Talking Horses: Eyes could be drawn off-track for this year’s Classics
The Classic generation does not have the racing stage to itself for long, but the few weeks between the Guineas and Derby meetings, when the Newmarket Classics are followed by a fortnight of Epsom trials and the best three-year-olds rise to the top, are as good as it gets for many fans of the Flat.
And this time around, it will not be just the sport’s devotees who sit up and take notice as the springtime cycle starts to turn once again. At Newmarket this weekend and at Epsom in early June in particular, there could be faces in the stands attracting far more attention – and on a global scale – than the horses and riders on the track.
Racing has been counting down the days to the 2022 Derby since the announcement, on the eve of last year’s Classic, that our premier Classic would be an official part of the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations, with the monarch “accompanied by members of the Royal family, in attendance”.
A few weeks later, in mid-July, the Queen’s homebred colt Reach For The Moon – with strong form in the Epsom Classics on both sides of his pedigree – got off the mark at the third attempt at Newbury. And five weeks after that, Reach For The Moon came home four lengths clear in the Solario Stakes at Sandown, a race that has been won by a subsequent Derby winner as recently as 2017.
A narrow defeat in the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster was followed by the news that Reach For The Moon had sustained an injury on the gallops that would keep him out until 2022. He remains a general 10-1 shot for the Derby, however, and John Gosden, his trainer, recently reported him on target to go on trial for Epsom in the Dante Stakes at York on 12 May.
During her 70 years as an owner on the British turf the Queen has won four of the five Classic races. She took the Oaks for the first time in 1957 with Carrozza, the 2,000 Guineas with Pall Mall a year later and the 1,000 Guineas in 1974 with Highclere, before Dunfermline landed both the Oaks and St Leger in 1977, the year of her silver jubilee.
The Derby, however, has famously eluded her, most recently by just a length when Carlton House, the 5-2 favourite 11 years ago, was third behind Pour Moi. If she could simply have a runner with a chance in this year’s race, smack in the middle of the long weekend to celebrate her seven decades on the throne, it would potentially be the best advertisement for the sport of kings and queens in living memory.
But a lot has changed since last year’s Derby. The monarch public appearances have steadily dwindled over the last 12 months, she contracted Covid-19 in February and has since been reported to have “mobility issues” which make it difficult for her to remain on her feet, even for quite short periods of time.
As a result, speculation is rife about how publicly the Queen will be able to mark her jubilee around the first weekend in June, including attendance at the Derby. The track announced last week that a guard of honour, formed of 40 current and former jockeys who have worn the royal silks, will welcome her to the course on 4 June, while the Queen’s Stand will also be renamed as the Queen Elizabeth II Stand in her honour.
The one cloud on the horizon for Epsom is a suggestion that since the 96-year-old monarch can no longer walk any significant distance without support. Prince Andrew hopes to be her “chaperone” on Derby day, as he was at March’s memorial service for Prince Philip.
York racecourse decided to rename the Duke of York Stakes earlier this year, shortly after Andrew settled a civil sexual assault action brought by Virginia Giuffre, in order to ensure that the race’s title would not be “a distraction from what is a good contest”.
Andrew did not admit liability but reportedly paid millions of dollars to settle and his presence, supporting his mother on Derby day, would be rather more than a distraction. It is anyone’s guess how a guest appearance by the prince might go down with a well-lubricated Epsom crowd of 100,000-plus in the middle of a bank holiday weekend, but “not too well” is definitely in the mix.
Meanwhile, at Newmarket this weekend, there are suggestions that Sheikh Mohammed, the founder of Godolphin and the most significant owner the sport has ever seen, may be in attendance when Native Trail, last year’s champion juvenile, sets off as favourite for the 2,000 Guineas.
If so, it would be the first time that the ruler of Dubai has attended a British race meeting with a full crowd since a family court found in March 2020 that he had orchestrated the kidnapping of two of his daughters – including one who was abducted in broad daylight on a street in Cambridge – and later engaged in a campaign of “intimidation” against his former wife, Princess Haya.
It would be the first time too since he was ordered to pay a record-breaking divorce settlement to Princess Haya last December, which included several million pounds annually to ensure the security of the Princess and the couple’s children, in the face of the “main threat” posed by her former husband.
If there is any track in Britain that might offer Sheikh Mohammed a warm welcome, it is surely Newmarket, as the town and surrounding area is in his debt to the tune of billions over the last 40 years. But it draws its spectators from much further afield, and the response from the stands if Sheikh Mohammed steps on to the podium is impossible to predict. Interesting times, for sure, as the centuries-old search for the season’s best three-year-olds starts in earnest once again.