Mike Moon
Horse racing correspondent
3 minute read
17 Jun 2022
11:05 am

Queen of SA racing beats The Queen

Mike Moon

The Brits were crestfallen.

Queen Elizabeth II’s runner Reach For The Moon was a red-hot 2-5 favourite to win the Hampton Court Stakes, but the colt was given a galloping lesson by Claymore, owned by South Africa’s Mark Slack. Picture: iStock.

A claymore is an explosive munition and a horse called Claymore blew up British expectations at Royal Ascot on Thursday 16 June.

Queen Elizabeth II’s runner Reach For The Moon was a red-hot 2-5 favourite to win the Hampton Court Stakes at the poshest race meeting in the world, but the colt was given a galloping lesson by Claymore, owned by South Africa’s Mark Slack (formerly Oppenheimer).

The Brits were crestfallen. There is never a sure thing in racing, but with most of the nation willing on the royal nag, not to mention the combined talents of master trainer John Gosden and legendary jockey Frankie Dettori plotting victory in the six-horse race, the opposition might have been forgiven feeling a tad intimidated.

The queen, in her 90s and looking frail, won’t get many more chances to notch her 25th winner at her own meeting, so the pressure was on. An ITV presenter said: “Frankie might have ridden in many an important race in his long career, but seldom could he have felt pressure like this!”

From the 1800m start of the three-year-old Grade 3 contest, Claymore, ridden by tough-as-teak Adam Kirby and trained by up-and-comer Jane Chapple-Hyam, went to the front to set the pace. Dettori and Reach For The Stars lurked on his flank, with the other four participants following obediently.

As the field swung into the short Ascot straight, Dettori made his move and drew level with about 300m to go. The massive crowd in the stands roared. But Kirby responded, so did his mount; they pulled clear easily and won by nearly two lengths.

Claymore started as the 7-1 second favourite, so some knowledgeable people had an inkling there might be an upset.

Mary Slack’s family firm, Mary Oppenheimer Daughters, came to the financial rescue of bankrupt South African operator Phumelela in 2021 – injecting billions into a business rescue from which new administrator 4Racing emerged. So, she is the de facto sovereign of the South African game. Her Wilgerbosdrift stud and daughter Jessica’s Mauritzfontein stud are the leading thoroughbred breeders in Africa, and her homebred horses and imports have won just about every big race in the country.

And, of course, her parents, Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer, did the same over the course of many decades.

But the ITV presenters at Ascot knew little about our Mary. They had some crib notes and declared she was the daughter of Harry and Bridget but was principally involved in showjumping. That was sort of true, but nearly half a century out of date. She switched from equestrian pursuits to the turf umpteen years ago.

In the winner’s circle, when was asked how long she’d been in racing, Slack looked non-plussed. After the amount of time and money she’s put into the industry – including in the UK – that was not surprising. Graciously, though, “our queen” explained she was a mere colonial. Crickey, this woman has forgotten more about racehorses than most of those Poms will ever learn.

Slack bought Claymore in November 2021 following an impressive debut victory at Newmarket, the headquarters of British racing. The colt was given a long break by Chapple-Hyam, then confirmed the high regard that saw him bought with a runner-up performance on his return to the track. Then the connections took him to the French Guineas, where nothing went right and he flopped.

The adage that form is temporary but class permanent was underlined at Ascot with a stunning bounce back from adversity. In his interview, Kirby said the French escapade might have been a debacle for Claymore, “but it made him a man”.

The maturity and power shown in the Hampton Court had some TV pundits speculating about a bright future for Claymore. This might be a bit of a bomb.