And they’re off! Although they’re not supposed to be off.
The two valuable thoroughbreds are supposed to be looking elegant for our photoshoot but, being famously flighty creatures, they’ve decided enough is enough.
Ever been in the company of a suddenly rearing racehorse? Most people would freak out.
Not presenters Francesca Cumani and Charlotte Hawkins, though, who remain extraordinarily calm as one horse rears up then gallops off into the distance.
On their parks! Presenters Francesca Cumani (left) and Charlotte Hawkins (right), pictured together, will present the five-day festival of Royal Ascot for ITV this year
This is an unplanned test of that essential skill needed in live TV – staying calm under pressure. It’s also a test of how at ease these two are around huge horses.
Happily they both pass the test, stepping calmly out of the danger zone of flying hooves, though Charlotte admits she’d have been happier handling the situation in jodhpurs and riding boots instead of the glamorous outfit she has on today.
‘Stilettos aren’t the ideal thing to be wearing when a horse starts rearing up,’ she says. ‘But the hat has survived.’
Hats, heels and hooves. It can only mean one thing. Yes, Royal Ascot is upon us, and Francesca and Charlotte are part of the ITV presenting team for the five-day festival.
As they pick their way across the turf they look more like Vogue models than flat-racing buffs, which surely shows how far the televised racing world has come since the John McCririck era.
These days you’re as likely to find a woman fronting the racing – Clare Balding, of course, was the mainstay of coverage for the BBC and then Channel 4, before ITV got the rights in 2016.
Pedigree: Francesca has grown up around horses and her father is a racehorse trainer while Good Morning Britain presenter Charlotte said she took riding lessons from a young age
She and Francesca have much in common. They both have racehorse trainer fathers – Ian Balding and Luca Cumani – and were riding almost as soon as they could walk.
Francesca’s grandmother was a champion jockey, and her mother once won a win-your-own-weight-in-Champagne race.
By the age of five Francesca had her own pony, and by ten she was pleading with her dad to let her ride the racehorses.
He let her (like Clare, she had a stint as an amateur jockey), but he never really considered a career in the horseracing world would be an option for a girl.
‘My dad is Italian, quite traditional,’ she explains. ‘It’s not that he thought women couldn’t do the job, but he knew how hard it was.
Firm favourite: The Queen, pictured with Prince Andrew at Royal Ascot in 2017, has only missed the festival once in 1953 due to her Coronation
‘He didn’t think a woman would want to be up at 5am when she had children.’
She didn’t exactly set out to prove him wrong, but that’s what happened.
Now 36 and mother of a three-year-old boy, she’s forging a career not just as one of our leading racing presenters (earlier this year she and her co-host Ed Chamberlin picked up the best presenter gong at the British Sports Journalism Awards for 2018) but as a racehorse breeder too.
Ladies Day dates back to 1823 and is still a major part of the event now
POETRY IN MOTION
Ladies’ Day dates back to 1823, when an anonymous poet described the Thursday as ‘Ladies’ Day… when the women, like angels, look sweetly divine.’
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Until 1856, when the railway arrived, well-heeled racegoers risked attacks by highwaymen to travel by horse and carriage.
Now, 60,000 will arrive daily – some in 400 helicopters and 1,000 chauffeured limousines.
Queen Anne, pictured, founded Royal Ascot
Ascot racecourse was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne, who deemed the land ideal for ‘horses to gallop at full stretch.’
Royal Ascot is thought to have first taken place in 1768.
The Queen has only missed the festival once – in 1953 due to her coronation.
She’s owned 22 winners and had one Gold Cup triumph, with Estimate in 2013.
And Charlotte? Well, best known for her Good Morning Britain day job, the 44-year-old can’t quite claim such a horsey pedigree, although she did take riding lessons from a young age and ‘asked for a pony every Christmas, although I never got one’.
It turns out her first job was at a racecourse too. Alas, nowhere near a horse.
‘When I was in my teens I got a job at Goodwood Races,’ she recalls. ‘It was in the burger bar, flipping burgers, although I did graduate to manning the till.’
Her role in the presenting team is to focus on ‘everything that isn’t horses’.
This means the gossip, the backstage goings-on, the pomp, the Queen.
‘It’s the best job in TV,’ she says. ‘We have “access all areas”. We even get into the Royal Box. Piers Morgan ribs me about it. He says all I do is drink Champagne all day.’
The only drawback of both Charlotte and Francesca’s jobs is that they seem to involve extraordinary levels of discomfort, what with the heels and hats, but there are no complaints.
‘I could take my shoes off towards the end of the day, because they can be so uncomfortable, but I refuse to,’ says Charlotte.
‘It’s Ascot. There are standards! And people expect you to have made that effort. It’s fun too. There aren’t many events now where you can wear a proper hat.’
Given that Francesca’s job is to talk about the form, the horses and the state of the ground, couldn’t she just skip the feathers and fascinators, if only in the interests of equality?
Absolutely not, she says – dressing up is part of the Royal Ascot magic, ‘it’s part of the spectacle. I love it.’
Of course, Ascot is spectacle at its best. And a very British spectacle.
Francesca started her TV career in Australia (she was asked if she’d be interested in a presenting role after being interviewed about two of her father’s horses, which she’d accompanied Down Under to run in the Melbourne Cup, and wowing everyone with her passion for the subject), but concedes that the British racing world has extra zing.
‘Where else do you have the Queen’s carriage so close you can touch it?’ she says.
The fact that the Queen’s own horses are often running just adds to the sense of occasion, says Charlotte. ‘I think it’s where she looks at her happiest. She always has a smile on her face.’
Steeped in history: Some 60,000 visitors will arrive daily for the event this year including in 400 helicopters and 1,000 chauffeured limousines. Pictured is the Gold Cup day in 1839
In television terms, though, the aim is to bring racing coverage into the modern era. But there are some challenges involved.
‘You don’t want to alienate the diehard racing fans who only want to talk about form,’ says Francesca. ‘But you also have to be aware of appealing to a wider audience.’
This year’s coverage of the event – the pinnacle of the flat-racing calendar – is certainly ambitious, including all 30 races being shown live.
Running from Tuesday to Saturday, each day starts with the arrival of the Queen’s carriage, and highlights on the turf include the very first race, the Queen Anne Stakes, then the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on Wednesday, and the Diamond Jubilee Stakes sprint on the final day.
Getting in the spirit: Francesca, pictured, said she will not skip dressing up for Ascot as ‘it’s part of the spectacle’
Can Battaash, on his day the fastest horse on the planet, win the King’s Stand Stakes on Tuesday after being narrowly beaten last year?
And will Stradivarius retain the Gold Cup, the festival’s oldest race, on Thursday with Frankie Dettori on board again?
In terms of fashion coverage Thursday, Ladies Day, is the big one, when all eyes will be on those hats.
Charlotte says the ones she wears at Ascot are borrowed. ‘Although last year I got to take them home on the day, and my daughter was delighted. She always wants to put them on.’
What’s Charlotte, whose background is in news, doing talking about hats anyway?
She says the attraction was more about the challenges of live TV. Interestingly, her other non-Good Morning Britain gig is hosting a show on Classic FM.
The worlds of racing and classical music would both once have been deemed a bit ‘niche’, but now, in the battle for audiences, they all want a slice of mainstream action, and a presenter like Charlotte is much in demand.
She says she might not have slipped out of the breakfast TV straitjacket so easily had it not been for her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017.
That wasn’t exactly a triumph dance-wise (she exited third, and was appalled at her inability to glide elegantly), but it changed her attitude about the sort of projects she wanted to take on.
‘It forced me to do something I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with, and made me realise I didn’t have to stay in my box.
Storming to victory: Ascot runs from Tuesday to Saturday with each day starting with the arrival of the Queen’s carriage. Pictures, jockeys on the course
‘Before, I was a bit nervous about doing stuff that wasn’t quite “me”, and Strictly was a good example of that.
‘I was so worried about falling flat on my face, but when I did it wasn’t the end of the world.’
Since starting to work for the racing team in 2017, Charlotte has gone back to riding herself, and her little girl Ella Rose, who’s four, has just had her first lesson too.
Both are ‘hooked’, says Charlotte. ‘I think it’s like any hobby you take up again after a long gap. You approach it in a different way.
I’d like to be a responsible mother and say yes. But no, I still love a good gallop. It’s nourishing for the soul, like therapy really. It’s just pure freedom
‘Before I was only interested in going fast, and if we didn’t do jumps in a lesson I wasn’t interested. Now I’m more interested in the dressage side, and the moves.’
On this, the two women are poles apart. Francesca, whose little boy Harry is a year younger than Ella Rose, is the speed queen of the duo.
She laughs when I ask if she’s slowed down when riding since becoming a mum.
‘I’d like to be a responsible mother and say yes. But no, I still love a good gallop. It’s nourishing for the soul, like therapy really. It’s just pure freedom.’
Both women have a great sense of fun. They’ve bonded, they say, over chat about how to juggle young children with the demands of filming.
Charlotte lives with her husband, businessman Mark Herbert, who she married in 2008, while Francesca’s home life has been a tad more complicated.
When she signed up to ITV in 2016 she was married to Australian polo player Rob Archibald and had an established career Down Under.
The timing of the invite to work in England was tricky. The pair were expecting their first child.
Childhood hobby: Charlotte, pictured on say two of Ascot last year, said she went back to riding after starting to work for the racing team in 2017
Yet when Harry was born, Francesca was confident they could establish a dual life, spending half the year in Britain, half in Australia.
Last year, however, she confirmed she and Rob had split. She’s since embarked on a relationship with her fellow ITV Racing presenter Oli Bell.
Today she admits the demands of keeping the marriage going between two continents proved just too much.
‘Every relationship has its ups and downs, but that didn’t help,’ she says of the constant travelling.
‘The growing-apart thing is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true.’ Was the split as amicable as has been reported? ‘
Everyone has a tip for you. Even the man in the car park will have a tip for you. But you know what? They all tip different horses, and then I’m afraid of offending anyone by not backing theirs so I don’t bother
As amicable as these things can be,’ she says. ‘Our priority is Harry, and making sure he is surrounded by love.’
Francesca is not only a presenter and racehorse breeder but also part-owns a French racehorse, and in Australia she once watched it romp to victory while presenting her racing show.
‘I went a bit mad,’ she confesses. Although her stake in this horse was ‘very expensive’, it’s been quite an investment. ‘So far, he’s won over £2 million in prize money,’ she says.
Astonishingly, Francesca doesn’t bet on racing.
‘It’s just not my thing. For some people it’s all about that, but I don’t need that excitement. For me, the thrill is the race itself.’
What about Charlotte? She admits that being surrounded by racing pundits is baffling.
‘Everyone has a tip for you,’ she says. ‘Francesca will tell me that so-and-so is on great form, someone else will tip another horse.
‘Even the man in the car park will have a tip for you. But you know what?
‘They all tip different horses, and then I’m afraid of offending anyone by not backing theirs so I don’t bother.’
Royal Ascot coverage starts at 1.30pm each day from Tuesday, on ITV.