Royal Ascot 2016: Prince Charles "smitten" by horse racing

Prince Charles with the Duchess of Cornwall at Royal Ascot
Prince Charles with the Duchess of Cornwall at Royal Ascot

Sighs of happiness, I imagine, filled the upper echelons of British horse racing, especially amongst officials at Royal Ascot, on the famous fixture's fifth and final day.

The reason for this reaction was not so much the Hardwicke Stakes victory of the Queen's horse, Dartmouth, though there's no doubt of the considerable delight generated by the Monarch achieving her 23rd Royal Ascot win in the year she's celebrated her 90th birthday.

It was much more the enthusiastic and high-profile appearance in the winners' enclosure, alongside his mother and winning trainer Sir Michael Stoute, of the Prince of Wales, who also was noted paying more visits than usual over the five days.

True, the heir to the throne and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, also present, owned two horses that were in action during the week, but there was more to it than that, as confirmed by the Queen's racing and bloodstock adviser John Warren.

Warren, as trusted and deft a courtier as he is a renowned bloodstock expert, made what seemed like a deliberate point in post-race media interviews of emphasising that Prince Charles "has seriously got the [racing] bug" and is "absolutely smitten".

The importance of all this is that links between British racing - the 'Sport of Kings' - and its Royal family go back centuries to when Charles 11 was arranging horse-races and general revelry at Newmarket in 1666; the track and the town are marking the 350th anniversary during this year.

That interest has been passed down through the generations, and has never been stronger than in the current Queen who, it's widely believed, could have taken a leading role in the sport, as a trainer perhaps, or in the bloodstock world, or as an administrator, had she not done what she does.

And the cache that these associations have meant for British racing have been incalculable. For example, the overseas horses that come to Royal Ascot from the US, Hong Kong, Australia etc. don't come for the prize money, which is behind practically everyone else's, but they come for the prestige, much of it associated with Her Majesty.

The Queen is presented with the trophy by Princess Beatrice
The Queen is presented with the trophy by Princess Beatrice

Concerns within the sport have centred on what the future holds.

Because although the Princess Royal and her daughter Zara are keen, that's been about it, with the clear suggestion that Prince Charles was on the ambivalent side about the whole thing, a feeling of disinterest perhaps encouraged by a brief and not terribly happy time as an amateur jockey in the 1980s. He suffered a famous fall at Cheltenham.

From the sport's point of view, the fact that Charles and Camilla have two home-bred horses in training with Ralph Beckett - one-time Derby hope Carntop and Pacify - was seen as a decent-sized step in the right direction, but the words of Warren are now being interpreted as a considerable leap.

Warren said: "He's trying to really learn about the whole industry.

"Thirty years ago, he told me that racehorse ownership was probably like gardening, and that until you owned your own garden, you never quite understand what it is all about, [then] you start to look after it and you have to concentrate.

"Coming into Ascot he said the anticipation of owning a horse to come here was so enormous, he said he couldn't explain the feeling, and that's what's so marvellous; I think he's seriously got the bug, and that's very important for British racing.

"It's a genuine interest; both he and the Duchess of Cornwall are absolutely smitten."

The next move, believe those upper echelons, is for the couple to have a Royal Ascot or other big-race winner - neither of their horses this week made the frame - in the hope that "smitten" soon turns into long-term romance.

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