Racing’s constant worry towards the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign was how royal patronage and involvement, something that has set it apart from all other sports with few interruptions for 300 years, might look when one its highest profile and most ardent owner-breeder departed.
While the late Queen was alive, publicly at least, it was not even entirely clear which members of the Royal family might take on her support for the sport.
But, less than a year after King Charles and Queen Camilla’s first runner in the royal silks, they have already bagged a first Royal Ascot winner, a brace at Glorious Goodwood and, on Saturday, they have an outstanding chance of winning their first Classic, the Betfred St Leger, with 5-1 shot Desert Hero.
Not even the Queen, whose Aureole was famously runner-up in the 1953 Derby days after her Coronation, managed a Classic in her first season. She had to wait four years before Carrozza won the Oaks to get on the Classic scoresheet.
It was all a bit gloomy at Salisbury at the end of last September when the King and Queen’s first runner, Educator, an 11-10 favourite, was well beaten. At the time the actual direction of the Royal Studs and the size of the string going forward was still unclear.
There was even a suggestion, because Queen Camilla had previously owned jumpers, that it might tilt in that direction and that was before the non-racing press painted the selling of 14 ‘royal’ horses at Tattersalls as a fire-sale even though it was no different, a few horses either way, from the Queen’s annual clear-out to make way for the next batch of two-year-olds.
But, as John Warren, the royal racing adviser, always insisted, the turf was such a passion of the Queen’s that no one in her family wanted to tread on her toes while she was still alive. Come the time, he assured us, they would step up to the plate. And so they have.
When Just Fine got them off the mark in the Royal silks at Leicester in early October we should have taken the hint from the name. They might not have been at Epsom as the Queen would annually have been until the last few years of her life for the Derby but the King and Queen hosted all five days of Royal Ascot and appeared fully engaged even before Desert Hero got up in the dying strides to win the George V Stakes on Ladies day.
Their anticipated presence at Doncaster, interrupting the end of their annual holiday at Balmoral, is a massive boost for the south Yorkshire city, the racecourse, the oldest Classic but, above all, for racing.
Desert Hero, bred by the late Queen, has been something of a standout horse for the royal couple so far winning at both Ascot and the Gordon Stakes, a Leger trial, at Goodwood. He is also one of just three British horses to receive an entry in November’s Melbourne Cup.
“He’s improved physically since Goodwood,” says his trainer William Haggas. “He’s not a flash worker in the mornings but he’s solid, moving well, sound and happy. He’s been terrific. He gave us all a big thrill at Ascot and confirmed that run at Goodwood. He had to win that to be a credible Leger candidate and he doesn’t appear to be ground dependent.”
Recalling a visit to his Newmarket yard by the King and Queen earlier this summer, Haggas adds: “They’ve both been to see us. They were very engaged with their horses - it was lovely. We’re honoured to have them as owners. Obviously it was the late Queen’s baby but the King and Queen seem to be relishing it. It’s terrific for all of us and racing.
“Their diaries are pretty full, booked months in advance and it’s not quite as straightforward as you or I dropping everything to go racing but I spoke to them after Goodwood and it was quite obvious they were thrilled. It’s very important that anyone with a considerable number of broodmares (29) finds a good horse. Everyone should want them to do well because it makes it all worthwhile for them, breeding is a tough game.”
Ralph Beckett, who has trained for the King and Queen as the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, for 15 years and won with Serried Ranks for them at Goodwood, says: “The King and Queen are both very much engaged with what has gone on this year, communicating with their trainers, and, I imagine, enjoying every aspect of their horses’ progress.”
Queen Elizabeth II, ironically, was not at Doncaster to see Dunfermline win the St Leger, her fifth and last domestic Classic, in 1977 after one of the race’s great duels up the straight between her Oaks winning filly ridden by Willie Carson and Lester Piggott on Alleged. It was the only time Piggott and the dual Arc winner got beaten.
“I still don’t know how we beat Alleged because he was fantastic,” says Carson. “The Queen watched it from Sandringham and I spoke to her by phone afterwards. Dunfermline was a very manly filly, not a Marilyn Munro, but very tough and it was a battle royal that day.”
There is a connection between Dunfermline and Desert Hero beyond the royal silks. Luke Carson, Willie’s grandson, rides Desert Hero out every day so Willie will be cheering on a royal winner, right?
“I hope not,” says the jockey before breaking out into a trademark cackle, “I’ve got the sister of the favourite (Gregory) in a paddock here at home! No, but seriously, it would be a great result for racing. Having the King and Queen win a Classic would be the best result of the season if that happens.”
Of course racing’s cup is always half empty. Now that one of racing’s worries has been dispelled, another starts hoving into view. With the current Prince and Princess of Wales showing minimal interest in the sport; who will one day take over from the King and Queen?