Queen's calling to the sport of kings


IT IS 40 years since an otherwise unexceptional horse called Mascara earned a footnote in racing history by winning an unexceptional race at a racecourse that doesn't exist any more. But in the run-up to a visit resonating with historical connotations, Mascara occupies her own little corner: she was the last winner of a race in the Republic of Ireland owned by a member of Britain's royal family.

In the overall context of Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland, such a statistic only emphasises racing's role as a comparative triviality. Too much has happened since Mascara carried the late Queen Mother's blue colours to victory at the Baldoyle track in north Co Dublin in 1971 for it to deserve anything but footnote status. But trivial isn't the same as irrelevant and as frivolities go, it is very short odds the Queen accepts the famous description of the old game as being a "magnificent triviality".

The odds are unlikely to get much bigger either on betting against the presumption that it will be the equine elements to the royal visit that will resonate most with the Queen.

The last 60 years contain ample evidence that the "sport of kings" has been a genuine passion for the monarch rather than the fashionable status symbol it is for some nouveaux riches. Unlike some other elements to the royal visit, a stop at the National Stud in Co Kildare, and possible trips to the Aga Khan's Gilltown stud and the renowned Coolmore stud in Co Tipperary will be enjoyable purely on their own merits for the British monarch.

The fascination of one thoroughbred running faster than another has never paled for the Queen. Just four days after she was crowned in 1953, her horse Aureole, a foul-tempered chestnut with speed to burn, almost pulled off a fairytale result when only Pinza finished ahead of him in the Epsom Derby.

The winner was ridden by Gordon Richards, finally landing the Derby on his 28th attempt, and who had just been knighted in the coronation honours list. There is film floating about of the royal reaction to such a narrow defeat that betrays a notable stoicism as well as a few seconds of absolute excitement when the possibility of winning was still all too real.

Nowadays the Irish Derby at the Curragh would be a logical next step for a horse with Aureole's profile. But Ireland's premier classic race was distinctly second-rate in the 1950s and by the time better funding in the 1960s increased its international profile, the political landscape between Ireland and Britain had changed.

Flat racing is the Queen's passion. She is a notable breeder of horses from her Sandringham stud in Norfolk where she keeps more than 20 brood mares. About 20 race in her colours every year. Her interest in horses is such that she reportedly reads the Racing Post over breakfast each morning.

Her mother preferred the National Hunt and it was she who was the most public face of the royal connection to Ireland for some decades. The Queen Mother attended the Ulster National meeting in Down Royal in 1962 when her horse Laffey won the big race. The legendary commentator and journalist Michael O'Hehir was the race caller that day. The Queen Mother presented him later with an engraved racing plate of another of her runners, Isle of Man.

For some years, the Queen Mother boarded mares at the Mondellihy stud in Co Limerick under the care of Peter FitzGerald and it was that connection that saw Mascara trained on the Curragh by John Oxx Snr. The trainer's son, also John, has gained international recognition through handling the careers of many top-class horses in recent years, most notably Sea the Stars.

"She must have had a plan to breed from her, so Mascara was sent to my father to see if she could win on the flat," Oxx recalls. "The late John Fowler used to ride her and they finished second a couple of times. Then at Baldoyle she won a four-year-old flat race ridden by Hilton Cope, an Australian jockey we had at the time.

"The Queen Mother took an interest in everything and my father used to communicate with her private secretary. Of course in those days everything was done by letter."

In 1971, however, the political agenda was dominated by events in the North and they reverberated throughout the country.

"Mascara ran at Leopardstown one day and I remember there was a lot of security around the parade ring," Oxx says. "The security situation was changing and there was no question of her ever having another horse in training here."

In 1996 the Queen Mother's colours were carried again when the English-trained Norman Conqueror ran in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. Ridden by Tommy Treacy, the 25-1 shot was pulled up in a race won by Feathered Gale.

There followed a gap of more than 13 years until Queen Elizabeth's own colours appeared at Killarney in August 2009.

Four Winds, trained in Newmarket by Michael Bell, ran in the Listed Vincent O'Brien Ruby Stakes and finished runner-up to Poet, which had been trained by Aidan O'Brien. (The Queen's colours were also carried by a rare steeplechase runner, Barbers Shop, who ran in last year's Punchestown Gold Cup under jockey Barry Geraghty, but was pulled up.)

It was noticeable how comparatively understated the occasion of a royal runner at Killarney, nearly 150 years after Queen Victoria's visit to the area, was.

Bell explained the decision to run thus: "I looked at the fixture list and mentioned the race, which honours the great Vincent O'Brien, to the Queen and she said, 'Go for it.' It was kept all very low key."

The absence of the Queen's colours from Irish racecourses for so many years was attributed to coincidence as much as anything else, and a willingness to race her horses in Britain.

It is hard not to conclude, however, that at least some political expediency took place during the worst of the Troubles. In 1974 the royal runner Highclere travelled to Chantilly near Paris and won the French Oaks. Other horses owned by the Queen also raced in Europe during that period.

Some links were maintained, though. The Group 2 Royal Whip Stakes, a prestigious race run at the Curragh that has been won by legendary horses such as the dual Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, Alleged, and the double Breeders' Cup hero, High Chaparral, is partly sponsored by the British monarch.

And it is the Queen's lifelong interest in thoroughbred breeding - she doesn't care for betting - that has led her to send mares to Coolmore's star-studded band of stallions over the years. "Her majesty's gamble is in the breeding - using this stallion with that mare, hoping to produce something special," her racing manager John Warren has said.

Any international breeder with ambitions to produce top-class horses usually ends up patronising John Magnier's hugely powerful bloodstock empire. The royal studs have sent a steady stream of mares to Fethard with some notable results.

One of the queen's Royal Ascot winners, Phantom Gold, was sent to the legendary sire Sadler's Wells in 1997 and the result, Flight of Fancy, finished runner-up in the 2001 Oaks at Epsom. The Queen is understood to be anxious to visit Coolmore during her time in Ireland.

The National Stud has the Queen as a customer too. One of her best runners this season is a colt called General Synod, who is by the National Stud's flagship stallion, Invincible Spirit, whose advertised fee this year is €60,000. There are also historical links. Horses raised at the National Stud have carried the royal colours to win all five of the English classics. They include Minoru, who won the 1909 Derby for Edward VII, and the legendary filly Sun Chariot, who landed the 1942 Oaks for the Queen's father, George VI.

"There are incredibly strong links between the National Stud and the royal family and they are old and deep," said the National Stud's chief executive, John Osborne.

The Queen's visit finishes the day before the Guineas festival takes place at the Curragh, so there will be no continuing the tradition of British royals going racing here this time.

It is 100 years since the last reigning British monarch came to the south of Ireland and George V's trip in 1911 included an afternoon at the Phoenix Park races with his family. One newspaper reported: "The thousands of spectators cheered them to the echo . . . when they appeared on the balcony the multitude cheered the more. It was altogether a great and stirring reception."

In 1904, King Edward VII had made the trip to the Punchestown races, a nostalgic journey since he had first gone racing at the Co Kildare track in 1868. Banished to the Curragh camp by his mother, Queen Victoria, some years earlier in a vain attempt to curb his liking for the high life, the then prince of Wales took to racing in Ireland with characteristic relish, something the then queen didn't approve of when it came to regal expeditions.

"I much regret that the occasion should be the races as it naturally strengthens the belief, already too prevalent, that your chief object is amusement," she wrote to her famously dissolute son.

She received the reply: "You should fully understand that I do not go there for my amusement, but as a duty!"

The queen's reaction to that is unrecorded, but The Irish Times view on the royal visit to Punchestown in 1868 was: "Held in a wild and inhospitable district, at some distance from the railway station, and with but the small town of Naas to afford the accommodation so urgently required for a gathering of such calibre, it would appear the last place to select for a festival so truly national."

If that sounds more than a little po-faced, its finger-wagging tone would cut little ice with the future King Edward VII, and it is safe to assume with his great-grand daughter. History has revealed there are few things more likely to soften that lofty exterior than a good horse. Thankfully Ireland still has plenty of those to offer.