What Happened to the Queen’s Racehorses?

Queen Elizabeth II at the races
Queen Elizabeth II at the races (Archives New Zealand / Flickr.com)

The passing of Queen Elizabeth II sparked not only a period of mourning but also a period of uncertainty. The last time a monarch had died on the throne was George VI back in 1952, so there was no recent precedent to fall back on. In the world of sport, professionals from across disciplines paid tribute to the Queen while organisers tried to figure out if and when upcoming fixtures should take place.

Out of a mark of respect, British Racing opted to cancel the evening meetings on the day of her death, and all fixtures across the next two days. Action did return largely as normal following this point, except at Musselburgh, although all meetings were cancelled on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. Given she was such a big horse racing fan herself, the British Horseracing Authority were keen to show as much respect as possible to the second longest-serving monarch in history.

Aside from the impact on fixtures, one of the biggest questions within British horse racing following the Queen’s death was what would happen to her horses. In 2021, her thoroughbreds won a total of 36 races, which was good enough for a top 20 place among racehorse owners for that season. With a lot of very able horses under her ownership, it was only fair to wonder what the future might hold for them.

The Queen’s Racing Roots

The Queen riding horses with President Reagan
The Queen riding horses with President Reagan (Wikipedia.org)

From a very young age, Queen Elizabeth II developed a love for horses and she was just three years old when she had her first riding lesson. Months later, on her fourth birthday, she received a Shetland pony named Peggy. This passion was not hers alone, as her father, King George VI, had been a long-time fan who was heavily involved in royal breeding operations.

George, who took to the throne in 1936, had a huge impact on British racing in the post-war period. This is because he quietly maintained his racing and breeding operation during the inter-war years, allowing the sport to resume from a running start afterwards, unlike others across the nation. During this time, his horses won four of the five wartime Classic races, including the Fillies’ Triple Crown thanks to the brilliant Sun Chariot.

It was not just Queen Elizabeth II’s father that had a passion for racing either, her mother did too. The Queen Mother helped revitalise jumps racing, which at the time, had fallen far below flat racing in terms of both prize money and prestige. A lot of this was down to her work and presence, although in the case of promoting the Grand National, it was one of her horses, Devon Loch, that made the biggest impact of all. In the 1956 edition of the marathon race, all Devon Loch needed to do was to see out his handsome lead during the final 40 yards. Instead, he inexplicably jumped in the air (there was no fence) and landed onto his stomach. The Queen’s reaction was certainly more relaxed than most that had backed the 100/7 odds horse as she simply said “Oh, that’s racing”.

Both King George VI and his wife Elizabeth did wonders for British horse racing in the mid-20th century and so, it is only fitting that the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes is the nation’s most prestigious open-age flat race. The race was officially inaugurated in 1951, although it was not a completely new affair, rather the result of the amalgamation of three races that were established a few years prior. With parents so involved and revered in the sport, it is little surprise that Queen Elizabeth II had such unwavering enthusiasm for it during her long time on the throne.

The Queen’s Racing Fleet

The Queen at Ascot
The Queen at the Royal Ascot (RichKnowles / Flickr.com)

Following the death of her father and her subsequent ascension to the throne, Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) inherited the breeding and racing stock that was left behind. It is worth mentioning that she did not take control of the entire royal stock, only those officially owned by King George.

The Queen Mother’s Record

This meant that her mother, now known as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, continued to have her own runners just as she had done before. Indeed, the pair of Elizabeths remained firmly in the owning and breeding game right until their respective deaths.

Having a mum with the same hobby as you certainly would not have done Queen Elizabeth II any harm, especially as her mother had a good racing pedigree. In the 1964/65 season, for example, she had 27 winners to her name, making her the third most successful owner during that year. Her biggest individual race win though came much later in the shape of the 1984 Whitebread Gold Cup, a contest known today as the Bet365 Gold Cup.

From out of nowhere, Special Cargo pipped the two leading horses right on the line in a breath-taking photo finish. Having agreed to present the trophy to the winning owner before the race, this meant the Queen Mother even got to congratulate herself!

Queen Elizabeth II’s Record

Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed even more success as a racehorse owner though. Merely two years into her reign, Aureole, won the newly formed race dedicated to her parents. On top of this, the chestnut horse also won the Coronation Cup and Hardwicke Stakes in 1954. Her best ever season came in 2021, where she recorded an impressive 36 winners, and also won not far short of £600,000 in total prize money. Elizabeth also became the first reigning monarch ever to win the Gold Cup, doing so in 2013, during what was a thrilling renewal of Britain’s most prestigious event for the stayers.

Comprehensive record-keeping of races only began in 1988, so sadly, it is not possible to get a detailed breakdown of the Queen’s entire time as an owner. We do know, however, that she recorded over 1,800 wins during her long time as Head of State. More specifically, between 1988 and 2022, Queen-owned horses ran 3,441 races and secured 556 victories in this time, giving her a very solid strike rate of 16.2%. These wins saw her scoop in the region of £8.7m’s worth of prize money, not bad a return for something you do as a hobby!

The Royal Ascot

At Royal Ascot, the Queen enjoyed success 24 times, putting her among the top owners of the event’s history. Her love for this festival of racing was so strong that she never once missed a Royal Meeting, with the exception of 2022, due to health and mobility issues, so she instead watched this one on television. Out of all the Royal Meetings to miss out on in-person, this one would have been high up the list in any case. None of the Queen’s horses won a single race across the five days of action, despite several credible options including strong 8/13 favourite Reach For the Moon.

It was always easy to spot a horse owned by the Queen in action as the jockey would wear the royal silks, these being a purple front with gold braid, scarlet sleeves and a black cap featuring a gold tassel. Willie Carson, who donned these colours himself, said that it gave any jockey a lift the moment they put them on and gave them a real sense of importance.

The Queen’s Best Horses

The Queen's racing silks
The Queen’s racing silks (JockeyColours / Wikipedia.org)

The Queen owned some absolutly fantastic thoroughbreds over the decades, including Epsom Oaks and St Leger winner Dunfermline, 2000 Guineas and double Lockinge Stakes champion Pall Mall, and 1,000 Guineas winner Highclere. More recently there was also, Estimate, the Ascot Gold Cup hero and Cartier Champion Stayer recipient who was retired to stud in 2016. The group of runners Queen Elizabeth left behind following her death in 2022 may not have featured any names quite as good as those just mentioned but there were some very able runners among them.

With a Timeform rating of 118, King’s Lynn was well up there as one of the best runners among the royal selection. In the summer of 2022, he claimed a Group 2 win in the Temple Stakes at Chester before a very credible effort in the King’s Stand Stakes at Ascot a month later. Saga, trained by John Gosden, had not won at such a high level before but he was an unlucky runner-up in the Britannia Stakes during the 2022 Royal Ascot meeting. Taking the final space in the top three is Reach For The Moon, who had enjoyed seven consecutive top-two finishes to start his racing career. A highly promising juvenile, there was plenty of hype surrounding this Sea The Stars offspring.

Although these were the three highlight picks from Queen-owned horses just prior to her death, she did own over 100 horses at the time. Included in this are two horses gifted to her, during her Platinum Jubilee celebration, from both French President Emmanuel Macron and President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. Not all of her horses were thoroughbreds built for racing mind you, among her herd she had the likes of riding horses, Shetland ponies at Balmoral, and Fell ponies at Hampton Court.

Many of her horses over the years never once set foot on a racetrack, including several of her favourites, such as Burmese, Doublet, Sanction and Fell pony Emma.

Passed onto King Charles

King Charles III
King Charles III (Mark Jones / Wikipedia.org)

In much the same way that Queen Elizabeth II inherited the horses from her father following his death and her accession to the throne, the same happened when the newly crowned King Charles succeeded his mother. Keeping wealth and assets within the Royal Family is very much a long-standing tradition so the fact this happened was far from a big surprise.

The only reason real question, at least in the short-term, was which royal they would go to specifically. In the case of the Queen’s corgis, Muick and Sandy, Prince Andrew and ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, agreed to take care of these rather than them being looked after by Charles.

The full ins and out of the situation have not been made public but it does appear that King Charles did retain at least the bulk of the horses. Royal author, Claudio Joseph, expected that Princess Anne and daughter, Zara, would inherit some of the horses (not any used for racing) given they were both once Olympic equestrians and have a great fondness for horses. Due to their equine passion, it would be a real surprise if they ended up inheriting none of the Queen’s former horses.

Many Horses Put Up for Auction

Ultimately though, it is Charles that has wound up with the bulk of his mother’s stock, but he is not someone that shared a similar interest in racing nor horses more generally. Early signs are that he is attempting to whittle down the size of the royal operation, and there have been some murmurs of him abandoning it entirely. As early as October 2022, the newly appointed king put 14 horses up for auction.

A spokesman for Tattersalls, Jimmy George, said that the selling of horses is nothing remotely unusual, and even the Queen would regularly do this. What George did not mention though was that this was a particularly large sale by royal standards. According to a Royal Family source, the Queen only sold off around seven horses during a typical year, so this represented a marked increase and was widely seen as a sign of things to come under Charles.

With reports stating that Charles inherited 60 racehorses and 38 brood mares, this number could get much smaller very quickly should he continue to sell them off. Numbers will increase early in 2023 though, as 30 foals are expected, so there would need to be more selling anyway to balance this out. It is safe to assume that Charles would have very little problem getting rid of the royal racing fleet, if/when he decides to. This is partly because there is great interest among Gulf State yards eager to purchase something that had a direct connection with the Queen.

The sale of the 14 horses in October raised over £1m with the most expensive individual sale being Just Fine who fetched £300,000. It is an easy way to earn some money although it is not as though Charles is in desperate need of a cash injection, so any sales would purely be due to wanting to reduce his connection to racing. There is a feeling though that respect for tradition will be maintained, at least to some extent, and that King Charles III will continue to keep a link between British racing and the Royal Family.

Will King Charles Attend the Royal Ascot?

It is unsure at this stage if Charles will attend Royal Ascot, as his mother so religiously did for all those years. For someone who is not particularly into horses, it is understandable why it might be low down on his list of things to publicly comment on or commit to. From what we know so far though, you should still expect to see horses, owned by the King, compete in British horse racing. There may not be as many as during the Queen’s reign, and he will not take a hands-on approach like his mother, but jockeys wearing the royal colours will still be spotted from time to time.

And who knows, maybe he will actually get a bit of a taste for it as time goes on. At the time of writing, he had been on the throne less than three months but he already has five winners to his name from just 25 starts. Admittedly, greater involvement from Charles seems unlikely but for now nobody really quite knows exactly what the future of royal racing holds.

GB flat screenshot