William Haggas has won the Derby, his best horse Baaeed won 10 of his 11 races and he has plundered Group One prizes around the world. Yet even the softly-spoken Yorkshireman conceded that providing the King and Queen with their first Royal Ascot winner was one of the highlights of his career.
The race itself, the King George V Stakes, may ‘only’ be a handicap. But the fact it is a handicap named after Queen Victoria’s grandson, who reigned from 1910 to 1936, just added to the occasion.
Without the presence of the royals, Ascot would be just another big racing festival. The quality of the racing would be the same, but the sense of magic which sets it apart would be lost.
On Wednesday the crowd cheered home a Frankie Dettori winner at what is his final Royal meeting, and he was given a great reception.
But that paled into insignificance when Tom Marquand, perhaps one of those best equipped to fill Dettori’s shoes next season as part of racing’s golden couple with his wife, Hollie Doyle, found a tiny gap on Desert Hero to win by a head – and reward those who backed him at 18-1.
When the late Queen was alive Royal Ascot could bask in the knowledge that the ruling monarch had its back. She loved racing and made no secret of it. The pictures of her cheering home Estimate in the 2013 Gold Cup are still widely used to this day.
But following her death, there were fears inside the sport the new King and Queen were not quite so keen, and a dispersal of some of their stock only served to fan the flames.
As it has turned out, the King has been caught up by the Queen’s enthusiasm and a win at their first Royal Ascot as monarchs was certainly not lost on Haggas, who was understandably taken aback by the reception.
Haggas said: “What a thrill. It’s great that in the first year that the King and Queen are here as the King and Queen they can have a winner.
“It didn’t matter who it was, as long as they could have one – but I’m delighted it is us.
“They have been looking forward to Royal Ascot for a long time and they hoped to have as many runners as possible. I think they will be absolutely delighted.
“It’s very important for horse racing, but it’s also important that the King and Queen enjoy it, which they clearly appear to do. Long may that continue.”
The result did not look likely until half a furlong out when suddenly there was a guttural roar from the grandstands. It clearly worked.
“To do it in that style, in such a close finish. I didn’t really watch the race properly so I’ll have to watch it again, but the horse really stuck his neck out,” said Haggas.
“He wasn’t 6-4 favourite, so I think expectations were relatively low, but hopes were high, and it came good. It was a beautiful ride, a bit of a bob and a weave up the straight, but he made it and fair play to Tom.”
Haggas is having a relatively quiet year by recent standards, but that is perhaps unsurprising following the retirement of the brilliant Baaeed, who won six Group Ones in the space of 12 months.
Shaamit secured him a Derby in 1996, Dancing Rain landed the Oaks in 2011 and Mukhadram, Sea Of Class and Addeybb all won Group Ones – but Haggas puts Desert Hero’s success right up there with them all.
“This is a big moment for us, of course it is, it’s a huge moment,” he added.
“I always thought when Sir Michael (Stoute) won the Gold Cup with Estimate here for the Queen that it must have been the pinnacle of his career, to have the trophy presented to him by the Duke of Edinburgh at the time.
“But this is a big thing for us. We’ve won a few nice races, especially recently, but this takes some beating.
“It’s not just a big moment for us but for the sport as well. The late Queen was so passionate about racing but the King and the Queen have already been to Newmarket to see us so it is exciting moving forward.
“I wouldn’t like to say it has been a long-term plan, but…possibly!
“We will appreciate this very much. We really appreciated the horse last year (Baaeed) – and we are really missing him now.”
Marquand was also well aware he had been part of history.
“That will be hard to top,” he said. “I grew up watching Ryan (Moore) on Estimate and 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.
“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.”
One member of the royal family who has long been involved in the equestrian world is Zara Tindall, the late Queen’s granddaughter, and she was the first person on her mind.
She 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 second, Valiant King) 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.”