By: Ray Paulick
Royal Ascot presents the sport in a way officials in the United States can only dream about.
The cameras and post-race interviews with those most closely associated to the winners – the trainers, the grooms and exercise riders – showed both the admiration and love they hold for these noble horses. Last month’s five-day Royal Ascot meeting from England was broadcast to the United States on the NBC Sports Network for the first time. By all accounts, the 4 ½-hour daily telecasts – which primarily relied on the ITV Racing feed from the United Kingdom – were well received by American racing fans.
Royal Ascot presents the sport in a way officials in the United States can only dream about. The racing itself is of the highest quality and includes several important races run over a variety of distances for different divisions. Field sizes are enormous (average approximate 17), giving the horseplayer great handicapping challenges and tremendous value.
The races themselves are presented exquisitely by an experienced production team that understands the importance of being able to follow the horse you’re cheering on because of sentiment or a bet. There are cameras that move with the field, overhead shots, virtual graphics that remind viewers where the horses are in relationship to the finish.
But what I found most alluring about the Royal Ascot coverage was what took place before and after each of the races.
With just six races to show each day over the 4 ½ hours, there was a no-rush feel to the telecast. That allowed plenty of time to present the royal entrance each day by Queen Elizabeth II in her horse-driven carriage. There were multiple features on fashion, food and lifestyle, all of which drove home the point that Thoroughbred racing is an attractive sport for people at the highest strata of society. Of course, anyone who’s seen “My Fair Lady,” the stage play and 1964 Academy Award-winning movie starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, already knew that.
Then there were the horses, and the people associated with them.
With a record number of runners making the trip from North America to Royal Ascot, NBC Sports employed broadcaster Nick Luck to conduct insightful interviews with their trainers and jockeys who – with the exception of Royal Ascot veteran Wesley Ward – seemed a bit wide-eyed and jet-lagged at the spectacle of the whole thing. It gave viewers a chance to see Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott all dressed up with tails and toppers for the first time.
Not surprisingly, the juggernaut stables dominated the racing, with Aidan O’Brien of Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation getting a great share of the glory. There were some wonderful exceptions, the best perhaps coming when Mike Bell-trained Big Orange courageously held off Coolmore’s Order of St. George to win the Group 1 Gold Cup in an absolute thriller.
The cameras and post-race interviews with those most closely associated to the winners – the trainers, the grooms and exercise riders – showed both the admiration and love they hold for these noble horses. Tears flowed as freely as champagne as horses were led into the winner’s enclosure. This, to me, is what the best of racing is all about, that priceless bond that develops between man and beast. And it is what made these telecasts so compelling for all five days of the meeting.
Wesley Ward, the trail-blazing, one-time Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey, led the way among the Americans, winning two races. The triumph by the 3-year-old filly Lady Aurelia against older runners in the King’s Stand was not unexpected but nevertheless stunning in its authority. Con de Partiro’s Sandringham victory was a surprise, bringing the Idaho native’s lifetime Royal Ascot win tally to nine.
The other North American based trainers, Mark Casse, Graham Motion, Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott, surely came away disappointed, as did their owners. But they also came away with a newfound respect for how difficult it is to win at the world’s most prestigious race meeting.
I doubt those horsemen will be discouraged and, in fact, will aim to come back again and again, as will their owners.
The 2016 Queen Anne Stakes success at Royal Ascot by North American champion Tepin and trainer Casse, along with the growing accomplishments of Ward, have raised greater awareness for the sporting challenge this magnificent race meeting presents.
The 2017 television coverage provided to the American market will only heighten the awareness and desire for even more Thoroughbred owners to put Royal Ascot on their racing calendar.