The Sport of Queens

For seven decades, the jewels in Her Majesty the Queen’s crown have been her racehorses. Cornelius Lysaght looks at a lasting love affair

The lofty positions held by the racecourses at Ascot, Epsom, Newbury and Newmarket in the racing life of the Queen are regularly well documented. In contrast, the significance of leafy Fontwell Park, the partially figure-of-eight jumps track nestling beside the main Chichester-to-Worthing road in West Sussex, is spoken of less often. But it was here that Her Majesty tasted the first of her 1,011 (and counting) British successes.

The year was 1949, and the horse Monaveen. He was owned in partnership with her mother, Queen Elizabeth, and prepared by Peter Cazalet, subsequently the Queen Mother’s principal trainer, at Fairlawne in Kent. With Princess Elizabeth present to watch, jockey Tony Grantham rode the eight-year-old to victory against two opponents. One of whom was trained by “Towser” Gosden, father of John, in the Chichester Handicap Chase.

The Irish-bred Monaveen had been a handful as a youngster. In an attempt to calm him a little, he had been employed to pull a milk float around County Meath. However, once racing he was transformed by headgear and came recommended by Grantham, who had ridden the horse previously for trainer Peter Thrale. Fontwell was followed by victories at Sandown and the defunct Hurst Park, now mainly housing at Molesey, Surrey. This made the horse a leading fancy for the 1950 Grand National in which, cheered on by Princess Elizabeth and the Royal family, he finished fifth.

So, for all of the contenders in flat racing’s Classics, at home and abroad, and at Royal Ascot, the first big-race hope in the Queen’s colours – scarlet with purple hooped sleeves and a black cap in the days before she inherited her father’s – was at Aintree, in jumping’s most famous race.

However, it was the flat that had originally caught her imagination. This was after something of a seminal moment during the Second World War. George VI took his daughter to view horses he had trained by Fred Darling at Beckhampton stables near Marlborough, including Sun Chariot, winner of the Fillies’ Triple Crown – the 1000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger – in 1942. The Princess was taken by the “satiny softness” of the thoroughbreds when patting them and, it seems, was immediately hooked.

When her father died, while her mother continued along the National Hunt route, the Queen took over the Royal flat-racing and breeding interests, including the stud on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. This was all done with notable enthusiasm, as illustrated by the story that early on Coronation Day, 2 June 1953, she declared herself to be feeling “very well”. The suggestion was that this was largely down to word coming through that Aureole, her Derby runner later in the week, had pleased his trainer Cecil Boyd-Rochfort on the gallops.

An estimated half a million people crowded across the Downs at Epsom for that Derby. While there was clearly much talk of Aureole, there was also considerable hype about whether the iconic, and newly knighted, champion jockey Sir Gordon Richards might finally – finally – take the famous prize on Pinza, extraordinarily his 28th mount. In the end, he did, by four lengths from the Royal runner. This gave the Queen her best finishing position in the race, the only one of the five Classics in which she has not been successful (so far). Better, however, was to come. The exploits of Aureole during the following season, winning Epsom’s Coronation Cup and, poignantly, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, ensured she was the leading owner on the first of two occasions.

The 1950s were generally good, with victories too for Carrozza, trained by Noel Murless, in the Oaks of 1957 and for the Boyd-Rochfort-trained Pall Mall in the 2000 Guineas a year later. Also, the first few, of 23 Royal Ascot winners over the years, galloped home in front. However, there was no immunity for the now purple and scarlet silks, with gold braid and a black cap, from racing’s twists and turns. A quieter spell followed, but she continued to revel in the involvement in the Sport of Kings – and Queens – and everything that came with it.

Those who watched the monarch close-up then saw, as now, a consummate horsewoman, who many believe could have made a successful trainer.

She was equally a fan, enjoying hearing about all the goings-on in the sport and meeting the major players.

In the 1970s, the Royal string returned to the big time, notably when in 1974 the 1000 Guineas fell to the filly Highclere, which was also successful in France’s Prix de Diane. In 1977, the Silver Jubilee year, Dunfermline provided grounds for extra Royal celebrations by winning the Oaks and St Leger.

In the ensuing decades, the Queen was one of many traditional breeder-owners who found the going became heavy, as overseas-based, often oil-rich “superpowers” arrived on the scene. They were led by the Maktoum family from Dubai, one member of which, Sheikh Hamdan, purchased Highclere’s daughter Height Of Fashion, an outstanding broodmare and mother of a wealth of talent. This included the Sheikh’s brilliant colt Nashwan – trained, ironically, by Major Dick Hern, who had been sacked from the Queen’s racing team. Also, while other breeders could access Ireland’s increasingly potent stallions, the prevailing politics meant the Royal mares could not.

However, under the stewardship of racing and bloodstock adviser John Warren, who came to shrewd breeding arrangements with leading figures like Sheikh Mohammed and the Aga Khan, things looked up markedly. This was especially notable with Carlton House, who finished third when favourite for the 2011 Derby, and Estimate, the unforgettable winner of the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot two years later.

In her 71st year of racehorse ownership, there is clearly no diminution in the Queen’s greatest passion: Horses in Training lists no fewer than 76 in the Royal string, including progeny of the most fashionable stallions including Galileo, Frankel, Sea The Stars, Dubawi and Kingman. No one will be more disappointed that public health restrictions have forced Royal Ascot behind closed doors.

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