It takes a special horse to get on the scoresheet at Royal Ascot. And 40 years ago there was Stanerra, the headstrong mare with the ultimate constitution, who in 1983 did the unthinkable and won both the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and Hardwicke Stakes in the space of four days.
Trained originally by Jim Bolger, her owner, the sports-mad Irish businessman Frank Dunne, decided to swap the head offices of the shops that adorned his name for a training licence in 1982 and took over the handling duties.
The following year would prove a special year for Dunne and Stanerra, and it was Brian Rouse who would get the best seat in the house as she embarked on a season that would see her write her name in the record books at the Royal meeting.
It was a shock victory in the Brigadier Gerard Stakes which would tee up Stanerra’s historic Royal Ascot double and when sent off 7-1 for the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on the opening day of the big meeting, she made light work of the Sir Henry Cecil-trained favourite Sabre Dance to score by four lengths.
On Rouse’s urgings she would return to the Berkshire track only three days later to tackle the Hardwicke Stakes and produced another devastating display to register a second facile triumph of the week, breaking the track record in the process.
Few horses have completed a double at the Royal meeting and it is even rarer to achieve that phenomenal feat in middle-distance contests as Stanerra became the first horse since Shaddock in 1896 to win both the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and Hardwicke during the same meeting.
However, as Rouse explains, Stanerra was no ordinary horse and if any was going to successfully complete such a mammoth task, it was the tough-as-teak five-year-old.
He said: “She was very good, but she was a right cow. That was the difference and that is why she was good.
“She was a very big built mare, she was enormous. She never ran out of gas, even at home she took so much work. After her work she would go on the walker for hours and she just never tired. She was extraordinary, a bit of a freak of nature and you don’t get many like that.”
Rouse rode Blue Refrain to a hat-trick of Royal Ascot victories in 1978, 1979 and 1980, but he regards those two races aboard Stanerra as some of the highlights of his career and he was in no doubt she should attempt the double once she had stormed to Prince of Wales’s Stakes success.
He added: “She was good, she was very good. I thought if she wanted to do it (win again), she would do it.
“I thought after the first one (Prince of Wales’s Stakes), the second horse (Sabre Dance) is good and I’ve gone past easily. Frank Dunne said to me, ‘I’m thinking about running her again’, and I said, ‘you want to run her, run her again!’.
“I had won a few races at Ascot, Blue Refrain had won a couple of times, but it was a huge moment in my career. Those two years with Stanerra were probably the peak of my career and I also won the 1000 Guineas on Quick As Lightning.
Not only did Rouse form a formidable bond with Stanerra on the racecourse, they also got to know each other inside out on the gallops, with the former rider taking up the responsibility of putting her through her paces.
He would grow to understand every single quirk of Stanerra’s personality throughout 1983 and although she was undoubtedly the boss on track throughout that stellar season, Rouse had no hesitation about pulling her into line when required.
“She was the best horse I rode. She was a big, strong horse. No one wanted to ride her and I used to get on her, put a neckstrap on her and get on with it.
“She ran off with me one day in a piece of work and it didn’t make any difference. I thought I would let her have her little piece of fun for a furlong and then I said ‘aye aye’ and I had to rein her back in a bit.
“You let her do most things and then show her who’s boss. She was a tank she would have gone round again if I let her.”
Having followed up her Ascot triumphs by adding a fitting Group One victory on home soil in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown, Stanerra would take Rouse on an international journey with the duo competing with credit in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe before the great mare became the only Irish-trained horse to win the Japan Cup.
It would prove to be Stanerra’s final career victory, but that great day in Tokyo almost never happened with the long journey taking its toll and the mare requiring plenty of due care and attention in the days leading up to the race in order to make it to the start.
“We all had to take it in turns walking her all day,” explained Rouse. “Me, the vet and Chris the lad who looked after her.
“We walked her for about eight hours a day up until the morning of the race for about five days. Then in the race she was unbelievable, like a tank.”