Nobody said they were here but, everywhere you looked, you knew they had arrived: the extra police presence, the one box at the top of the grandstand without any advertising, the special path that had been laid to allow quick access to the winner’s enclosure.
Then, just after 315pm, there they were in the parade ring: King Charles III and Queen Camilla, Doncaster racecourse’s first Royal visitors, ready to see if Desert Hero, their bonny chestnut colt, could bound into the history books and become a Classic hero.
Those not au fait with racing might think the Windsors are regulars on track but that is not the case. For them to be on Town Moor, then, on an overcast autumnal afternoon – an occasion far removed from the pageantry of Ascot in June – made this a hugely significant moment.
And just as Ascot, it was clear to see the King was immersed in it all. As the countdown to the Betfred St Leger began in earnest, he had an audience with Tom Marquand, the jockey entrusted with riding Desert Hero, which went far beyond frothy platitudes.
As Desert Hero jig-jogged around in front of them, white flecks of sweat on his neck showing he was ready for battle, the King and Marquand – together with Maureen Haggas, the wife of trainer William – laughed easily.
The King and Queen’s presence added an extra sense of occasion to the race on Saturday
Royal visitors came to see if Desert Hero could bound into the history books in the St Leger (pictured centre, Desert Hero’s jockey Tom Marquand)
To add to it all, those racegoers on the rail of the paddock were given an audience of their own as the King posed for photos and waved when one excited lady, desperate for his attention, screeched ‘Charles!’ It was an experience that is unlikely to be repeated.
But could this visit end in victory? The Doncaster crowd loves shouting home a well-fancied horse and Desert Hero was sent-off 6/1 – only Frankie Dettori’s mount, Arrest, and Continuous were ahead of him in the betting – carried plenty of financial and sentimental support.
Through the early stages, Desert Hero moved well. He can be exuberant and wants to get on with things, but all seemed fine as Marquand, in those scarlet and purple silks, hugged the inside rail, waiting for the right moment to attack.
When push came to shove, though, he didn’t quite have the pace of Arrest and Continuous. As they moved through the gears, Marquand crouched lower and began scrubbing away, hoping the turbos that kicked in at Royal Ascot in June and Goodwood at the start of August would do so again. By the time they did, however, Continuous had scooted away but his finishing effort, which took him past Gregory and Tower of London, carried him into third place.
As Marquand and his willing partner made their way back to the space reserved for the bronze medallist, something unexpected happened. A number of jockeys were stopped from going back to weigh in and there, again, was the King, who wanted a full debrief.
Desert Hero was sent off 6/1, the race’s third favourite after Frankie Dettori’s mount Arrest, and eventual winner Continuous
Continuous came home ahead of Frankie Dettori’s mount Arrest and King’s horse Desert Hero
So surprising was this visit that James Doyle, who had ridden, Chesspiece for Simon and Ed Crisford almost walked straight into Charles with his saddle. The pair stopped and shared a joke. The King listened intently as Marquand talked him through the race.
‘You can credit the horse for his attitude,’ Marquand said. ‘It was a good spin around. It is fantastic for racing and the public. He didn’t win but he ran super.’
That was it in a nutshell: nobody will ever be content to have lost, but Marquand and Haggas had the glow of men who knew there was something bigger at stake.
‘A good day all around,’ Haggas said. ‘He’s run a career best and, to me, he looks like a horse who will be perfect for the King George and Hardwicke (at Royal Ascot) next year. I’m proud of him. Everyone has enjoyed it.’