The Queen & Churchill win at Royal Ascot

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

June 18th, 2016

Sounds like a headline from the mid-20th century, but that’s what happened on Saturday’s finale at the Royal meeting. Dartmouth gave Queen Elizabeth II a 90th birthday present when outdueling Highland Reel by a head in the Hardwicke (G2), and Churchill justified heavy favoritism for Aidan O’Brien in the Chesham. Twilight Son prevailed in a bunched-up finish in the day’s Group 1 feature, the Diamond Jubilee, but that’s not nearly as attention-grabbing, is it?

The Hardwicke marked a milestone for Sir Michael Stoute, who matched the late Sir Henry Cecil’s record of 75 career wins at Royal Ascot. Stoute was also scoring a remarkable 10th win in this race, his third straight, and his fourth in the last five years.

Dartmouth was the lesser fancied of Stoute’s pair, but like favored Exosphere, he brought a progressive profile. The Darley-bred son of Dubawi had won both starts this season, romping in the John Porter (G3) (transferred to Chelmsford’s Polytrack) and besting Wicklow Brave in the Ormonde (G3) at Chester. Both of those victories came at about 13 1/2 furlongs, so Dartmouth was cutting back in trip while stepping up in class. Further improvement was required to topple this field, but Dartmouth continued his upward trajectory.

With Ryan Moore opting for Exosphere, Olivier Peslier picked up the winning mount. The Frenchman had guided Dartmouth to a handicap win at Glorious Goodwood last summer, and the pair clicked again here.

“Halfway through the race, the Queen said: ‘Hmm, things are going well,’ which is very indicative of the outcome very often,” commented racing manager John Warren.

When Highland Reel accosted pacesetter Almodovar in the stretch, Dartmouth was also looming into contention wider out, and they settled into a protracted battle. Dartmouth always seemed to have the measure of Highland Reel, who had his head cocked to the left. Although it didn’t help Highland Reel that jockey Seamie Heffernan dropped the whip, the O’Brien globetrotter was trying to battle back on his own courage anyway. It’s not clear that a few smacks of the whip would have been determinative.

Dartmouth was also drifting over toward Highland Reel, prompting a stewards’ inquiry before the result was declared official. But even Heffernan didn’t press the point before the stewards. Freely admitting that he never had to stop riding Highland Reel, he cited only an intimidation factor, but you could see he wasn’t trying to argue a case whatsoever. Peslier said that he switched his whip hand to correct Dartmouth, and in the process, accidentally hit Heffernan. You don’t have to be a royalist to realize that the better horse won on the day, and that the stewards made the right call to let the original order stand. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov could have owned the winner, and the result still would have stood.

“I couldn't see the stewards taking it away from him,” Stoute said.

“I wasn't nervous at all during the stewards’ enquiry. I don't think The Queen was either. I saw the replay and I couldn't see anything happen - especially after the 5:00pm yesterday when my horse was murdered and nothing happened (alluding to Kings Fete’s troubled third in the Duke of Edinburgh).

“Olivier switched his whip so quickly and, although he did lean on the other horse, nothing really happened. 

“I don't know what we will do with him now. As for the King George (and Queen Elizabeth [G1] back at Ascot July 23), we'll have to see.”

Stoute added that Exosphere, a non-threatening eighth, might not like a rain-softened Ascot.

“Ryan (Moore) had the choice of mounts. I can see why (he chose Exosphere) after his performance at Newmarket. But he didn't run well on tacky ground here last year. He's a beautiful-actioned horse. I certainly hope he's better than he showed here -- he certainly showed that at Newmarket.”

Highland Reel is also in the mix for the King George.

“The ground was a worry,” O’Brien said. “We were nearly not going to run him but after a few dry days it was OK. He wasn't surrendering and is a tough horse.”

O’Brien doesn’t think the loss of the whip was decisive.

“No I don't think so -- he was running straight coming in and running his best.”

Dartmouth’s head was all that kept O’Brien from a triple on the day, which got off to a fantastic start with highly regarded juvenile Churchill. Dispatched as the odds-on choice in the Chesham, the Galileo blueblood traveled beautifully beneath Moore and swept clear. Isomer delivered a bold challenge on the other side of the field, but Churchill held on by a cozy half-length. Cunco, Frankel’s first winner, finished third after frittering a lot of energy away pre-race.

Now Churchill’s already attracting strong market support for next spring’s 2000 Guineas (G1).

“He was Aidan's number one fancy for the week and so he proved to be,” said co-owner Michael Tabor – quite a statement considering that the yard also had such winning favorites as Caravaggio in the Coventry (G2) and Order of St George in the Gold Cup (G1).

“He's a big powerful, raw baby,” O’Brien said of Churchill, who was a staying-on third in his only prior start at the Curragh. 

“You can see the size of him. When he ran at the Curragh first time out, he didn't really know what happened. Even today, they went slow and Ryan was handy, which was the right place to be in a slow race, and he had to go on but he still didn't know what to do. He's very green. He's going to be a lovely horse this fellow. We had been looking forward to him running all week. We were worried that this would only be his second time on the racecourse but he's very classy.”

“Churchill is a big, powerful horse -- a beautiful horse, who stood over them, really,” Moore said.

“He travelled nice and smooth but, when he got there, he was very green.

“He is a high-quality 2-year-old. The whole time he was going there, he was just waiting. He's just a little baby but can only improve and is one to look forward to.”

One race later, the same connections struck again with Sir Isaac Newton in the listed Wolferton Handicap. The 4-year-old full brother to Secret Gesture had hitherto been an underachiever, especially after costing 3.6 million guineas (approximately $6 million) as a Tattersalls October yearling.

That score propelled O’Brien into tying a different record held by Cecil – the postwar mark of 7 wins at one Royal meeting, set in 1987. Thus the master of Ballydoyle reigned as champion trainer for the seventh time, the second year in a row, and the fourth of the past six years.

“Ryan gave him a great ride,” O’Brien said. “We always thought that he was a very good horse but mentally he was just very immature in his mind - it took him a long time to relax and get into it. He is a horse who always had a lot of natural ability from day one but always showed too much for what he was. 

“We were a little bit disappointed with his last run but the horse that won that race (Portage) won the Hunt Cup, so the form worked out really well.

“He's a horse we always thought the world of. He's just never delivered for one reason or another. He showed us a lot at home from day one but never quite showed it on the track.”

Moore was likewise extending his grip on the Royal Ascot jockeys’ championship, despite a few disappointments over the meet. By driving Twilight Son home in the Diamond Jubilee, he completed a hat trick on the day and rang up his total to six for the week, two ahead of Frankie Dettori. Moore has now ranked as the Royal meeting’s top rider for six of the past seven years.

The Diamond Jubilee pace figured to be honest, courtesy of Australian sprinter Holler. But in a plot twist, the Godolphin hope deferred to French invader Signs of Blessing, a 25-1 shot who nearly stole it on the front end.

Twilight Son, well placed in close proximity to the pace, wore down the upset-minded Signs of Blessing and lasted by a neck from the belatedly closing Gold-Fun. The runner-up could have done with a more typical pace scenario, but did his best work late and made Hong Kong proud. Trainer Richard Gibson indicated he’d skip the July Cup (G1) in favor of heading back home.

Magical Memory, beaten all of a half-length in fourth as the favorite, was another inconvenienced by the way the race panned out. Wesley Ward’s defending champion Undrafted wound up sixth. His best chance was washed away by all of the rain earlier in the meet, but the muddling pace didn’t play to his strengths either.

On the other hand, Twilight Son would have enjoyed more pace too, as Moore noted:

“This horse has done very little wrong - he has only been beaten a couple of times. He has proven himself as a high-class colt. The pace wasn't strong enough for him and it would have been better if they had gone quicker.”

Twilight Son was regaining top form for veteran trainer Henry Candy. The winner of his first five starts, culminating in last September’s Haydock Sprint Cup (G1), the Kyllachy colt was subsequently second to high-flying Muhaarar in the British Champions Sprint (G1) over this same course and distance. Twilight Son resurfaced with a better-than-appears fifth to Magical Memory in the May 11 Duke of York (G2).

Candy has another star, however, in the form of Limato. Originally penciled in for the Queen Anne (G1), Limato was withdrawn due to the soft ground. He was left in the Diamond Jubilee as a back-up plan, only to be taken out at Thursday’s final declaration stage.

As it turned out, Ascot avoided the worst of the rain over the intervening days, and the drying ground might not have been too bad for Limato after all. It’s an intriguing counterfactual: had Limato lined up, and found the ground passable, his brilliant burst of speed might have put them all away.

Photos courtesy of Ascot Racecourse via Twitter