By Ed McNamara
No Queen Elizabeth, no royal procession, no elegantly attired ladies. No owners, spectators, bookmakers or journalists. Instead of top hat and tails, the fashion statement was a facemask. Royal Ascot has been going on since 1711, and the world’s best lawn party never had a day like this.
There was hardly anybody around to celebrate. There were no champagne corks popping, only eerie silence at England’s most famous racecourse.
“I must say the first race was really strange,” champion jockey Frankie Dettori said Tuesday. “We’re used to this place when it really roars. I need the crowds.”
Instead of an alcohol-fueled multitude of 60,000, a few hundred people were scattered about the state-of-the-art horse palace. A trainer and two grooms were allotted to each runner, and there was a skeleton crew for television. Besides some racetrack staffers, that was it. With so much empty space, social distancing was no problem.
No matter, Royal Ascot Lite was infinitely better than nothing at all.
“Everyone is in a good mood even though it’s a bit weird,” said Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing. “With the pandemic, this is the meeting that will be hardest hit, because of the social element.”
Yet not everything was unfamiliar to longtime Ascot followers, including journalist/tipster Neil Morrice, who hadn’t missed an opener since 1985. The beloved Dettori, still a superstar at 49, performed his trademark flying dismount in the deserted winner’s circle. Aidan O’Brien, the world’s top trainer, won by a nose in the Group I Queen Anne Stakes, a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” race.
O’Brien watched from Ireland as Circus Maximus earned a spot in the Mile on Nov. 7 at Keeneland. The colt ran fourth behind Uni in last year’s Mile at Santa Anita. Circus Maximus, the 4-1 favorite, looked beaten in deep stretch before surging under Ryan Moore to edge Dettori and Terebellum in the day’s most exciting finish.
“He loves getting eyeballed and he toughed it out really well,” said O’Brien, whose 71 Royal Ascot victories trail only Sir Michael Stoute. “He has pace and he’s brave. A mile is his trip.”
Moore also saluted Circus Maximus’ grit. “They had their chance to beat him and he just battled away all the way to the line.”
The training star was the venerable John Gosden, who earned his 50th and 51st Royal Ascot victories. Jim Crowley had three winners, thrilling anybody who took Paddy Power’s 16-1 odds on him to be leading rider at the five-day meet. Moore, O’Brien’s main man, and Dettori were co-favorites at only 11-10.
Like Royal Ascot, making the best of a bad situation is a British tradition. Despite taking a massive financial hit, Smith is pleased that the meeting is on, “considering in mid-May we didn’t even know if we’d have racing here this week.”
That’s the style, old boy. Stiff upper lip, you know. The show must go on, especially “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.