Royal Ascot commences!

Royal Ascot commences!

I am just trying to recall how extra-significant I thought the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot 1990 was at the time.

The four-year-old Markofdistinction, a 7-1 shot trained by Luca Cumani for breeder/owner Gerald Leigh, stormed home to claim what was then a Group Two race in a photo-finish; the colt had been fourth in the 2000 Guineas, won the (Bet365) Sandown Mile and ran fourth again in Newbury’s Lockinge Stakes – another major prize that had not been promoted to top-level status at that point – and he certainly looked to be an older horse going places under the expert tutelage of a master-trainer of the time.

As it turned out the son of Known Fact, who later that year emulated his Dad with success in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, did indeed go places, to Japan in fact, where he became a prolific stallion.

That journey however was as nothing compared to that of the jockey on board Markofdistinction because the horse represented winner number one at the Royal meeting for Frankie Dettori, a total that has grown to seventy-seven going into the five-day fixture in 2023, a number bettered only by the late Lester Piggott.

However, back in the summer of 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was entering the final furlong of her premiership, a pint of beer averaged £1.32 and there was no racing in Britain on Sundays, everyone saw Dettori, then aged 19, as a rising star, sure, but few really could have imagined how high he would go.

And although I have memories of big smiles and the outgoing personality for which he was to become renowned, he was still practising the trademark ‘flying dismount’ which didn’t come along until the Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs in Kentucky in 1994 and victory in the Mile race on Cumani’s Barathea, owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Unbelievably, looking back, early leaps in Britain were definitely frowned upon by the same authorities who plaster identical images everywhere today.

The other thing to bear in mind is the quality of the competition in the jockeys’ changing room.

Some of the greats of all time were in their prime or going strong, names like Cash Asmussen, Willie Carson, Steve Cauthen, Ray Cochrane, Pat Eddery (the champion jockey in 1990 with 209 winners), Bruce Raymond, Michael Roberts, Walter Swinburn and Lester Piggott himself, while Alan Munro – who was to win the following year’s Epsom Derby on the Paul Cole-trained Generous – was getting rave reviews. Meanwhile just about to get into their formidable strides were Kieren Fallon, Jimmy Fortune, Darryll Holland and Jason Weaver. 

It soon became apparent however just what a presence horse racing had in its midst, and since then although the ride has not always been the smoothest, the peaks have always far outweighed the troughs, and many of the most unforgettable high points have come in the corner of Berkshire where the now 52-year-old Dettori takes part in what’s expected (despite rumours to the contrary) to be his final Royal Ascot.

In the second half of the 1990s he was dominant at the track, famously going ‘through the card’ – the bookie-busting ‘Magnificent Seven’ – at the predecessor to British Champions Day in September 1996, and carrying off the prizes for fifteen races at the three Royal Ascots that followed.

He said recently: “Royal Ascot is the best, our Olympics, with the best thoroughbreds and the best track, and on top of that we have all the tradition. You start the season thinking ‘which horses are we going to aim at Royal Ascot’ because that’s what all the owners want – and then you hope to get there.”

Opulence Thoroughbreds is no different: best of luck to Frankie this week – he’s second favourite behind Ryan Moore to be top jockey – and, as they take up their big-race entries, to Opulence’s Tyndrum Gold (Britannia), Lir Speciale (Buckingham Palace) and Azure Angel (Palace of Holyroodhouse).