One of the five classics in UK horse racing, the St Leger, is the big casualty amongst the races that have been moved from Saturday 10 September, as a result of the British Horse Racing Association (BHA) decision to suspend racing as a mark of respect for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, following her sad passing on Thursday afternoon.
The Queen had a huge affinity for the sport, with a long-standing active participation as an owner, breeder, and gifted horse-woman in her own right, which was never better demonstrated than when settling her mount after being shot at by a gunman, during the Trooping of the Colour parade, back in 1981.
The meeting at Doncaster will now go ahead 24 hours later on Sunday 11th, with only racing at Musselburgh continuing to be suspended, due to the Queen’s body lying in rest in Edinburgh, just 6 miles away.
Respect for a special supporter of the sport
David Thorpe, Chairman of Arena Racing Company added: “The British horse racing industry has lost a true patron and figurehead. As a mark of respect, we collectively took the decision to cease all racing from Thursday evening, but will return with meetings on Sunday, including the amended fixture at Doncaster, which will feature the St Leger Stakes, and other races that were due to take place on Friday and Saturday. Our gratitude goes to all of our customers and our fellow industry stakeholders and hope that the day might offer an opportunity to mark Her Majesty’s lifelong love for our wonderful sport.”
The BHA added: “All of British Racing is in mourning today following the passing of Her Majesty The Queen. Her passion for racing and the racehorse shone brightly throughout her life.” Their chair, Joe Saumarez Smith, said: “The BHA extends our heartfelt condolences to the royal family and all those affected by this sad news. Racing owes an incalculable debt of gratitude, not only for Her Majesty’s dedication and commitment to the sport, but for her public advocacy of it, something that doubtless has driven the sport’s popularity and attracted a great number of fans.”
BHA chief executive Julie Harrington said the Queen had “an enduring and unique” relationship with the sport as an owner and breeder. “Her Majesty won the St Leger with her filly Dunfermline, in 1977. Sunday will provide an opportunity for the sport and its supporters to pay its respects to a wonderful lady, and for the contribution which she has made to the sport to be marked.”
Sir Francis Brooke, the Queen’s representative and chairman at Ascot, which was her own racecourse, said: “The nation mourns the loss of a much-loved and respected monarch. The world of racing has lost one of its greatest supporters. We at Ascot are privileged to have so many memories of Her Majesty the Queen on this her racecourse, including some wonderful victories in the royal colours. We offer our deepest sympathies to His Majesty the King and the royal family.”
Always a passion for horses
Horses were a feature of young Elizabeth’s early childhood. She learned to ride on a Shetland Pony called Peggy, a fourth birthday present from her grandfather George V. Her interest in racing developed during World War Two, when she accompanied her father to see the royal horses training in Wiltshire. “I was able to pat them in the stables afterwards,” she later recalled. “I had never felt the satin softness of a thoroughbred before.”
First race meeting
The Queen’s first public appearance at a race meeting came a fortnight after the end of the war in Europe, in May 1945, when she first accompanied her parents to Ascot. The Royal Ascot meeting was to become one of her favourite social occasions over the years, and as an owner she enjoyed a total of 24 victories. Every year, the Queen would arrive in a procession down the track from Windsor Castle and punters would bet on what colour hat she would wear as a little side-bet. Such was her keen appetite for the race horses, she always had a copy of the Racing Post newspaper tucked in with her daily correspondence.
Highly talented breeder
She inherited the Royal Stud, a racehorse breeding centre at Sandringham, from her father, King George VI, which has produced many of her winners. She was twice champion flat racing owner in Great Britain. Broadcaster Clare Balding, whose grandfather, father and brother have all trained horses for the Queen, said: “She recognised her horses by sight, was fascinated by their mental and physical development and always talked in detail to the groom who looks after each one. She never wore perfume when she visited the yard to see her horses, as it can excite testosterone-fuelled young colts,which is just a tiny example of the attention to detail she observed.”
As an owner, the Queen won four of the five British Classic races, with only the Derby evading her,
She had shown back in 1955 that she had a keen eye for her stock when two of her yearlings were inadvertently mixed up while being transferred to the care of Newmarket trainer Sir Cecil Boyd Rochfort. It was an error only spotted by the Queen when she visited the stable even though she had not seen the horses for 18 months.
Trainer Sir Michael Stoute, who oversaw more than 100 royal winners said: “She was a pleasure to work for. I found that training for the Queen came with no pressure, because of her understanding, her deep knowledge and her thirst for more. She was always thinking ahead, ‘what am I going to do with this animal, am I going to breed it, who should I breed it to, temperament, speed, stamina.’ She was fascinated with the whole idea.”
Nicky Henderson trained more than his fair share of winners for Her Majesty and he is in no doubt about the impact she had on the sport. He said: “We had some great fun over the years and she was never happier and more at ease than when she was around horses. She was so knowledgeable and her love for the sport shone through to the public. She loved going to the races but if she couldn’t go she would have the racing recorded and she would watch it at home. The sport was her great passion. It gave her a lot of joy, as she gave us a lot of joy.”
Another of the Queen’s trainers, John Gosden, said: “She was a truly remarkable and extraordinary monarch whose love for her people defined her life. Her passion and profound knowledge of horses was unequalled and her advice was always acutely insightful.”
Royal racing manager, John Warren said horses were a “tremendous getaway” from other duties and her support had been a major boost for British racing. “I am sure if the Queen had not been bred into being a monarch she would have found a vocation with horses. It was just simply in her DNA. She would have made a wonderful trainer, such was her affinity with her horses.”
The only days ring-fenced in her diary every year were Derby day and Royal Ascot. She loved seeing the horses race, getting a genuine thrill out of it, and loved making breeding plans for her mares at the Royal Stud. There were hand-written letters each autumn to her trainers detailing the yearlings they were being sent. She also loved the trips in the spring to see them and their trainers as well as the hours just chatting with the people who looked after her horses. Those people got to see the Queen in a different, more relaxed light.
Ascot Gold Cup victory
In 2013, TV cameras captured a wonderful moment when the Queen was beaming with delight in the Royal Box as her horse, Estimate, romped home to win the Ascot Gold Cup, making her the first reigning monarch to own the winner in 207 years. Dressed in purple, like the main colour of her racing silks, Her Majesty was congratulated by her companions who shared the fabulous moment. She greeted her horse in the winners’ enclosure and was then presented with the trophy for the race, which had a first prize of nearly £200,000, by her son Prince Andrew. At her holiday home at Sandringham, there is a life-size sculpture of Estimate, which was a lovely reminder for her, every time she was visited. Estimate’s triumph was among a total of more than 1,800 victories
Willie Carson won the Oaks and St Leger, on Dunfermline in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. He recalled his pride at wearing the royal colours: “When you put the colours on, especially at Epsom, a jockey grows six inches. You are just that much bigger and more important. The Queen was the most famous woman in the whole world, so you feel so privileged. She was so knowledgable, she could go back four or five generations and tells you about them. That may have been the best thing in my riding career.”
He then described learning of the Queen’s passing: “I wasn’t actually watching the television but I saw the flag at half-mast above Buckingham Palace and it hit me very hard. We have lost an unbelievable patron who will never be replaced. It is a sad, sad day. She was 96, but we didn’t want her to go. She was great for the country and she dedicated her life to service.”
Possibly her favourite jockey was Frankie Dettori, who said: “I am shocked for everyone. She was a truly incredible lady and such a dedicated Queen to the country. I met her so many times and she was such a kind and knowledgeable lady who had such a passion for racing. I have been riding for the Queen for the last 30 years. She was such a special person and she had a great sense of humour. It was an emotional feeling when you rode for her and it gave you an incredible sense of pride when you rode a winner in her colours.”
The pair would often share a joke after big-race wins, as Dettori recalled after a victory in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. “That is my fourth King George, I told her. She looked at me and raised an eyebrow before saying: ‘Lester (Piggott) won seven.’ That was me told.”
He then added: “Though I am an Italian, I’ve lived in Newmarket for over 35 years and always felt a huge sense of responsibility and pride riding for Her Majesty. Whenever you rode a winner for her, you could almost burst with pride. It was emotional at times.”
He continued: “I was lucky enough to have so many conversations with her about the sport that we both loved. I treasure the conversations I was very fortunate enough to have with her. She knew the form and could list generations of pedigrees without any reference to the stud book, and she knew the personalities and traits of every horse. Racing has lost its greatest friend. She was such a massive supporter of the sport, but more than that, the country’s loss will be immeasurable. It is a very sad day for everybody.”
If a winner did emerge from the Queen’s passion for racing, it was the sport of horse-racing itself. It would not be possible to have a better ambassador. She helped elevate its status throughout the country, especially at Royal Ascot which now has a worldwide reputation, regularly attracting runners from America, Australia and the Far East keen to experience a unique British event with the Queen at its heart.
It is referred to as the sport of kings, but put simply, no monarch has ever left such an inspirational mark on horse racing, quite like Her Majesty The Queen. Despite her relentless duties, she more or less lived and breathed the sport and was one of the most influential owners and breeders in modern times.
Sadly the sport has lost its greatest supporter, who quite rightly was recognised in 2021 for her contribution to racing as an owner and breeder, by being inducted into the British Champions Series Hall of Fame.