Pomp, ceremony and snobbery are all compelling reasons behind the capacity attendances at Royal Ascot, while no self-respecting horseman at this end of the world should be excused missing yesterday's broadcast, where two unofficial world championships were at stake. Unlike world title fights, however, showdowns between Great Horse A and Great Horse B are sometimes won by C, D or even E. It is one of the enduring truths of the sport that every horse has its price.
In the much-vaunted clash between Able Friend and Solow, which kicked off the Royal meeting in the Queen Anne Stakes (Gr.1), it may have been worth giving some airtime to the other contenders, whose claim to being there had been virtually ignored in the media scrum that surrounded the two headliners. Don't get me wrong: the Hong Kong champion and the brilliant Dubai hero were worth every word lavished on them in the wealth of preview ink spilt around the globe; there could be no doubt that they were exceptional winners in their domain, and rightly reside near the head of any sane individual's world rankings.
It's important to recognise the significance of these clashes not only to the Royal Ascot meeting, but for what it says about global racing in the round. Foreign-challengers are not new to this event, but the regularity of their participation and the respect they are rightly afforded in betting markets these days, says volumes for how far the sport has progressed. Racing is a global phenomenon and its superstars, by and large, have international resonance.
That said, the spectacle of Able Friend and Solow throwing it down to one another in the closing stages, failed to materialize. There is an explanation for this, and it lies in the fact that most horses, however widely celebrated, sometimes prove to be a function of their environment, as much as they are a reflection of their ability. It is a rare horse that is impervious to circumstance, who can prevail no matter the configuration of the track, no matter the state of the ground and no matter the pace of the race. Even Frankel was considered a doubtful stayer, and his connections were dubious of trying him on the American dirt. There's no doubting the talents of Able Friend and his cohorts in Hong Kong, where the supremacy of their milers has only been dented once in the past 15 years, ironically, given where we're sitting today, by a "South African" in the form of Variety Club.
Given Variety Club's disdainful dismissal of both the local and the international competition in last year's Hong Kong Mile (Gr.1), from a personal perspective, I found it strange that whoever I spoke to in England last week, there were those among the "revered" who wouldn't hear of Able Friend's feathers being plucked, each reminding me of his victories which invariably provoked the same internal monologues: "good grief, that is absolutely brilliant". We forget though, that in Hong Kong there is a different tempo to their racing, the positioning of the bend invokes a stop-start cadence to the gallop, and the test of acceleration is unique. Ascot is different: it is attritional, it is stiff, it is unrelenting. And it's straight. For a mile.
In the event, Great Horse A (Able Friend) failed to arrive, though Great Horse B (Solow) won like the horse he is reputed to be. Not long ago, the gelded son of Singspiel was contesting marathon events in handicap company, yet Freddy Head, he of that fabled family, has transformed Solow into a miler of dazzling gifts. The data is worth revisiting: the sectionals he runs are off-the-charts.
Like Variety Club, he actually gets stronger by stages, the rare combination of his dogged reserves of stamina and brilliant acceleration. That said, the straight mile test of the Queen Anne was something altogether new to him, and while you might reason that for any horse that can ship to the desert and demolish his rivals as Solow did in the Group One Dubai Turf in March, it seems contrary to doubt his versatility when he has displayed such dominance on a soft turf track back home in France. But, as James Willoughby reminds us with a slight tweak to the old saying, "to believe is to be human, to doubt is to be a punter".
Races don't follow the narrative anywhere near enough to suspend belief in the effects of randomness and circumstance: when you find horses that can take their game any place, any time, it only increases our worship in their ability. Yesterday, Solow did that, and in doing so, he confirmed the notion that Freddy Head may just have on his hands the best miler in the world.
The other bout on the billing was the unofficial mid-summer Three Year Old Mile Championship, the St James Palace Stakes, which so often these days pitches the English, Irish and French Guineas victors against one another. In this instance, only two pitched up, but only two had to pitch up to embrace all three. Gleneagles, whose perfect record at the races was blighted only by an abberation on the part of the Longchamps stewards in the European Juvenile Championship last year, had already swooped upon the English and the Irish 2000 Guineas; Andre Fabre sent forth Makfi's son, Make Believe, to represent the best of the French form in a week which commemorated the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. Here again, Great Horse A (Gleneagles) prevailed in a powerful affirmation of both his and his sire, Galileo's prowess, while Great Horse B faded into oblivion as soon as the sticks came out. And so the Galileo train marches on, with one grand horse after another from the never-ending production line in County Tipperary. That Gleneagles is the best three year old miler in Europe right now is without doubt: that he is the best in the world at any age will have to wait for the outcome of the Sussex Stakes (Gr.1) at Glorious Goodwood. Roll on August.