The Royal Windsor Experience.
It all begins several months earlier of course: riding 120k at Royal Windsor doesn’t just happen with a ride entry a couple of weeks before the event. It takes months of planning and preparation: fitness training, weight training, saddle checks, rider preparation, crew selection, equipment checks, travel plans, ride strategy. The tension and anticipation mounted as the last few days before the ride approached. I checked and double checked all our preparations and often woke in the night with something on my mind. It was a big ask for such a young horse but I knew he was ready to do the distance, although the razzamatazz and hype, the racing start with 60 or more horses, the electronic tagging and transponders, the huge heart rate monitors the size of a large iron on his side, the canopies, the white fenced trot up lanes, flags and sentry boxes, I wasn’t so sure about! We even tied a flat lead rope with a large heavy knot around Khalifa’s neck every day he came into his stable for a week to mock up the transponder he would have to wear.
Then Departure Day arrived, not without a concern or two, given that the Royal Windsor Horse Show had been cancelled the day before due to wet ground conditions and rumours were rife about the condition of our temporary stables in The Great Park being water-logged! As we left at 5am on the Thursday morning we were still uncertain where we were to report to on arrival. Then came the email en route, to advise that all competitors were to report to no other than Royal Ascot Stables. How exciting! Khalifa was to be stabled in those famous stalls where the great and the good in Racing History had stood before him… and tomorrow he would race on the hallowed turf of Royal Ascot Racecourse itself!
We were finally moved to the stabling in The Great Park late that afternoon and settled Khalifa in. Then followed the frantic dash to set up the vet gate, load the crew car, acquire bibs and paperwork, attend the pre ride briefing, weigh in and of course, pass the pre-ride veterinary check and trot up, all before stables closed at 7.30!
Needless to say my night’s sleep was restless and I rose at 3.45 to be at the stables for 4.45 to feed, groom and plait up. The massed start for the race was 7am so we needed to be tacked up, mounted and warming up by around 6.30. The morning dawned crisp and breezy, a little chilly but with the promise of sunshine later in the day. There was some apprehension as I climbed aboard, the strong wind was playing havoc with the flags lining the route of the start line, rattling, pinging, flapping and fluttering very loudly like a ship’s sails… and Khalifa hadn’t been happy about them yesterday!
Most of the Brits had said they were planning to start out steady at the back of the group, so I decided to follow suit. Khalifa was excitable when I started to warm up on our own, when Harry Ingham rode over and suggested we warmed up together, and immediately Khalifa mellowed , relaxed and I knew the flags weren’t going to be a problem. Thank you Harry!
The loud speaker counted us down and off the start line, exciting and tense, my heart pounding in my boots… and we were off. Straight away Khalifa set to his work. He knows his job well and knew exactly what to do. I couldn’t quite believe my boy was here, doing this class and behaving like an absolute pro. I was bursting with pride at that moment. We barely cantered that first loop as he has such a ranging extended trot that he covered the ground effortlessly and at a good speed, and I didn’t want to ride too fast so early in the ride. Then we reached Royal Ascot Racecourse and I felt my heart miss a beat. It was an iconic sight in the sunshine…. and then we stepped onto that hallowed turf. I have to admit I gulped and fought back the tears of emotion, pride and sheer excitement at what we were about to do. I asked lightly for canter and we bowled around that fabulous track with a handful of horses behind us… and it was a moment to remember forever! What an experience! I felt so very proud.
We passed through the second and third loops without incident. Khalifa was impeccable, getting on with his job calmly and with great enthusiasm. He didn’t show any signs of tiredness or unhappiness whatsoever. We had slightly increased our speed on each loop, riding the textbook ride. So far so good. We passed each of the vet inspections, loop 1, loop 2 and loop 3, and with great presentation times throughout. He drank at every opportunity we gave him and ate everything we put before him in the vet holds. He left the venue after each hold alone and in canter, full of enthusiasm. He quite simply performed perfectly. I knew for sure that he was keen and had plenty of energy to complete the last loop … and I walked to the compulsory re-inspection fifteen minutes before going out on the final loop without a grain of concern … and then came those dreaded words “We’d like to see him trot again please”… and that was it, ever so slightly stiff, thus making for a “lame” judgment call. Race over. I should have been disappointed, I should have been dashed, but I wasn’t. I was simply overwhelmed with admiration for all that he had achieved. He didn’t put a foot wrong all day, looked amazing and gave me the ride of my life, never once refusing, misbehaving or faltering. I was honoured to be his rider and proud to call him mine. Khalifa BJ I salute you. You gave me a memory that will last forever, an experience of a lifetime, and I know we will be back, together, as a partnership, you and I, for many more rides to come. What a truly fantastic sport this discipline of Endurance is!
Finally, I’d like to say a monumental thank you to everyone who made this ride possible: to the organisers, to my crew, to my family at home, to my sponsors , to all those behind the scenes … You know who you are! Thank you, thank you, thank you!