Peter °borne hopes that Her Majesty's
colt Right Approach will crown the Jubilee Year by winning the Derby
SO FAR Jubilee Year has been wretched for Her Majesty the Queen. There have been the deaths, within six weeks of one another, of her mother and her only sister. Life must at times have seemed utterly bleak.
In the last few days there has been one ray of light. She has bred a racehorse which has a decent chance of winning the Epsom Derby in six weeks' time. Trained by the Newmarket maestro Sir Michael Stoute, this majestic bay colt currently stands at 10-1 third favourite. The Derby is the only one of the five British classic races — the others are the One and Two Thousand Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger — where the Queen has not owned the winner. Four months ago Kieren Fallon, last year's champion jockey, declared that Right Approach was the best horse that he had ever sat on. That set them chattering and we will know more after this weekend, when the horse is due out for the first time this year.
The Queen does not encourage talk about her horses. An approach from The Spectator to the Palace asking for an opportunity to meet Right Approach was flatly turned down. But the Queen's racing adviser, John Warren, plays down the prospects of Derby triumph. 'As she knows better than anyone, the chances of pulling it off are remote. It is just so hard to do. There is a mountain to climb. He has never run in a group race.' Warren urged me not to write this story, and to 'wait till he runs and we'll begin to see if he's up to it.' But even Warren, famed as one of Britain's top bloodstock agents, cannot keep some excitement out of his voice: 'He has improved enough at home to suggest that he could be a very good horse. It would be great. We're all hopeful. She's hopeful and excited.' Perhaps he feels that victory for the Queen in the Derby in Jubilee Year is just too much for hope for, a fairytale that will never happen. But it did in 1977, the year of her Silver Jubilee, when her brilliant filly Dunfermline, trained by Dick Hem and ridden by Willy Carson, strode to victory in the Oaks and the St Leger. The Queen has not had a classic winner since. And, just to bring a tingle to the hairs on the back of the neck, this year's Derby will be run on Saturday 8 June, coming at the height of the Jubilee celebrations and the day of the Queen's official birthday itself.
She does love her horses. Her public image is formal, severe, restrained, even forbidding. The only time that she publicly relaxes is at the racecourse and the stable. Look at photographs and film of the Queen at the racing and she allows her animation and engagement to show. She has a professional's knowledge, and knows all the pedigrees of classic-winning horses with the same passion and detail that her grandmother, Queen Mary, reserved for the Almanach de Gotha, which records the bloodlines of the European royal houses.
In so far as the Queen has a parallel world, where she can be an ordinary person, it is at the racecourse. British courses are the one place where one of her subjects can bump into the Queen and think nothing of it. It is easier still on trips abroad. When visiting the famous trainer and breeder Alec Head in Normandy, she used to eat out at the local restaurants. She emphatically does not attend the races for the frippery and the fashion. She attends because she has a deep and profound knowledge of the sport. There is some rare television footage of the Queen watching a horse race with her stud manager Michael Oswald. 'Look,' she observes, 'it's on the wrong leg — no wonder it can't corner.'
In Britain she loves nothing more than to visit her trainers and watch her horses on the gallops before joining the party for breakfast. In the past ten days she has qui
etly been round all the stables where she now has horses. The week before last she visited Roger Charlton's and Richard Hannon's yards, while last Monday the sharp
eyed Racing Post Newmarket correspondent, Tony Elves, spotted her in a corner of the Newmarket Al Bahathri Polytrack gallops, watching the Stoute two-yearolds at work. She is no casual race-watcher. Her former trainer, the legendary Dick Hera, recollects how a filly once got loose while practising entering the starting stalls near his West Ilkley stables. Hem set off after the filly while the Queen went down to the main road through the village to act as traffic policewoman in case the filly took it into her head to make her own way home. Afterwards, Hem told his biographer Peter Willett, he thought that passing motorists might get home and inform their families: 'There was a women holding up the traffic on the West Ilsley road this morning, and, do you know, she looked exactly like the Queen.'
The start of the Queen's reign was a period of huge success for the royal stud. On two occasions, in 1954 and 1957, she was leading owner and she bred a series of outstanding horses. After those famous victories her fortunes went into gradual decline. This was in large part because the 1970s saw the arrival of the great Arab owners fuelled by huge reserves of oil money. Though they brought great prosperity to the sport at a time of recession, they were able to purchase everything in sight and blow away the domestic competition. One of the major reasons for the Queen's decline as a power in racing was the decision to sell her great brood mare, Height of Fashion, in the late 1970s. Symbolically, the buyer was Sheikh Hamdan Al-Maktoum. Height of Fashion turned into the greatest brood mare of her generation, and was the dam of the wonderful Derby-winning colt Nashwan. It is significant that Right Approach comes from the same family as Highclere, Height of Fashion's dam.
Bourchier But the Queen would quite likely have lost her ability to compete in any case. The past two decades have been difficult for the Palace, and the size of the Queen's racing operations has steadily been cut back. The latest pruning was announced early last year, and she now has substantially fewer horses in training not merely than the Arabs but than many of her own subjects. That is what makes the emergence of Right Approach as potentially the leading colt of his generation even more remarkable. For whereas 50 years ago the royal stables were one of the most powerful forces in the land, today the Queen comes to the great sport as an underdog, almost as a pauper. It does seem too good to be true. But at least for a few weeks this spring the Queen has had the joy of being able to dream that Right Approach, her flying bay colt with his white socks and thin blaze, will be her first Derby winner.