A horse fit for a King: Desert Hero targets Classic glory at Doncaster

A horse fit for a King: Desert Hero gave Charles and Camilla their historic first winner at Royal Ascot… now the horse goes for Classic glory and bids to take the roof off at Doncaster

  • Desert Hero bids to become the first Royal winner of a Classic since 1977
  • King Charles and Queen Camilla expected to attend race at Doncaster

A moment in history: William Haggas hears those four words and, as you might expect of someone who was a handy batsman in his younger days, he immediately tries to nudge the danger away.

‘Yes, yes,’ replies Haggas, one of the most respected trainers in Newmarket. ‘You could say we are having a historical year because we saddled the shortest-priced loser ever last Tuesday. That was a moment in history!’

Haggas is smiling, though, because he knows the time is right to talk. Forget Doom, the horse who managed to come second in a two-horse race at odds of 1-25. This story is all about Desert Hero, the horse who lit up Royal Ascot and will forever have a place in the affections of King Charles and Queen Camilla.

Desert Hero gave the new monarch his first success at Flat racing’s biggest meeting in June with a thrilling triumph in the King George V Handicap but on Saturday at Doncaster, this chestnut colt could do something even more significant.

The potential to become the first Royal winner of a Classic since 1977 is huge and the belief in Desert Hero that exudes from Haggas, jockey Tom Marquand and John Warren, the royal racing manager, ahead of the Betfred St Leger is infectious.

Desert Hero bids to become the first Royal winner of a Classic since 1977 on Saturday

Desert Hero lit up Royal Ascot in June to the delight King Charles and Queen Camilla 

‘And the guy who rides him every day at home is called Luke Carson,’ Haggas interjects, smiling once again, as he prepares to ask a question that underlines the history of it all. ‘There’s a story there for you, isn’t there?’

There certainly is: Luke’s grandfather, Willie, was the jockey who did the steering 46 years ago when Dunfermline powered away with the St Leger for the late Queen. This makes the link between past and present all the more symbolic. Little wonder they are all daring to dream.

Doncaster will hum with expectation, with the King and Queen expected to be in attendance, but first we must go back to Ascot on June 22 to understand the impact Desert Hero has had on this Flat season — and the chord he struck with his delighted owners.

The scenes in the winner’s enclosure that day were a mix of joy, emotion and relief. Success at the most prestigious meeting of the season is a moment to celebrate but among the backslapping and handshakes, the significance of the moment was not lost. Royal Ascot was all about the late Queen. It was five days in her diary when duty could be temporarily put aside for personal pleasure pursuing her favourite hobby. The kudos her patronage bestowed on the sport were immense.

After she died, there was speculation about the King’s commitment to racing. Camilla’s passion for it was well known — she has had horses in training in her own right — but some wondered whether the King shared that.

Some even questioned whether the royal racing interests would be cut back, but Desert Hero’s win was public affirmation of the continued support of horseracing from Buckingham Palace.

‘They are getting a wonderful feel for it,’ explains Warren. ‘The King told me many years ago, but in particular recently, that he was always going to be committed to take on the bloodstock portfolio. And true to his word he has been fascinated by it now it is on his watch.

‘They are both horse people. They are both really engaged and it is a wonderful joint thing for the pair of them.’

Haggas, who has trained for the royal family since 2013, was an early witness to that.

The trainer recalls: ‘The King and Queen came to my stable in May. He came three days after the Coronation — that’s a fair effort, isn’t it? The Queen came at the end of the month and saw all the horses.

‘The Queen’s message was, “Can we have as many runners at Ascot as possible because I think we are going to be there every day?” ’

The problem for Haggas was that, at the time, he was struggling with Desert Hero.

The colt had shown considerable promise as a two-year-old, winning two of his three races and finishing third in Sandown’s Solario Stakes.

But Desert Hero did not winter well and finished eighth when 4-1 favourite for a mile-and-a-quarter handicap on his seasonal debut at Newbury on May 20. Warren says: ‘It was a question of, “Is he on track to give Royal Ascot a go?” Then about two weeks before, the horse really came to himself physically. William rang me and said, “We are on for Ascot”.’

Desert Hero’s performance level then reached a new height when, despite not getting the smoothest run, he tenaciously won the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. That earned the colt his St Leger shot, which will be a contrasting experience to the formality of Royal Ascot.

South Yorkshire embraces the St Leger, the oldest and longest British Classic run over one mile, six furlongs and 115 yards.

The King and Queen are expected to be in attendance as Desert Hero bids for Classic glory

It is loud, colourful and raucous with a funfair in the centre of a racecourse that welcomes 25,000 spectators.

It will not be lost on many of them that Elizabeth II died the day before the 2022 St Leger, prompting its running to be delayed by 24 hours. It’s an extra reason to cheer on Desert Hero.

Warren believes Desert Hero has a key factor in his favour. ‘You saw his head down at Ascot and Glorious Goodwood,’ he says. ‘Everything this horse has done, he has thrown his heart into it. When you have horses which try, things can happen.’

That battling spirit is the prerequisite of a St Leger winner. The King and Queen have a Hero with a fighting chance of making a piece of history that Haggas and the sport would treasure.

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