Ascot decides to wear another hat

RACING: Accused of an attitude problem, Britain's most class-conscious track is now promoting a friendlier face. Greg Wood reports
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"Ascot'', muses a character in Jamie Reid's recent novel, Home On The Range, "is the most pompous, the most formal and the most protocol- conscious race-track in Europe. It is run by a kind of last-ditch officer class in bowler hats employing last-ditch NCO bowlers from the lower orders to man the gates, guard the enclosures and keep out all riff-raff."

Until recently, it would have been difficult to sum up the Ascot experience more succinctly. The course's facilities and quality of competition have long been the equal of any race-track in the world, but a memorable day at the races is about rather more than that. You need a buzz, an atmosphere of tension and exuberance, and that was something which Ascot seemed determined to stifle.

And when an ex-army officer, a 25-year veteran called Douglas Erskine- Crum, was appointed to the position of racecourse director six months ago, those who had hoped that Ascot might one day be the complete racecourse groaned with dismay. But this, of course, was simply an inverted form of the same snobbery. It may soon be revealed to be just as redundant.

Since Erskine-Crum started work in tandem with Nick Cheyne, who succeeded Sir Nicholas Beaumont last autumn as the clerk of the course, people have started to use the words "Ascot" and "innovation" in the same sentence while keeping a straight face.

Many racegoers have questions about the sport which they have always been afraid to ask. Before racing at Ascot tomorrow, at 11am, they will be able to put them to a panel including Lord Hartington, the BHB chairman, as well as trainers, jockeys, bookmakers, and Erskine-Crum himself.

An hour later, the course is claiming another first, a parade of horses available for part or club ownership. John Dunlop, Peter Walwyn, Kim Bailey and John Hills are among the trainers taking part, and the parade will be repeated before the meetings on 5 April and 22 April.

Small steps, perhaps, but it is still hard to imagine them being taken a couple of years ago. Or, for that matter, the two-for-one promotion which will allow day members' badges for the meetings tomorrow and next Wednesday to be exchanged for badges for either or both of the track's subsequent meetings in April.

"We've done a lot of painting and we've spent a lot of money upgrading the facilities for all our visitors," Erskine-Crum says. "We're doing a lot of promoting and we hope to theme every meeting so there's much more for people than just coming to the races. The customer comes first, and we really want to make sure that everybody who works at Ascot understands that."

He did not add, "even the gatemen", but then Erskine-Crum hopes that the image of surliness in a bowler hat may already be a thing of the past. "It takes time for things to work through," he said. "Nicky Beaumont started to train the bowler-hatted gentlemen about two years ago, and there's no doubt that there was a change in attitude as it started to get through. He takes the credit for that."

The key to Ascot's future success, he believes, is "not to have a clean break, but to look for evolution. We're trying to build on the past strengths and highlight the quality of the racing, the facilities and the customer service, and to establish Ascot firmly as the premier racecourse in Europe."

An important element in that aim is the course's unique status. It is owned by the Queen and run on her behalf, via a lease from the Crown Estates, by the three-man Ascot Authority. All profits are used either to increase prize money or improve facilities, rather than held privately or distributed around the less successful tracks in a large group.

The latest improvement is the conversion of a dark room above some Tote windows behind the grandstand into a bright, spotless pavilion restaurant, which is also used for conferences and functions on non-race days. During the Royal meeting, perhaps significantly, it will be open to racegoers from both the grandstand and Royal enclosures.

Before long, Erskine-Crum hopes to see comment cards spread throughout the bars to allow customers to pass on their thoughts about complaints. In the centre of the course, meanwhile, the establishment of a new hospitality area will also have benefits, such as extra bars and televisions, for Heath enclosure racegoers. Already, those who pay just £1 to watch Royal Ascot from the inside rail arguably enjoy the best racing deal anywhere in the world.

The 200,000 spectators who pass through the gates during just four days in June are a testament to Ascot's potential for still greater success. If the new management can continue to turn good intentions into action, the pre-eminent status which Erskine-Crum is seeking may be within reach.