On English turf at a quintessentially English event, the discussions surrounding the King’s Stand Stakes on the opening day of Royal Ascot required you to pick a side – the American horse or the Australian horse.
Golden Pal had this season looked better than his already superb best and was therefore the leading light of trainer Wesley Ward’s annual Berkshire pilgrimage from Keeneland.
The Australian contender was Chris Waller’s Nature Strip, an eight-year-old raiding European coffers having found little fit to trouble him in 37 previous starts in his native country, 20 of which he had won.
The journey to Ascot on Tuesday morning may have been from the chestnut’s stopover spot at Charlie Hills’ stable in Lambourn rather than his own box in Rosehill, but the voyage began nearly two weeks ago with a meticulously-planned crossing from one hemisphere to another.
The passage of over 10,000 miles led to the briefest bout on the track, a bare-minimum five furlongs on good to firm ground that flashed by as Nature Strip’s white-bridled head was the first thing visible over the crest of Ascot’s gently rising home straight.
Tailed only by the loose Khaadem, who had relieved Jamie Spencer of his riding duties in the stalls and gone solo, Waller’s gelding had not a single rival in his shadow when he passed the post four and a half lengths ahead of Twilight Calls to triumph at 9-4 under James McDonald.
Golden Pal, by contrast, was utterly luckless from the stalls to the line with the 15-8 favourite failing to land a single blow in cantering home detached and last of all.
The victor was welcomed into the winner’s enclosure with a wave of noise, the lilt of Australasian accents following him as he made his way to the final destination of a mammoth voyage – the small circular sign that reads ‘1st place’.
The mercurial forces behind Britain’s weather could hardly have offered the international guests a better slice of an English summertime and the horse gleamed in the June sunshine, imposing and orange and patient as photographers shimmied under the rope barriers to get a picture worthy of his performance.
Waller, closed in on every side by press both national and international, basked in the glory of the victory and the reception of the Ascot revellers.
“It’s just an honour to be able to bring a horse here, we have been treated so well, like royalty in fact,” he said.
“The horse has been too. We’re in awe of European racing and to be able to bring a horse here finally, after covid, to showcase a horse in such a brilliant race, it is important. It’s been a privilege to be part of his career.”
During his sojourn with Hills Nature Strip briefly became an adopted son of Lambourn, and when pockets of the crowd hollered Aussie chants as their favourite made his way steadily to the start and swiftly back in the same direction, one got the feeling the home team had abandoned their own.
Waller said: “We could see that they were treating us with open arms, the locals around Lambourn were saying ‘come on, you’ve got this!’.
“We were just trying to keep things calm, the overall thing I’ve noticed is the way that people have welcomed us, post-covid, not just the horse but the people and the jockeys. There are so many rivalries between different countries on a racetrack, it’s magical.”
A New Zealander has no need for a stiff upper lip, and while the self-effacing manner of an Englishman was present, raw emotion rose to the surface as the trainer’s voice fell away into tears when he said: “I didn’t dare dream about it, it’s very special.
“I get emotional when horses win but to win here, I won’t say it’s second to nothing, but in terms of winning horse races it’s just a dream.
“For a trainer, a strapper, a jockey. For the punters, when they follow horses and they win like he did there, it’s special.
“It’s a great story. That’s what racing is, it brings a lot of countries, religions, races, gender, everybody together.
“They love the horses and it can bring everyone together. It’s been very special.
“Back home, the ones that couldn’t make it, I think they’ll be pretty proud of him.”