Desert Hero provided the King and Queen with a first Royal Ascot winner when prevailing in a thrilling finish to the King George V Stakes.
The late Queen visited the Royal Ascot winner’s enclosure multiple times during her reign, but it is the first time the royal silks have been carried to success at the summer showpiece since the King was crowned.
Trained by William Haggas, the son of Sea The Stars was sent off at 18-1 in the hands of Tom Marquand and although catching the eye as he made stealthy progress turning for home, there was still plenty of work to do.
Desperate for the gaps to appear, Marquand manoeuvred his mount to perfection as he sought the perfect passage to the front, and when joining the leaders inside the final furlong Desert Hero stuck his head out with real bravery to hold off the spirited challenge of Valiant King in second.
Marquand said: “That will be hard to top. I grew up watching Ryan (Moore) on Estimate (winner of the Gold Cup for the late Queen in 2013), royal winners at the Royal meeting are extremely special, especially this one. I think it’s a poignant one and to be a part of that, for William and Maureen (Haggas) and the whole Somerville Lodge team to bring a horse to the Royal meeting and have that perfect prep – it’s an insanely special day. It will live high in my career, probably at the top for the rest of my days in the saddle at least.
“Coming into the paddock wearing royal colours, whether you think you’ve got a chance or not, is special in itself. Explaining your tactics obviously holds a bit more pressure because you’re expected to stick to them – there’s no blagging your way out of it when His Majesty and Her Majesty are here. It’s fantastic, Royal Ascot is where everyone wants to be and to wear these colours, it’s quite an emotional winner.”
He added: “I tracked Ryan round on the horse (Bertinelli) that I thought was the one to beat, he’s a big galloper and he took a lot longer to get going than I thought he would and I was sort caught on the back of him needing an out, or an in, and couldn’t get either for a long way.
“He was extremely brave to take the split that I asked him for, most horses would have probably told me where to stick it! He had a heart of a lion to battle after squeezing through such tight gaps. What a moment.
“You can see from William and Maureen how much it means to them, we all feel privileged to have anything to do with royal horses and we want to do the job. Doing the job is winning and we’ve done it. It’s a hard game breeding horses and racing horses and to have the Queen’s legacy carried on is immensely special. Everybody appreciates the magnitude of what’s just happened and it’s a special day for everyone.
“It will be (one of the highlights of his career) and it will be forever, even if I’m fortunate enough to have more success at the Royal meeting in the royal colours, I think there’ll be few that hit quite the same as that.”
Haggas said: “We discussed it and I thought he was going to be more forward, but he obviously thought they were going too fast and they clearly did go a bit fast, and he stayed on really well.
“It was his first time at a mile and a half and he’s done well since Newbury and while this is a surprise, you hope that things like this can happen, but I’m delighted it has.
“The King and Queen are absolutely thrilled. They have been looking forward to Ascot for a long time and wanting to have as many runners as possible, and I think they are absolutely delighted.
“It is obviously very important for racing, but it is important that the King and Queen enjoy it, which they clearly appear to do, and long may that continue.”
The late Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Tindall, said: “I just think how excited my grandmother would have been. To have a winner for Charles and Camilla and to keep that dream alive was incredible, and what a race – asides all of that, what a race. I was stood with Sheikh Fahad (owner of the runner-up) and the horses were either side, pulling their way up to the line, and it was incredible.
“I think it is a new excitement (for the King), like all those owners here who come here with horses, they have dreams and hope, and to follow it is incredible. Horses are the main game here – that’s why we get involved, we love them, the competition, the feelings are indescribable.”