enough to race at Ascot have become increasingly open to the possibility and, in some cases, irrepressibly eager to see the Queen and the Green Coats, Swinley Bottom and the Royal Procession, eager, too, to wear a “topper” and hear somebody ask, “Can we have a nosey?” This is where in the 18th century Beau Brummel set the abiding tone for manly fashion, where bookmakers take bets on the color of the Queen’s dress and where the great Brown Jack won seven times. Ascot racing is extraordinary, but, even more, the experience remains unique.