In the immediate aftermath of Royal Palace’s victory in the 1966 Royal Lodge Stakes at Ascot, I, as the Press Association’s junior reporter on the course, was told to find the colt’s owner-breeder, Jim Joel, and ask about future plans.
I suspect that my senior colleague, who sent me on the errand, knew that I was not going to learn very much, but I did at least gather a quote that I would never forget.
“You must ask the trainer,” he said, then added: “Mr Murless allows me to name my horses, but while they’re in his care he makes all the other decisions.”
As it turned out, the Murless decision in this case was that Royal Palace had done enough for the season. He had run only three times – down the field in the Coventry at Royal Ascot, then successful in the Acomb at York – before the Royal Lodge performance over which opinions were divided.
It was not hard to take a positive view about that second win. He had missed the break, giving his rivals a six-length start, but he had made smooth progress to snatch the lead with two furlongs to run, and wound up with a length and a half to spare over his runner-up, the filly Slip Stitch, who had won her two previous races. What was more, Royal Palace covered the mile in a time that shaved four-fifths of a second off the previous record for a two-year-old at Ascot.
However, many felt that the 1966 Royal Lodge was not as competitive as some recent renewals of that contest, and while his parentage promised him adequate stamina for the following year’s Classic tests, it was a fact that his sire, the outstanding runner Ballymoss, had yet to get a colt of real distinction.
Whatever, there was never a chance that Royal Palace would head the juvenile Free Handicap. That accolade had to go to unbeaten – and barely tested – Bold Lad, who had been impressive in the Coventry, the Champagne and the Middle Park. Paddy Prendergast regarded the son of Bold Ruler as the best two-year-old he had ever trained – quite a compliment from the man who had handled the likes of Windy City, The Pie King, Floribunda, Noblesse and Young Emperor.
Sure enough, Bold Lad was named champion of his crop, while Royal Palace ranked second – 3lb lower on official ratings, 4lb lower according to Timeform. Both authorities placed Ribocco, winner of the Observer Gold Cup, 1lb below Royal Palace.
For my money Bold Lad was too speedy to prove a factor beyond a mile, and could not even be guaranteed to last the Guineas distance. Of the other pair, I much preferred Ribocco, for the not entirely logical reason that I idolised his sire, Ribot, the undefeated dual Arc hero whose deeds at stud already seemed to suggest that he might prove in a league of his own in that role as well.
One of my colleagues at the PA was a fanatical follower of the Murless stable, regularly profiting from the successes achieved by inmates of the Warren Place yard, and he made sure everyone around him knew what a clever punter he was. As he came from wealthy stock anyway, the bragging over the boosts to his bank balance struck the rest of us as quite unseemly and vulgar, so we were inclined to wish him a run of bad luck.
That would come in time, but meanwhile I was daft enough to present him with another substantial payday.
Over the winter there were obviously no Murless runners, but he was already thinking of the 1967 season, when he fancied that the master of Warren Place would saddle the winners of all five Classics, and he told a group of us in the pub that he was hoping a bookmaker would lay him 100-1 about the prospect. I knew that feat had never been achieved and pooh-poohed the very idea, suggesting that he would be lucky to win one.
I should have let it go at that, but the beer was speaking for me by that point, and the next thing I knew was that I’d rashly laid him 100-8 in pounds sterling about Murless winning one Classic.
I learnt my fate at the earliest opportunity, watching Royal Palace, as 100-30 joint-favourite, thwart Taj Dewan by a short-head in the 2,000 Guineas. My take-home pay then was about £15 a week. Months would pass before I could hope to settle the bet.
I cursed Royal Palace at the time, but if the photo verdict had gone the other way, it would have made no difference. The following day Murless’s filly Fleet won the 1,000 Guineas.
A month later came the Derby, a race I would always remember for a colleague’s statement that matched mine for rashness. Ribocco’s first three races that season had resulted in defeats at Newmarket, Chester and Lingfield, pathetic efforts that prompted The Observer’s Richard Baerlein to promise that he would jump off the Press Stand if the colt won the Derby.
Baerlein stood just a few feet away from me when the commentator noted that Ribocco was coming with a smooth run down the outside. A very public suicide seemed on the cards for several seconds until the challenge petered out and the Ribot colt wound up second. Royal Palace won, of course.
Royal Palace suffered setbacks after Epsom and he had still not recovered full fitness when the St Leger came along, missing his bid for Triple Crown glory. Ribocco’s victory at Doncaster naturally convinced most that he would have completed the Classic treble had he been able to meet the Leger engagement, but when he eventually made it back to the races, in the Champion Stakes, he could manage no better than third behind star miler Reform.
I am sure I did not appreciate Royal Palace fully in 1967, but who could when his year-older stable companion Busted was so obviously a dominant superstar performer? In 1968 Murless plotted a campaign for Royal Palace on similar lines to that of Busted in the previous year, and I was lucky to be present when he delivered three of his five victories in a flawless season.
He began with a smooth win in the Coronation Stakes at Sandown, then readily accounted for three rivals in the Coronation Cup. He had only one opponent in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at the Royal meeting and won without breaking sweat. But it was what he achieved afterwards, in the Eclipse and the King George, that would prove most memorable.
At Sandown we saw a rare clash of Derby heroes, with the latest, Sir Ivor, odds-on in spite of his defeat at the Curragh a week earlier. As it turned out, the Irish colt was below par again, and it was Royal Palace’s old rival Taj Dewan who proved a more potent threat. The verdict was just as in 1967’s Guineas – a short-head win for the Murless colt, though all those connected with the French invader, including jockey Yves Saint-Martin, were deceived by the angle of the finish-line, and found it hard to accept defeat.
Royal Palace, like Busted before him, was supposed to end his campaign in the Arc, but neither made it to the Longchamp showpiece event. In Royal Palace’s case we knew his career was over when he returned to the winner’s enclosure after the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Halfway up the straight he was cruising, seemingly set for a ready victory, but a furlong from home he faltered, drifting left towards the stands, and at the finish he relied on his indomitable courage to preserve a half-length advantage.
He returned to scale very lame, the injury subsequently revealed as a torn suspensory in his near-fore. We cheered him as much for his gallantry as his class as he was led away for the last time. I had come to love Royal Palace, for all his involvement in the worst bet I would ever strike.
As for the colleague who profited from my folly, his luck ran out in 1969. We should have noticed that he had ceased to brag about his successful punting. On Eclipse day he was found dead in his flat.