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Talking Horses: Royal Ascot may need to embrace change in troubled times

Greg Wood
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

There might be a crusty traditionalist or two who will see the permanent addition of a seventh race to the Royal Ascot daily card as a sign of the end times for the Turf. The fact that all five of the races that will now become fixtures on the schedule are handicaps could also prompt a few complaints that the bookmakers will be the biggest supporters of the move.

The point on which everyone should focus above all, however, is that racing is now two months away from an entire year with 99.5% of its meetings behind closed doors, with no more than 2,500 spectators per day at any of the handful of racecourses where paying punters actually made it past the door.

Related: Talking Horses: Royal Ascot expands schedule to seven races per day

The revenue loss for the sport runs to hundreds of millions of pounds already, and the hole will keep getting bigger until full crowds return, hopefully no later than early autumn. Even then, it will be years before racing finally clambers back out into the daylight, and the new races should more than pull their weight in terms of their contribution to the Betting Levy.

On the first four days of the meeting at least, anyone who does not want to acknowledge the extra race can simply switch off the TV or make a quick getaway from the track. The first six races from Tuesday to Friday will be just as they were in 2018 and, bar one tiny tweak on Wednesday, in 2019 as well. The traditional first-race time of 2.30 is also expected to be retained.

This, in fact, is possibly where Ascot could be seen as lacking a little ambition, not least if you take the view that staging three of the meeting’s eight Group Ones among the first four races on Tuesday, but only one for the biggest crowd of the week on Saturday, is unnecessarily lopsided.

The St James’s Place Stakes, the feature race on day one, moved to the final day last year to give as much time as possible between the delayed 2,000 Guineas in early June and Ascot’s Group One over the same trip two weeks later. It seemed like a more balanced programme, to this observer at least, but the feeling at Ascot seems to be that the extra races are enough change for now.

Fans at the parade ring in 2019.
Fans at the parade ring in 2019. Royal Ascot does not expect a return to full capacity until 2022 at the earliest. Photograph: Maureen McLean/Shutterstock

“I think if you changed the Tuesday radically, it would be very, very unpopular with the Tuesday regulars,” Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing and public affairs, said on Monday. “The great irony of Royal Ascot, of course, is that the best day is the quietest day, and moving Group One races to a day that already sells out wouldn’t gain an extra customer but would potentially harm the model for the opening day.

“It really is very popular, especially with the Royal Enclosure members, to start with a bang and we like the statement of starting with a Group One [the Queen Anne Stakes]. When Tepin [the 2016 winner] came over from the States, they found it bizarre in the extreme. But they didn’t worry too much afterwards, obviously.”

It will, of course, be 2022 before the new-look Royal meeting can play out in front of a proper crowd and the track does not expect to find out for some time how many spectators will be there this year. “Everything changes so quickly,” Smith said. “The messaging today seems to be extremely upbeat, then in a week’s time, it will go backwards again.

“We know [the capacity is] going to be considerably lower than normal, and that there will be almost no temporary facilities built, but what we do put in place is further down the line. The stand is vast, so ultimately we’ve got enough permanent facilities to deal with whatever realistic crowd we’re going to get.”

Fakenham

12.55 Mr Jack
1.25 Dundrum Wood
1.55 Crossgalesfamegame
2.25 Minella Encore
2.55 Ahorsewithnoname
3.25 Away For Slates
3.55 Madera Mist

Exeter

1.15 Midnight Callisto
1.45 Full Back
2.15 Patroclus
2.45 Majestic Merlin
3.15 Neetside
3.45 Don Herbager (nap)
4.15 Del La Mar Rocket

Southwell

4.40 Centurion Song (nb)
5.10 Alpha Theta
5.40 Lincoln Red
6.10 Perfect Swiss
6.40 Marve
7.10 Nick Vedder
7.40 Beach Break

Ascot will also be the centre of attention this weekend when Politologue, last season’s Champion Chase winner, is expected to start favourite for the Grade One Clarence House Chase.

Paul Nicholls’s grey was one of 10 five-day declarations on Monday, with the field (and prize fund) unexpectedly boosted by the addition of Waiting Patiently, the runner-up to Frodon in the King George on Boxing Day, via a £5,000 supplementary entry.

Politologue heads the ante-post betting at 5-4 with Waiting Patiently at 3-1 and Defi Du Seiul, last year’s winner, on 7-2.