Royal Ascot is probably the mother of all great race meetings. Long before the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe weekend, the Breeders’ Cup, and Champions Day, it was the first full, complete review of the best that racing had to offer. Yet, the French virtually ignored it in the ‘70s and ‘80s before embracing it again as one of their favourite playgrounds.
François Boutin-trained Sagaro won three consecutive Gold Cups between 1975 and 1977, but the first of the stayer’s wins attracted relatively little attention compared with French colt Empery’s triumph in the 1976 Epsom Derby.
At that time, Epsom - be it for the Derby or the Oaks - was still regarded as the ultimate test for a French-trained Thoroughbred in Britain.
French trainers have never been fans of the juvenile races at Royal Ascot. They generally prefer to wait well into summertime before considering such tall orders for their younger stock.
As for the handicaps, it would take an extremely shrewd and astute trainer, probably with strong connections in Britain, to take part with any hope of success. Besides, the French handicaps have always been very generous, more frequent, and infinitely much easier to win. Most French owners would rather graze in their cosy backyard, oblivious of the awesome rush of adrenaline a successful Royal Ascot betting coup can bring about.
Slowly but surely, as a new generation of trainers emerged in France, Royal Ascot has become a major event that the French racing media covers regularly, with some of its key races establishing a valued place in the French agenda.
The “Ascot Guineas” - the G1 St James’s Palace Stakes for colts and the G1 Coronation Stakes for fillies (five French wins in the last 25 years) attracted French attention as it comes at a good time and place to take on the top British and Irish 3-year-old milers.
The G2 Ribblesdale Stakes also attracted interest, offering a mile-and-half opportunity to French fillies unsuited by the shorter trip of the French Oaks (Prix de Diane). The same has not applied in respect of the French colts, however. Even though the Prix du Jockey Club was shortened, meaning the same logic could apply, the magic of winning the G2 King Edward VII Stakes, (Royal Ascot’s Derby) has never caught Gallic imaginations.
In fact, most French handlers are unaware of the opportunities Royal Ascot creates for many horses, even those who are still not catered for in France. Recently, a famous French trainer was wondering where to run a 3-year-old filly probably just below G1 level over a mile. When pointed to the Jersey Stakes, a G3 over seven furlongs that Ballydoyle has often targeted with success, he found a series of excuses, none too satisfactory.
“We will wait for the Prix Rothschild at Deauville then,” he concluded.
The Ascot Gold Cup was never disregarded, though, as it has always been viewed as the top staying test of the season. Successful French raids were frequent back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Yet, the fastish ground that most French trainers fear would soon scare them off.
Stayers are well provided for in France, and yet the Cup circuit of top staying races that draws so much attention in Britain seems to have little appeal for the French. The demise of the Grand Prix de Paris, a two-mile contest for 3-year-olds in late June, as the top race of the French season did not help to maintain high-end staying bloodlines either. (The race was overtaken in prestige by the Arc and is now run over a mile and a half on Bastille Day on July 14 instead.)
The same applies to sprinters. The Prix de l’Abbaye is the only five- or six-furlong G1 in France for all-aged horses and it is run away from the Longchamp Racecourse stands on Arc day, as if such a contest does not merit first-class treatment. The odd Gallic sprinter taking part is usually surrounded by British bullets, just like the Imperial Guard at the Battle of Waterloo. Even though Chineur, Don’t Worry Me, and the amazing Last Tycoon won the King’s Stand for French silks in recent years, this does not constitute a trend. With the superfast Australasian sprinters now usually competing at Ascot, the future of a putative French sprinting brigade seems rather poor.
Nowadays, the G1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes, for older horses over 10 furlongs, is the most fashionable Royal Ascot race for the French. Prince Charles has had to deal with French raiders three times when presenting the trophy since 2007. Now Treve, the 2013 Arc winner, is on her way. At least the Prince will be able to enjoy a good conversation with the winning connections – trainer Criquette Head-Maarek, jockey Frankie Dettori, and the Qatari owners’ representative who are fluent in English and will be there to collect the prize on Wednesday if the filly can pull off a win at Ascot.
French-trained winners at Royal Ascot since 1945:
St James's Palace Stakes (G1, 3yo colts, 1m) - 2 wins
KINGMAMBO (1993), VENTURE (1960)
Coronation Stakes (G1, 3yo fillies, 1m) – 8 wins
IMMORTAL VERSE (2011), BANKS HILL (2001), SHAKE THE YOKE (1996), GOLD SPLASH (1993), GOLDEN OPINION (1989), BARBARESQUE (1960), TORO (1957), MIDGET (1956)
Duke of Cambridge Stakes (G2, 4yo+ fillies and mares, 1m) – 1 win
SABANA PERDIDA (2008)
Gold Cup (G1, 4yo+, 2m4f) – 12 wins
WESTERNER (2005), SAGARO (1975-1977), BALTO (1962), SHESHOON (1960), WALLABY (1959), MACIP (1956), ELPENOR (1954), PAN (1951), ARBAR (1948), CARACALLA (1946)
Prince of Wales (G1, 4yo+, 1m2f) – 3 wins
BYWORD (2010), VISION D’ETAT (2009), MANDURO (2007)
Queen Anne Stakes (G1, 4yo+, mile) – 2 wins
GOLDIKOVA (2010), VALIXIR (2005)
Queen's Vase (G3, 3yo, 2 miles) – 2 wins
FASTLAD (1950), ESTOC (1948)
Queen Mary Stakes (G2, 2yo fillies, 5f) – 2 wins
INFRASONIC (1993), CORONATION (1948)
Hardwicke Stakes (G2, 4yo+, 1m4f) – 6 wins
SCORPIO (1980), MONTCONTOUR (1978), GUERSANT (1953), DYNAMITER (1952), NIRGAL (1947), PRIAM (1946)
King Edward VII Stakes (G2, 3yo colts and geldings, 1m4f) – 2 wins
SKYRAIDER (1953), VIC DAY (1948)
Ribblesdale Stakes (G2, 3yo fillies, 1m4f) – 2 wins
TULIPA (1996), ESQUILLA (1953)
King's Stand Stakes (G1, 3yo+, 5f) – 5 wins
CHINEUR (2005), DON'T WORRY ME (1997), LAST TYCOON (1986), FLIRTING AROUND (1975), PALARIVA (1956)