Friday, June 3, 2011

The Queen's Quest for the Derby




by Kellie Reilly

These are heady days for the House of Windsor. A compelling tale of its past has been commemorated by the Oscar-laden The King's Speech, and its future has been bolstered by the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Moreover, such state occasions as The Queen's recent visit to Ireland, and Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Great Britain last fall, were epoch-making in their significance. And now, at this very confluence of history, Elizabeth II has yet another landmark in view: a victory in the Derby with CARLTON HOUSE (Street Cry [Ire]), perhaps her best chance so far in the one English classic that has eluded her.

The Queen is heir to a centuries-old tradition of royalty promoting racing in Great Britain, a contribution that spans a succession of dynasties. The collection of prized Near Eastern stallions, crossed with English and Irish strains -- the first stirrings of what would become the Thoroughbred -- gathered pace under the Stuarts. The ill-fated Charles I owned an exquisite group of Royal Mares, which later emerged from the tumult of the Commonwealth and left their legacy on the nascent breed.

After the Restoration, his son Charles II made Newmarket the headquarters of the racing scene, a nickname the town still holds. The Merry Monarch was also responsible for the name of the course, "the Rowley Mile," honoring his favorite mount, Old Rowley. Well known for his horsemanship, Charles II actually rode in races himself, observed training sessions from a special post on the heath, and established the conditions of the races known as the King's Plates.

Nearly three decades following his death, his niece, Queen Anne, founded the racecourse at Ascot in 1711. Tribute is still paid to that sovereign at the opening of every Royal meeting, with the mile race run in her name. This year will be particularly special as Ascot marks its tricentennial.

The first Hanoverians to ascend the British throne weren't nearly as committed to racing as the Stuarts had been, but the new royal house would come to exert a breed-shaping influence. The Duke of Cumberland, a son of George II, was a pedigree maven who bred the monumental stallions Herod and Eclipse, veritable building blocks of the breed. Without the Duke of Cumberland, the Thoroughbred as we have it today would be unthinkable.

In light of this background, it might come as a surprise that the British royals have had precious little success in the Derby since its inception in 1780. George IV, a hard-core racing enthusiast and inveterate gambler, won the 1788 running with Sir Thomas when he was still Prince of Wales. But a century passed before another Prince of Wales savored a Derby victory.

In 1896, Queen Victoria's son "Bertie" took the Blue Riband with his outstanding homebred Persimmon. Four years later, Persimmon's full brother Diamond Jubilee -- foaled in 1897, the 60th anniversary of Victoria's ascension to the throne -- captured the Derby on the way to glory in the English Triple Crown.

After succeeding his mother as Edward VII, the King made history by becoming the only reigning monarch to win the Derby. That unique royal colorbearer was Minoru in 1909, and his victory was the result of a few twists of fate.

Minoru was leased to the King by his breeder Col. William Hall-Walker. This arrangement came about when the colt was a yearling because the King was disappointed with his homebred crop. But Abram Hewitt relates a more colorful possibility in Sire Lines: Hall-Walker, a devotee of astrology, believed that Minoru was destined to win the Blue Riband, and wanted the King to enjoy an unprecedented victory.

Whatever the real explanation, Minoru was in the right place at the right time in the Derby. The highly-regarded Sir Martin (whose half-brother Sir Barton would later become the first American Triple Crown winner) fell while in front in the stretch, and several contenders were hampered as a result, including the great Bayardo. Meanwhile, Minoru didn't have a straw in his path. Capitalizing on his good fortune, he stormed to the lead and just barely held on from the fast-finishing Louviers by a short head.

Minoru returned to Hall-Walker's ownership upon Edward's death in 1910. He was at stud for two seasons before being sold to the Russian government in 1913. Fate was not on Minoru's side there, for he was lost amid the chaos of the Revolution. In the words of the inimitable Joe Palmer in Names in Pedigrees, it was a time "when anything with a pedigree was obnoxious."

Yet from his short time prior to export, Minoru earned a permanent place in Thoroughbred pedigrees. His daughter Serenissima was a blue hen, and her daughter Selene became famous as the dam of Hyperion, *Pharamond II and *Sickle. Thus Minoru's genetic heritage is diffused across the globe.

Four years after Minoru's popular triumph, royal fortunes took a tragic turn in the 1913 Derby. Edward's son King George V (the present Queen's grandfather) had a runner named *Anmer, who became the target of a suicidal political protest. The suffragette Emily Davison darted onto the course and hurled herself into Anmer's path, bringing the colt down and sustaining fatal injuries herself.

The Queen's father, George VI of The King's Speech fame, experienced Derby disappointment of a different kind with Big Game in 1942. The previous year's champion two-year-old colt, Big Game remained undefeated through the Two Thousand Guineas, and was hyped as the "horse of the century" in advance of the Derby, then staged at Newmarket on account of the war. Unfortunately, he failed to settle for his legendary rider Gordon Richards, didn't stay the 1 1/2-mile trip, and was well beaten in sixth behind the victorious *Watling Street.

One day earlier, George VI had landed the Oaks with Sun Chariot, whom he led into the winner's circle in his RAF uniform. The star filly also garnered the One Thousand Guineas and defeated males in the St Leger, completing an historic classic treble -- the fillies' version of the English Triple Crown -- in the royal colors.

The Queen has likewise registered victories in all of the English classics, except for the coveted Derby. Her first classic winner, 1957 Oaks heroine *Carrozza, was out of a full sister to Sun Chariot. Next came Pall Mall, winner of the 1958 Two Thousand Guineas. Not until 1974 did Elizabeth add the One Thousand Guineas with Highclere (GB), who scored a classic double in the Prix de Diane (French Oaks). During her Silver Jubilee year in 1977, Dunfermline (GB) gave The Queen her second Epsom Oaks title. Dunfermline is better remembered for winning a war of attrition over Alleged in the St Leger, inflicting upon him the only defeat of his stellar career.

Elizabeth has had nine previous Derby contestants. Her first -- Aureole -- came the closest, just days after her coronation in 1953. Until the advent of Carlton House, he also had stronger credentials than any of The Queen's eight subsequent runners. A promising fifth in the Two Thousand Guineas, he dominated the Lingfield Derby Trial en route to Epsom.

While the 1953 Derby was Elizabeth's first as reigning monarch, it also marked the 28th and final chance for Richards, who had yet to win the Blue Riband. The newly-minted Sir Gordon, just knighted by The Queen, famously thwarted her bid for a victory in the "coronation Derby," and achieved an overdue win for himself. Guiding the high-class Pinza, Richards stole a march on the late-running Aureole and careered away in convincing fashion by four lengths. After Pinza was retired to stud, Aureole went on to become a superior four-year-old, capturing the Coronation Cup, Hardwicke and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S., named for the sovereign's parents.

The Queen's representative in 1954, *Landau, was a son of Sun Chariot, but didn't have much more to recommend him. No factor in the Guineas and runner-up in the Lingfield Derby Trial, Landau retreated to eighth at Epsom, well adrift of the winner Never Say Die. Landau later cut back in distance and romped in the Sussex S.

In 1956, The Queen's Atlas scored in one of the Derby preps, the Dee S. at Chester. Nevertheless, he already looked a cut below classic standard, and did well to rally for fifth to Lavandin after suffering interference in the straight. Atlas would prove his merit over an extended distance by landing the Doncaster Cup.

The Queen fielded a substantially better prospect the next year with Doutelle. From the immediate family of Aureole (the two shared Feola as their second dam), Doutelle was a workmanlike victor of the 1957 Lingfield Derby Trial, but unfortunately was the victim of a rough trip in the Derby. He exited his 10th-place finish, behind the cozy winner Crepello, with an injured pastern. Doutelle did not return to action until the fall, when rebounding to take the Cumberland Lodge S.

The Queen's runner in 1958, Miner's Lamp, was a half-brother to Atlas, both out of the Lancashire Oaks winner Young Entry. Miner's Lamp earned his berth with a score in the Blue Riband Trial at Epsom, but despite his experience over the course, he became unbalanced on the hill in the Derby. He eventually stayed on for sixth to Hard Ridden, and later earned his signature win in the Princess of Wales's S.

In 1959, for the fourth year in a row, The Queen's colors made a Derby appearance. Above Suspicion was still a maiden, but an accomplished one. The half-brother to Doutelle, out of Yorkshire Oaks and Cesarewitch victress Above Board, missed by only a short head in the Newmarket S. Compromised by a troubled passage at Epsom, he rattled home for fifth to Parthia. Above Suspicion was able to show his true ability that season when garnering the St James's Palace S. and Gordon S.

Nineteen more years would pass before The Queen had a Derby runner, if not a prime contender, in 1978. English Harbour wound up 18th, never seeing the climactic finish between Shirley Heights and Hawaiian Sound.

A decent case could have been made for The Queen's Milford in 1979. Produced by dual classic heroine Highclere, Milford prepped with victories in the White Rose S. and Lingfield Derby Trial. Willie Carson, the stable rider for Dick Hern, had to choose among Milford and his stablemates Troy and Niniski. Carson believed that Troy was the best of the lot, and Sir Michael Sobell's colt ratified the decision with an electrifying, seven-length victory in the 200th Derby. Milford, who faded to a disappointing 10th, bounced back to take the Princess of Wales's S. in course-record time at Newmarket.

The Queen's 1981 Derby hopeful, Church Parade, was a three-quarter brother to Highclere. He didn't offer much encouragement when 14th in blinkers in the Two Thousand Guineas, and he was beaten out of sight when fifth to the mighty Shergar at Epsom.

Highclere might have played a still greater role in The Queen's Derby ambitions, but for a questionable bloodstock management decision. Her daughter Height of Fashion (Fr), England's champion two-year-old filly of 1981, was sold to Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum after her record-setting victory in the 1982 Princess of Wales's S.

The price was reportedly around $2 million, but the loss to the royal broodmare band was incalculable. Height of Fashion became a foundation mare for Sheikh Hamdan, and her brightest star was Nashwan, the conqueror of the Derby, Guineas, Eclipse and King George in 1989.

Parting with Height of Fashion, a descendant of Feola's line that had served The Queen so well, was a blunder supervised by her racing manager at that time, the late Earl of Carnarvon. He was the grandson of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who supposedly brought the "Curse of Tutankhamun" on his head by orchestrating the opening of the Pharaoh's tomb. Critics of the racing manager were not hesitant to bring up the curse.

But the Maktoum family might have helped to adjust the balance sheet with Carlton House. Bred by Darley, Carlton House was a gift from Sheikh Mohammed to The Queen. The ruler of Dubai was grateful to the British sovereign for earlier giving him Highland Glen, a horse that he had expressed an interest in purchasing. When The Queen gave Highland Glen to the Sheikh outright, he repaid her generosity in kind.

Such courtly gift-giving is a distant echo of the diplomatic exchanges of centuries ago, when Arabian, Barb and Turcoman stallions were dispatched as gifts to European monarchs. In this way were laid the cornerstones of the Thoroughbred.

But besides recalling ages past, Carlton House is in some sense a recapitulation of The Queen's own history in racing. Like her Two Thousand Guineas winner Pall Mall, his name is London-oriented. Like her Oaks and St Leger heroine Dunfermline, he is named for a former royal residence: Carlton House was where George IV was based before taking the throne.

Moreover, the colt's pedigree reads like an episode of "This Is Your Life." His sire Street Cry is out of a daughter of Troy, whom The Queen watched demolish that milestone Derby in 1979. Troy's second dam is by Pinza, vanquisher of The Queen's Aureole in 1953. Street Cry's third dam is by Pall Mall.

Carlton House's dam is by Bustino, a longtime denizen of the royal stud at Wolferton, and the sire of Height of Fashion. Bustino's grandsires are Crepello and The Queen's Doutelle, who had clashed in the 1957 Derby.

Carlton House's third dam, Triple First, finished fourth to Dunfermline as the favorite in the 1977 Oaks. His fifth dam is a half-sister to Never Day Die, whom The Queen's Landau chased in the 1954 Derby.

Like Aureole, Carlton House is trained at Freemason Lodge in Newmarket. Sir Michael Stoute is now in charge of the historic yard once directed by Capt. (later Sir) Cecil Boyd-Rochfort.

Perhaps it is fitting that Carlton House is also embodying the highs and lows of The Queen's quest for the Derby. After stamping himself as a serious classic prospect with a nine-length maiden romp at Newbury last October, the bay colt developed a foot infection over the winter. Stoute was pleased enough with his progress to pitch him into the Dante, following the same route he took with the 2010 Derby hero Workforce (GB).

In that typically key trial, Carlton House scythed between horses with a smart turn of foot to win readily, fueling legitimate hopes for a royal Derby winner. But just as excitement was reaching fever pitch, the antepost favorite sustained an injury blow. On Tuesday his connections revealed that he developed slight swelling in a joint.

Although racing manager John Warren remains optimistic that this reportedly minor issue will not derail his Derby bid, no one wants to cope with any setback days from the race. If Carlton House doesn't line up after all, The Queen's best chance would turn out to be her most painful disappointment. If Carlton House puts this behind him with an historic victory Saturday, the nerve-wracking week will become the stuff of Derby legend.

UPDATE: Carlton House, the Queen's entrant and post-time favorite in the Derby made a gallant bid coming for home but was overtaken by French invader Pour Moi. Carlton House lost a shoe in the stretch but that likely wasn't the cause of his third place finish.

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