By Tony Rushmer
It was one of horse racing’s greatest rivalries – the enduring and engrossing duel for supremacy contested by Sir Michael Stoute and the late Sir Henry Cecil.
From their respective stables in Newmarket, the two men almost seemed to have a monopoly on the British trainers’ championship through the 1980s and 1990s. Sir Henry, who died in 2013, claimed the title on no less than 10 occasions – a tally matched in 2009 by Stoute.
Another record the pair share is that they have both recorded 75 Royal Ascot winners, an extraordinary feat given the ruthlessly competitive nature of racing at the globally renowned five-day meeting.
“Henry had a wonderful record at Ascot ... one year he had seven winners,” says Stoute. “A formidable trainer, one of the greatest of all time – he had such a feel for horses. Gifted ... very gifted.”
Stoute also recalls, with a smile, that his great rival – famous for his style and charisma – was seriously competitive. “Nevermind the outward appearance; he was a fierce competitor, H.R.A Cecil!”
Takes one to know one, don’t they say? Stoute has proved as tough-as-teak over the decades. You don’t achieve all he has done in his own illustrious career without blending steeliness alongside intelligence and a sure touch.
Stoute reached that total of 75 Royal Ascot winners last year, thanks to the victory of The Queen’s horse Dartmouth in the Hardwicke Stakes.
It was the latest in a series of golden days for the 71-year old Barbadian at the Royal Meeting – and yet it wasn’t always the case, as he reveals.
“We had our first winner in 1977 – I started in 1972. People kept on banging away at me ‘When are you going to have a winner here?’ So it was a big relief to get Etienne Gerard. Obviously, you never forget your first one.”
While that was Stoute’s initial success at the Royal Meeting, he had first attended, aged 20, in 1966. Working for Yorkshire-based trainer Pat Rohan as a pupil-assistant, he travelled down with a fancied runner for the King’s Stand. The horse didn’t perform as connections hoped, but Stoute still recalls his excitement at going to Royal Ascot – a feeling that has never left him.
“It becomes more and more special because I think it’s becoming more international,” he says. “And it’s the whole pageantry of the thing. It starts with the Royal Procession and the visitors love it, but so do the indigenous people.”
Royal Ascot is always a major priority for Stoute, who trains from the historic Freemason Lodge – home to so many equine superstars through the decades. The planning starts months before, although not quite as early as at one Newmarket yard, where a trainer once jotted down his Ascot hopefuls while the Christmas tree was still up.
“He was more forward-thinking than I am,” says Stoute with a grin. “I think it starts to happen when you get them moving again at the start of the flat season.
“You are looking at the team from early on in the season, looking at potential Royal Ascot runners – like Cheltenham with the jumps boys. When you finalise it, the staff really love it. They love taking a horse there.
The thrill of being associated with a Royal Ascot runner is trumped by only one thing – the unbeatable glow of standing alongside a winner during the week itself. Each race requires a special performance to win it and nothing can be taken for granted, such is the quality of the opposition. It’s why Stoute’s tally of 75 successes is so remarkable.
“A great team effort,” is his typically modest assessment. “It’s a good achievement by men and horses.”
As with John Gosden, Stoute did not have a runner on the opening day of the royal meeting. Ulyssees is the horse burdened with the biggest responsibility of securing the pricessless record-breaking victory in Wednesday's Prince Of Wales's Stakes. The Gordon Richard's Stakes winner is one of Stoute's shortest-priced runners across the week at 3-1. He is joined in the feature on Wednesday by Queen's Trust, the Breeders' Cup winner. On Thursday Mori is 7-2 for the Group Two Ribblesdale Stakes, while Mirage Dancer is 4-1 for the Hampton Court Stakes. His best chance, according to the bookmakers, is Crystal Ocean at 9-4 in the King Edward VII Stakes on Friday, while if he is still waiting to win by Saturday the house would come down were Dartmouth to become The Queen's 24the winner at the meeting.
Stoute feels all of the victories are special (“because the owners so appreciate a Royal Ascot winner”). But there is one in particular that will never be forgotten – Estimate’s triumph for The Queen in the 2013 Gold Cup. Estimate raised the roof in winning for her owner, whose delight was evident as she watched a thrilling conclusion to the historic two-and-a-half mile race from her seat in the Royal Box. It was the first time the Gold Cup – inaugurated in 1807 – had been won by a reigning monarch.
“I’d have to say that Estimate’s win in the Gold Cup was a wonderful day,” recalls Sir Michael.
His most special of all?
“Yes, I’d think so. The crowd loved it, the owner loved it – she said afterwards that was the race she most coveted at the Royal Meeting. It’s her meeting – she adores it. She watches every race and follows them all very closely.”
Reflecting on memories of other great days at Royal Ascot, Stoute scans the list of his winners and his eye falls on Shareef Dancer, who strode to glory in the 1983 King Edward VII Stakes.
“Shareef Dancer gave me a lot of pleasure when he won,” he says. “He then went and won the Irish Derby nine days later. He wasn’t only a good horse, he was a tough, very sound animal. That gave me a big thrill. But look, they all gave me a thrill.”
And to prove the point he immediately goes on to talk about how the rain came just in time for Hellenic to deliver an ultimately telling performance in the 1990 Ribblesdale Stakes.
In the 26 years that have followed, only three times has Stoute returned from the meeting without a winner. It’s a pointer to strongly suggest that it’s a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if ’ Sir Michael Stoute becomes Royal Ascot’s leading trainer of all time.
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