Queen Elizabeth II Dies

Queen Elizabeth II | Getty Images


Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth, as well as being one of the world's most enthusiastic and knowledgeable racehorse owner-breeders, died on Thursday at Balmoral. She was 96 years old.

The reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was not merely the longest in British history, but was also one of the most successful. Leading by example, she steered her country through the momentous changes of the past seven decades. She ascended the throne as the sun was setting on the British Empire and it was thanks to the universal affection and respect which she came to command that the Commonwealth, with all the international goodwill which it has generated and continues to generate, was able to be established. Society is now almost unrecognisable from the world of the 1950s but the monarchy remains; with a lesser figure on the throne during the past 70 turbulent years, it is far from certain that that would be the case. All the while, Queen Elizabeth II's unshakable dedication to her country and to her duty went hand in hand with her love of racing, and both were hugely enriched by her commitment.

The tradition of the British monarch racing horses goes back centuries. In the 17th century the Stuart kings made Newmarket the centre of the sport in Great Britain, which made it the centre of the racing world, a position which it holds to this day. Ascot racecourse owes its existence to the enthusiasm of its founder Queen Anne. While Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, had no interest in the sport, her eldest son, the future King Edward VII, more than made up for that, owning two Derby winners while still Prince of Wales and becoming the perfect sporting king after his accession to the throne. The royal studs and royal string flourished under his stewardship, as they did under Queen Elizabeth II's grandfather King George V and her father King George VI.

King George VI owned his final Classic winner when his home-bred Hyperion filly Hypericum (GB) won the 1000 Guineas in 1946. Following her father's death on Feb. 6, 1952, Queen Elizabeth II, at the age of just 26, was crowned on June 2, 1953 and Coronation Week perfectly summed up the twin threads of kingdom and sport which ran through her life. Four days after the Coronation, her Hyperion colt Aureole (GB), bred by her father, finished second in the Derby behind Pinza (GB) (Chanteur {Fr}), the latter ridden by Gordon Richards, the doyen of champion jockeys who had received a knighthood in the Coronation honours. Later in the month Queen Elizabeth II owned the first of her many Royal Ascot winners when Choirboy (GB) (Hyperion {GB}) won the Royal Hunt Cup, and during the week she invested the long-standing royal trainer Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort as a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

Aureole, who had won the Acomb S. at York as a 2-year-old, improved further from three to four and in 1954 he proved himself a champion with three big wins culminating in his triumph in the race named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's parents, the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth S. at Ascot. He had previously won the Coronation Cup at Epsom and the Hardwicke S. at Royal Ascot, and his success proved instrumental in Her Majesty ending the season as champion owner for the first time, an achievement which she repeated three years later.

Ever since the glory days of Aureole (who later became a very successful stallion at Wolferton Stud, being crowned Champion Sire of Great Britain and Ireland in both 1960 and '61) the Queen's staunch, successful and whole-hearted patronage has ensured that racing's tag of the Sport of Kings has remained a perfect byline. She owned her first Classic winner when the Noel Murless-trained Carozza (GB) (Dante {GB}), a filly whom she leased from the National Stud, won the Oaks under a 21-year-old Lester Piggott in 1957. Further Classic glory followed when Pall Mall (GB) (Palestine {GB}) won the 2000 Guineas in 1958, fittingly ridden by Doug Smith who had guided Hypericum to glory up the Rowley Mile in the same royal livery 12 years previously.

The golden days continued to come. Highclere (GB) (Queen's Hussar {GB}), trained by Major Dick Hern and ridden by Joe Mercer, emulated her granddam Hypericum by winning the 1000 Guineas in 1974 before completing a glorious European Classic double by galloping to victory in the Prix de Diane at Chantilly, hours after Her Majesty and her entourage had been driven up the course before racing in a French welcome fit for a queen. Three years later Hern provided a perfectly timed triumph when Dunfermline (GB) (Royal Palace {GB}) won the Oaks at Epsom on the day that the nation celebrated Her Majesty's Silver Jubilee. Later that season Dunfermline doubled her Classic haul when outstaying Alleged (Hoist The Flag) in the St Leger, a performance whose merit was confirmed when Alleged won the next two runnings of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Hopes were high for a similarly special celebration 34 years later when Carlton House (Street Cry {Ire}), who had been given to Her Majesty as a yearling by Sheikh Mohammed, went off favourite for the Derby as the celebrations for the Queen's 85th birthday celebrations loomed. Unfortunately he could only finish a close third. An even greater gift turned out to have been Estimate (Ire) (Monsun {Ger}), a present from HH Aga Khan IV. Her victory in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in 2013 made Queen Elizabeth II the first monarch to own the winner of the greatest race of the greatest race-meeting, a result which gave pleasure to millions.

Royal Ascot was always a fixture in the Queen's calendar, a meeting which she adored. The pleasure which she savoured there each year was exceeded only by the esteem which the sport gained from her presence and participation. That Gold Cup triumph must have given her boundless joy, but two other runnings of the great race, each won by one of her closest racing friends, must have given her almost equal pleasure. In 1974 the Duke of Norfolk, for many years Her Majesty's Representative at Ascot, won it with his John Dunlop-trained home-bred Ragstone (GB) (Ragusa {Ire}); nine years later the prize went to the Dick Hern-trained Little Wolf (GB) (Grundy {GB}), bred and raced by her long-time racing manager Lord Porchester (later the 7th Earl of Carnarvon).

One particular Royal Ascot memory shines out brightly. The unbeaten Australian champion sprinter Black Caviar (Aus) (Bel Espirt {Aus}) overcame a mountain of obstacles to record a famous victory in the G1 Diamond Jubilee S. in 2012. After the race, Her Majesty, whose respect and admiration for a great horse remained as pure as it had been when she was a young girl with her grandfather King George V entrancing her with his account of the victory of his home-bred filly Scuttle (GB) in the 1000 Guineas, made sure that she reached the unsaddling enclosure in time to ask Black Caviar's connections for permission to make the acquaintance of their wonderful mare. Royal Ascot may be about pageantry, style and social cachet but, as Queen Elizabeth II reminded us on that unforgettable day, it is, always has been, and always will be primarily about great horses. And few have ever revered great horses over as extended a period as Her Majesty did.

Queen Elizabeth II's racing life and her royal duties fitted together perfectly. Her love of and deep understanding of the sport tied in particularly well with her royal duties overseas, when days at the races were included where possible in official tours. Aside from the pleasure which such trips gave to Her Majesty, the boundary-crossing passion for the sport did much to foster friendly relations between the Queen and her hosts. Race-clubs worldwide were delighted to find a shared love of the sport with the British monarch, invariably strengthening ties between the nations.

The Queen's Plate (inaugurated in 1860 at the now-defunct Carleton racecourse in Toronto by permission of Queen Victoria) has retained its place as Canada's premier Classic and one of the world's great races, despite the anachronism of being restricted to Canadian-bred horses. Every Queen's Plate day at Woodbine is special, but none more so than when Queen Elizabeth II was the guest of honour, as she was in 1959 for the 100th running of the great race. That year's winner was the Windfields Farm home-bred New Providence (Bull Page) who went on to enjoy a very good stud career. In retrospect, Her Majesty must have wished she had been there five years later when another Windfields home-bred won the race, following up his Kentucky Derby victory: Northern Dancer (Nearctic). Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh attended three subsequent Queen's Plates, in 1973, 1997 and 2010.

Queen Elizabeth II's father King George VI had been the first reigning British monarch to attend the Queen's Plate when he and Her Majesty's mother Queen Elizabeth had seen Archworth (Worthmore) win in 1939, and Queen Elizabeth, as the Queen Mother, attended the race-day a further six times. She struck particularly lucky as regards the quality of the winner in 1962 when the home-bred Windfields filly Flaming Page (Bull Page) won the great race. Flaming Page subsequently secured everlasting fame thanks to her mating in 1966 with Northern Dancer, a union which, of course, produced Nijinsky.

For obvious reasons, the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club dropped the 'Royal' from its name when the UK's lease on the territory expired in 1997, but the HKJC has continued to run the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (currently sponsored by Audemars Piguet) every April. This race was first run at Happy Valley in 1975 when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh went to the races on their first visit to Hong Kong. It was subsequently relocated to Sha Tin after that showpiece racecourse's creation on land reclaimed from the sea.

Major races paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II have flourished around the globe. Keeneland inaugurated the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup S. (which now carries Grade I status) when Her Majesty visited in 1984. Nine years later the Queen paid what proved to have been her only state visit to Japan, which triggered the subsequent inauguration of the Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup at Kyoto, another race which now carries Group 1 status. In France, a royal visit in 1972 had prompted the running of La Coupe de Sa Majeste la Reine Elizabeth at Longchamp, the race subsequently being transferred to Chantilly in honour of Highclere's victory there and renamed the G2 Prix Sandringham. In Australia, the G3 Queen Elizabeth S. is a highlight of the final day of the VRC Carnival at Flemington every spring in Victoria; while the crown jewel of the Championships at Royal Randwick every autumn in New South Wales is the G1 Queen Elizabeth S. It was fitting that Carlton House was able to carry the royal silks honourably in the race in 2014 after his transferral from Sir Michael Stoute's string in Newmarket to Gai Waterhouse's stable in Sydney.

Arguably the most special royal race took place as a one-off on a late-autumn day in the Australian capital Canberra (which in the normal course of events never stages top-class racing) to celebrate Australia's bicentenary in 1988, the Queen Elizabeth S. It worked out wonderfully well when this special race turned into a stirring duel between two terrific horses, the champion older horse Bonecrusher (NZ) (Pag-Asa {Aus}) and the champion three-year-old Beau Zam (NZ) (Zamazaan {Fr}) in a race which also featured the recent G1 VRC Australian Cup hero Dandy Andy (NZ) (Three Legs {GB}). Beau Zam came off best at the end of an epic horse-race, a result which must have given Her Majesty particular pleasure as her daughter Princess Anne had ridden him at trackwork at Randwick one morning a few weeks previously, shortly before his victory in the AJC Derby.

Les Carlyon summed up the spirit of the occasion perfectly in his report in the Age newspaper: “The Queen Elizabeth, as good a race as you will see, was a rebuff to those who think the Crown has trained off, that the royalty bit, rather like straight-backed jockeys, is out of time and place. Consider what the royal presence did yesterday. Here we were in Canberra, which is to high-class racing what Alice Springs is to international sculling. And on Sunday, too. Here were three of the best horses in the land. Collectively, they had won $4 million. They were going around for just $65,000 to the winner. What brought them? The Queen. Simple as that.”

Beau Zam's trainer Bart Cummings subsequently gave a typically droll account of his presentation to Her Majesty in the winner's enclosure, “She's a very gracious lady. She obviously takes racing very seriously. She knows her pedigrees. She said it was a most exciting race. She said he is a lovely-looking colt. Can't say any more. She gave me a wink.”

No royal tour, though, has seen the Queen's love of the horse and the sport complementing her official duties more perfectly than was the case during her ground-breaking state visit to Ireland in May 2011. This was the first visit by the British monarch to what is now the Republic of Ireland for 100 years, the last previous one having been made by her grandfather King George V in 1911. That, of course, was when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, which changed after 700 years of (often brutal) British occupation when the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on Dec. 6, 1921 brought the Irish War of Independence to an end. For most of the remainder of the 20th century, it seemed inconceivable that a British monarch would be rash enough to visit the Republic of Ireland in the foreseeable future. Time, though, is a great healer, but what proved the crucial factor in this particular healing process was the worldwide respect which the irreproachable conduct of Queen Elizabeth II had fostered over the previous decades.  Furthermore, what particularly helped to pave the way for her historic visit was her legendary love of the horse and of the turf, a passion which could only endear her to the hearts of that particular nation.

Even people with no misgivings about the wisdom of a British monarch visiting Ireland could not have predicted what a tremendous success the tour would prove to be. The tone was set on the first day when she and the Irish President Mary McAleese laid wreaths together in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin and the Queen bowed to honour those who had died for Irish independence. On the second day she went even further to lay the ghosts of the past to rest and to make atonement for a particularly black chapter in British history when she visited Croke Park, where on 'Bloody Sunday', Nov. 21, 1920, British machine guns had been fired on players and spectators at a Gaelic football match, killing 14 Irish civilians, including two children, and wounding at least 60 more. Although some officials of the Gaelic Athletic Association declined to attend Her Majesty's visit to Croke Park, she was greeted there by the President of the GAA Christy Cooney with the words, “Your Majesty, on behalf of the members of the Gaelic Athletic Association throughout Ireland and across the world, I am delighted to welcome you to our headquarters.”

Smiles all round after Estimate and Ryan Moore (right) won The Queen's Vase in 2012 | Dan Abraham/Focusonracing.com

The following day Her Majesty visited the Irish National Stud, where she was shown around by the Chief Executive John Osborne, and Gilltown Stud, where she had lunch as the guest of HH Aga Khan IV and his family. On the fourth and final day she headed south-west to Cork via the Rock of Cashel, where the Sinn Fein Mayor of Cashel, Michael Browne, welcomed her and shook her hand, a particularly notable event as Sinn Fein had refused to take part in the official reception for her in Dublin. One consequence of this welcome was that the following month it was announced that Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, would do the same on her next visit to the province. From Cashel she visited Coolmore Stud, where John Magnier welcomed her and introduced her to Galileo (Ire), much to her evident delight.

In four days, Queen Elizabeth II, as both Head of State and horse-lover, did more to nurture Anglo-Irish friendship than could previously ever have been imagined possible. That summed up her reign perfectly. The United Kingdom has been very fortunate to have had such a special person as its monarch for 70 years, and racing has been very fortunate to have enjoyed the patronage of the greatest supporter it has ever known.

Queen Elizabeth II, born in London, England, Apr. 21, 1926; died at Balmoral, Scotland, Sept. 8, 2022.

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