The official celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will begin on Derby Day at Epsom, so putting the royal seal of approval firmly on the sport of horse racing. What has for so long been called the sport of kings should probably be re-named.
The Queen’s love of horses dates back to a Shetland pony called Peggy. A scruffy, shaggy, stocky little mare who was a gift to Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, from their grandfather, King George V.
The Queen learnt to ride on Peggy and Her Majesty has the touch of a true horsewoman in everything she does with racing. She recognises her horses by sight, is fascinated by their mental and physical development and always talks in detail to the groom who looks after each one.
One tiny example of the attention to detail: the Queen never wears perfume when she visits the yard to see her horses as it can excite testosterone-fuelled young colts.
My grandfather, father and brother have all trained racehorses for the Queen, and I have witnessed up close Her Majesty’s deep knowledge of the horses she has bred and raced. I have also seen how relaxed the Queen is around horses and how much she enjoys the company of racing people.
She loves the stories and the humour, as well as the concentration on a subject she enjoys. The Queen is a keen follower of the horse whisperer Monty Roberts and adopts many of his techniques on her foals and yearlings – for instance, leading them over a blue plastic sheet so they are not afraid of walking through water.
The result is that they are more responsive and better behaved when they arrive at their various racing yards.
As for the Derby, the Queen came very close to winning the race in her Coronation year of 1953 with a horse called Aureole. He finished second to Pinza, who gave the champion jockey Gordon Richards his first win in the race at the 28th attempt. The Queen later said, “One shouldn’t really be sad not to win because Sir Gordon, at last, had won the Derby.”
It took another 58 years for the Queen to look through her binoculars and see a horse in her colours challenging in the closing stages of the Derby. Last year, Carlton House started as favourite and looked for a stride or two as if he might finally produce a royal victory.
He was beaten by only a length into third by the late swoop of Pour Moi and the doggedness of Treasure Beach. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry were among those in the royal box, and the Queen was sanguine in defeat. Carlton House is still in training and may yet appear at Royal Ascot.
But the Queen has known plenty of success. She won the 1974 1000 Guineas and French Oaks with Highclere, causing chaos at Chantilly as the French crowd celebrated the British monarch’s success. Another filly, Dunfermline, lit up the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year by winning the Oaks at Epsom and the St Leger at Doncaster, ridden in both by my BBC Derby Day cohort Willie Carson.
Dunfermline was, according to former Royal Studs manager Sir Michael Oswald, “probably the best horse the Queen has ever owned”.
Added to Pall Mall’s success in the 1958 2000 Guineas and a previous Oaks win in 1957 with Carrozza, the Queen has won all the British Classics apart from the Derby.
Carlton House was a gift from Sheikh Mohammed and the horse will one day stand at Sandringham Stud in Norfolk where the Queen will make use of his genes to try to do what she has spent a lifetime working towards: produce the winner of the Blue Riband of the racing world.
“I enjoy going racing,” she told Sir Peter O’Sullevan in a BBC documentary in 1974, “but basically I love horses. A thoroughbred epitomises a really good horse to me, and my particular hope for the future, like all breeders of horses, is to breed the winner of the Derby.” That dream is still alive but there will be no royal runner this year.
Only three-year-olds can run in the Derby and none of Her Majesty’s current crop are quite good enough. However, she is hugely interested in other people’s horses and will no doubt be cheering if Bonfire wins the Investec Derby. He is trained by my brother, Andrew, and owned by Highclere Thoroughbred Racing – a syndicate managed by Harry Herbert and John Warren.
John is the Queen’s bloodstock and racing advisor, and Harry is the son of Lord Carnarvon, who was for many years the Queen’s racing manager and close friend. Bonfire is a “home team” horse.
But the Queen could have a personal interest at Epsom on Saturday, as there is a chance that her four-year-old filly Set To Music will run. She has an outside chance in a race run over the Derby course and distance in the Diamond Jubilee Coronation Cup, renamed in her honour.
Win and the Queen will be faced with a royal dilemma – how to present the trophy to herself.
Clare Balding’s Derby tips
1. Bonfire - I can't pretend I will be altogether controlled if he wins because he's trained by my brother, Andrew. He won the Dante in good style.
2. Camelot - He has been hot favourite since he won the Racing Post Trophy last year. He's since won the 2000 Guineas and looks outstanding.
3. Main Sequence - He won the Lingfield Derby Trial and could run well.
Racing from Epsom: Derby Day is on BBC1, Saturday at 12.50pm
This article was first published in the Radio Times (2-8 June)