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Fox on the Box: Hoarse-play prevents Royal Ascot feeling a bit flat

Overcome: Charlie Hills, trainer of Battaash PICTURE: PA

ROYAL Ascot certainly has an unfamiliar look about it this year. Sport’s best-dressed event kicked off on Tuesday with no crowds, no Queen and no top hats as the coronavirus reduced the stands at the Berkshire course from a sea of grey flannel to a desert of grey concrete.

In the eerily quiet paddocks, the trainers and stable lads donned face masks as did the jockeys — the extra item no doubt playing havoc with their weight — while in the bars and enclosures the champagne remained unopened and the betting slips unused.

However, fears that ITV’s coverage of the first day of horse racing’s poshest event could be as dull as Frankel’s breakfast were to prove unfounded.

‘Ascot is very different this year,’ confirmed Ed Chamberlin as he welcomed us to the iconic course, where he lined up an appropriate distance from co-hosts Francesca Cumani and Jason Weaver while promising ‘five days to lift the spirits’.

Back at home Oli Bell took the reins in the Social Stable and managed to bag himself a royal winner in a video chat with Princess Anne’s daughter Zara Tindall and husband Mike, which went some way in making up for her absent granny.

It is true the empty stands and parade rings take a bit of getting use to as does the near silence when the winning ride flashes over the line but the joy of the event still comes through in the telling of stories like Pyledriver’s victory in the King Edward VII Stakes.

Owner Guy Leach joined Ed and co via Zoom — owners are not allowed to attend — to explain how, unable to sell the horse at auction, they decided to keep him and how well it paid off. ‘I’m a little hoarse,’ said Guy after cheering his big horse past the post.

Then there was the heartwarming story of Bob Grace, Battaash’s groom. Having shuffled his charge around the parade ring and seeing the odds-on favourite romp to victory, Bob was invited for a chat with Matt Chapman.

‘You’re not a typically sized stable lad,’ said the ITV man to the generously framed Bob, shirt untucked, as he rolled up his sleeves. ‘How long have you been in this game?

‘Thirty-eight years,’ he replied. ‘And how many Royal Ascot winners have you led up [before]?’ ‘None,’ beamed Bob before stepping away from the spotlight to join his four-legged friend.

They can take away the crowds but they can’t take away the magic.