Whether it was horse racing or racing pigeons, gundog trials or in-hand showing, Her Majesty’s love of competition was her greatest gift to country sport says Janet Menzies
HM THE QUEEN: A TRUE COUNTRYWOMAN
Coming across HM The Queen in the line of sporting duty, perhaps picking-up or competing in gundog trials, or in the parade ring at Royal Ascot watching your horse being outshone by one bred by Her Majesty, was the most compelling moment to come into her orbit. These are the times when The Queen was at her most relaxed, sharing a joke with fellow country sports enthusiasts or cheering on one of her horses. This was how I happened to come across The Queen at Sandringham some years ago, when my spaniel was competing in the Cocker Spaniel Championship hosted by Her Majesty. Retreating at speed from watching Fudge running-off for second place, I happened to bump into a small lady wearing a headscarf who had also been watching. Oh no! My mind raced. I must curtsy, but I am wearing gumboots, tweeds and huge waterproof overtrousers. I must apologise, but I haven’t been formally presented and therefore cannot open a conversation with my monarch.
Even as all these levels of embarrassment were running through my mind, The Queen casually said: “Oh, is that your little chocolate cocker? I do like her – but she’s so tiny I can barely see her hunting so fast through that white grass.” While I was still grovelling up and down trying to curtsy, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh came up to rescue me from my shame. “Yes, you want to get a black one,” he said. “They’re a damn sight easier to see.” And off we all wandered back to the headquarters marquee, quietly shadowed by a lot of fierce-looking ‘gamekeepers’ wearing suspiciously new estate tweeds. At the prize-giving later, Fudge had only managed a third, but I was delighted as The Queen handed me my rosette with a caring smile, saying, “Oh yes, I remember your little brown dog – she’s my favourite.”
AT THE COCKER CHAMPIONSHIPS
Earlier this year it was Her Majesty’s turn to shine at the Cocker Championship, hosted by herself at Windsor, as she won the championship with FTCh Wolferton Drama, bred out of her own FTCh Mallowdale Diamond. Drama and Diamond are both handled for The Queen by Ian Openshaw. This first championship win for The Queen was well deserved, as she had been working and breeding gundogs for more than half a century. The Queen’s ambition from the beginning was to have a field trial champion retriever, and she persuaded a young Bill Meldrum to come and work with her at Sandringham to achieve this plan. Meldrum went on to bring out five champions for Her Majesty and long afterwards remembered: “It’s a wonderful estate, and The Queen is a wonderful person. She was always totally 100% interested in the dogs. We got on great together.”
Her most famous champion was FTCh Sandringham Sydney, whom The Queen handled herself on the grouse moor. Dog and monarch had a mutual, if guarded, respect for each other. Meldrum tells the story: “Once Sydney became a champion The Queen took over handling him, but he was a bit of a character and liked to do his own thing.” The Queen was more forthright about this, confessing that Sydney used her and the royal Land Rover to get him from the end of one drive to the beginning of the next.
Her down-to-earth approach to gundogs was something to be cherished. Jon Kean was delegated by the Kennel Club to accompany Her Majesty walking in the line last time she hosted the Cocker Spaniel Championship at Sandringham. He stresses that The Queen is a real gundog person: “She is so knowledgeable and very perceptive in her comments. She has a great deal of experience with both retrievers and cockers.” Of course, as a cocker enthusiast, it was tremendously exciting when that Range Rover drove up with The Queen at the wheel in her trademark headscarf, and it was even more special to realise that you both had a genuinely shared passion.
A LOVE OF HORSES
The Queen was not a great believer in ‘family hold back’, regardless of what sport she was hosting. This was especially true when it came to the Royal Ascot meeting at her own Ascot racecourse. Watching her in the Royal Box overlooking the Enclosure at Royal Ascot, it was easy to see just how much a home win meant to her. When Estimate won the Ascot Gold Cup in 2013, The Queen and her racing manager, John Warren, came as close as it is possible to a high five without the security detail having to get involved. Her Majesty’s gloved hand raised in triumph is familiar to every racing person who has ever cheered home a winner.
Her competitive spirit was The Queen’s greatest gift to country sport. Whether it was pigeons racing from the Royal Lofts or home-bred racehorses or Highland garrons or gundogs, Her Majesty knew it was through competition that the best of the best is honoured – and her legacy was to breed from these. FTCh Sandringham Sydney is in the bloodline of most of today’s best retrievers, while many of the world’s top Flat horses would not be where they are today without The Queen’s mare, Highclere. Highclere was Her Majesty’s third Classic success, winning the 1000 Guineas in 1974. Retiring to stud, Highclere then foaled Height of Fashion, who won good races in 1981 before being sold to Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum of Dubai for a rumoured £1.5 million. Height of Fashion soon established herself as the champion broodmare of her generation, producing a galaxy of group-winning stars, including Unfuwain, Nashwan, Mukddaam and Nayef.
Even The Queen couldn’t produce a champion sire or broodmare every time, but like a true countrywoman, she remained interested in helping all her animals live their best lives. Recently, one of her home-breds wasn’t able to fulfil his destiny of running in the Derby, and Her Majesty made sure he found a good home where he was prepared for a future in eventing. The Queen ensured a happy future for her former racehorses for many years. Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) chief executive Di Arbuthnot says: “People are very proud to have one of The Queen’s horses. Do they treat it any differently? I hope not, because at the end of the day they are all horses.”
The Queen seemed to enjoy the fact that animals are such great levellers. Arbuthnot tells a story from the early days of the RoR showing classes at the Royal Windsor Horse Show: “I was a little worried because the showing is rather high-powered and I really hoped The Queen’s entry would do her justice, but it was turned out immaculately and won the class. And in those days, the prize was a Tesco voucher – the idea was you could use it to fill up and cover your fuel costs, not unlike now. But I will always remember, The Queen was so excited, and it is that kind of spirit in a gradual way over the years that has created so much positivity. I think it is very helpful that The Queen is doing so much at the top level to promote retraining of racehorses. Now Sheikh Mohammed is doing the same and it is so useful. People have discovered that these horses are capable of extraordinary achievements. They love to be part of the same RoR community as The Queen, and I think this is a big part of her legacy.”
Her connection to the show ring began when The Queen was still Princess Elizabeth, with what is now RWHS. Jo Peck, RWHS marketing and communications director, explained: “The show was created to raise money for Spitfires in 1943. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) attended and brought both the Princesses with them. The Royal Family have been part of the show ever since, and played a great role in its success.”
The first show, known simply as the Windsor Horse and Dog Show, helped the Royal Borough of Windsor raise £391,197 to buy 78 Typhoon fighter aircraft, but sadly the dog section disgraced itself when a lurcher stole a piece of cold chicken from the King’s picnic plate. Naturally, Princess Elizabeth competed, winning the pony and dogcart class. As Peck comments, it set the tone for the royal involvement in the RWHS as an annual family day out: “I think for The Queen it had a great continuity. There are photos of her bringing her own children to the show. It used to be held in the Home Park, which is public, and The Queen and Prince Philip supported moving the whole show into the private grounds, and it was the only time of the year the general public coujld visit these. The Queen had a special interest in the showing side of things, not just the RoR but also the Mountain and Moorland, where The Queen showed her Highland ponies so successfully, and also her famous Fell ponies.”
Last year, Her Majesty had First Receiver entered in the RoR in-hand showing class, and as Arbuthnot reports, this caused some consternation to the clockwork organisation of the show: “Naturally, The Queen had a fairly tight timetable when she was visiting the show, but last year she more or less went missing and drove herself across to an outside ring for the in-hand class, where she stayed to watch her horse win the class.” After all, the RWHS was The Queen’s local show. For her it signalled the beginning of summer, just as our own local shows marked the beginning of school holidays every year. You see, The Queen was one of us, and more importantly, we were one of her.
HER MAJESTY’S SPORTING HONOUR BOARD
2022 The Kennel Club Cocker Spaniel Championship with FTCh Wolferton Drama, owned and bred by Her Majesty and handled by Ian Openshaw
2021 Champion in-hand retrained racehorse at Royal Windsor Horse Show with First Receiver, produced by Katie Jerram
2020 Retraining of Racehorses Horse of the Year, Quadrille, produced for dressage by Louise Robson
2020 The Windsor Castle Stakes, Royal Ascot, with Tactical
2017 and 2016 Champion ridden retrained racehorse at Royal Windsor Horse Show with Barbers Shop, produced by Katie Jerram
2013 The Gold Cup, Royal Ascot, with Estimate
2012 The Queen’s Vase, Royal Ascot, with Estimate
2012 Champion Highland Pony, Royal Windsor Horse Show, with Balmoral Erica
2010 Reserve Champion, Royal Highland Show, with Balmoral Mandarin
1985–1998 Height of Fashion, bred by The Queen, produces Group-winning colts Unfuwain, Nashwan, Mukddaam and Nayef for the late Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum
1982 The Princess of Wales’s Stakes, Newmarket, with Height of Fashion
1981 The Acomb Stakes; The May Hill Stakes; The Fillies Mile, all with Height of Fashion
1981 Field trial champion status for Sandringham
Mango, the Queen’s first cocker champion
1977 The St Leger, Doncaster, with Dunfermline
1977 The Oaks, Epsom, with Dunfermline
1977 The Pretty Polly Stakes, Newmarket, with Dunfermline
1974 The 1000 Guineas, Newmarket, with Highclere
1974 The Prix de Diane, Longchamps, with Highclere
1972, 1974, 1975 The Country Landowners’ Association Gundog Trophy at the Game Fair with Sandringham Sydney, trained by Bill Meldrum
1959 The Lockinge, Newbury, with Pall Mall
1958 The 2000 Guineas, Newmarket, with Pall Mall
1957 The Oaks, Epsom, with Carrozza
1957 Champion racehorse owner