It’s not really supposed to rain at Royal Ascot. That’s one of the unwritten rules of this week. When we cast our minds back to the fondest Ascot memories they invariably involve blazing sunshine, strawberries and gorgeous dresses. They don’t involve being cooped up in an overtight waistcoat in the Media Centre bunker, gasping for a bit of fresh air and wishing that photographers would stop bashing their giant wet lenses against us and leaving damp patches on our tailcoats.
In truth, everyone is feeling a bit gloomy and cold and miserable. The Sky Sports crew have misplaced their umbrella and such commodities are valuable this morning. Tensions are rising. They’re showing vintage footage of Sir Viv Richards’ last Test Match in the media centre and press seem more transfixed by cricketing yesteryears than they are by a sensational opening day of racing, rain or no rain.
It’s fully four hours (at time of writing) before we get underway with the Queen Anne Stakes and I’m sitting opposite John ‘Big Mac’ McCririck. Keen racing fans will know the whiskery McCririck has been confined to satellite channel Attheraces for the past few years, having lost his role at Channel 4. ATR don’t even have the rights here anymore but that hasn’t deterred Big Mac and his dutiful wife and chauffeur, Jenny, from being the first one here and preparing as if for a national broadcast.
Mac is wearing a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” baseball cap. He is currently wearing four “Vote Trump” and “Vote Brexit” badges and that number looks set to increase. He takes a break from preparing his multi-coloured notes on the Coventry Stakes to tell everyone in earshot that his vision is for a world full of blondes (namely Trump and Boris Johnson). Jenny quietly slopes off to get more strong coffee.
Jump jockey Ruby Walsh has just arrived in his morning suit. It’s all rather weird: not only do small jockeys look a bit unusual in long tailcoats but having National Hunt heroes at the heart of Royal Ascot adds to the sense of disorientation. Walsh is in fine fettle; he went to watch Ireland in the Euros yesterday and had a wonderful time; apparently he was serenaded on his flight over by some well-oiled fellow countrymen. Perhaps they were still celebrating his success on Annie Power, Douvan et al in March?
Mrs Ally Vance is in one of the presenters of Ascot’s first-rate on-course TV service this week. She’s alongside the omnipresent Rupert Bell (brother of trainer, Michael and father of young TV presenter, Oli). The gates are opening to the public shortly and, as Bell ignores the rain and charges through a torrential downpour to find his cameraman, Vance laments the impact the weather has on Ladies Fashion. I listen intently to begin with but soon drift off and begin my own research.
Channel 4’s Tanya Stevenson is wearing Godolphin blue on screen today; is she steering us towards Barchan, Toormore or the far more likely Belardo in our opener here? There’s no doubt that Belardo, in particular, will relish the testing conditions. Vance is wearing navy and cream, although her hat resembles the purple with white piping trim of Derrick Smith’s Coolmore silks; could she be hinting at success for The Gurkha in the St James’s Palace Stakes at 4.20?
Flowery, floaty summer colours appear to be out of favour — for the time being, at least — and preference is for solid colours and something to keep the wet chill out. In the press room, black top hats are outnumbering grey rivals by a factor of 3:1. Today I am in the minority, openly confessing that my grey hat is less precious than my black one and today is not a day to be precious.
And so to the racing. Day 1 at Ascot can confidently lay claim to being the single highest quality day of racing in the sport. The Queen Anne sees the best milers on both sides of the Atlantic lock horns before the Coventry gives us at least a handful of the very best two-year-olds in training. Caravaggio is the Ballydoyle hotpot, eliciting from Ryan Moore the kind of purring he seldom delivers. Whether this Scat Daddy colt handles the genuinely testing conditions he’s about to face remains to be seen. If he does, he will be a single figure price for next year’s 2000 Guineas.
We move on to the sprinters at 3.45 in the King’s Stand where the heavily backed Mecca’s Angel continues to see strong support. We have a host of non-runners on account of the rain (have I mentioned it’s raining?) but Mongolian Saturday represents the international challenge, despite two recent defeats in Hong Kong. What a spectacle it would be if this bewitching sprinter handles the Ascot track.
The feature race at 4.20, the St James’s Palace, sees a truly first-class renewal of what is often one of the most exciting races of the year. We have the Guineas heroes from England (Galileo Gold), Ireland (Awtaad) and France (The Gurkha) renewing hostilities. France head the betting ahead of Ireland and then England, but Hugo Palmer and Frankie Dettori are attracting support with Galileo Gold. If the big three hit the two-furlong pole together, we are in for a belter, and I wouldn’t write off the outsider of three with Frankie in the saddle.
The last two races look impossible but I’m siding with Silver Concorde in the Ascot Stakes on account of his ability to stay and stay and stay, before returning to side with Godolphin’s Drafted in the Windsor Castle finale.
Time now though, to sign off, wish all Ascot readers the very best of luck and if you can’t be here with me on course, comfort yourself that you’re almost certainly warmer, drier and less bruised by lenses than your correspondent is.