Ascot traditions in modern age

Greg Wood surveys the changing face of Britain's premier racecourse
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The Independent Online
Twenty, perhaps even 10, years ago, Ascot's attitude to racegoers at the Royal meeting went something like this: The toffs will turn up as usual, God bless them; so, regrettably, will the great unwashed. Still, at least we can take every opportunity to put them in their place.

It was a philosophy rooted in the days of Empire, defended in the spirit of Rourke's Drift. It meant that those attending the world's finest race meeting in anything but the Royal enclosure could feel like second-class citizens, and few believed that things would ever change.

At last, though, Britain's premier track has started to address a difficult problem: how to introduce modern standards of customer care without damaging the sense of tradition which is one of the course's greatest assets. Since the arrival of a new management team in October 1994, Ascot has been quietly arriving into the late 20th century, and if the advance ticket sales for next week's Royal meeting are any guide, the racing public appreciates their efforts.

If the phones keep ringing at their present rate, Grandstand tickets for both Wednesday and Friday may sell out in advance for the first time. Last year's total attendance for the four days of 209,134, which itself represented an increase of almost 10 per cent on 1994, could well be exceeded.

"Our marketing campaign has been geared around the message, `There is only one Royal Ascot, but four days to enjoy it'," Douglas Erskine-Crum, the racecourse director, said yesterday. "We are very much hoping to continue the upward trend in attendance but, as always, much will depend on the weather.''

Erskine-Crum was speaking at a reception to unveil some of the improvements racegoers will enjoy next week, the second Royal meeting for which he and Nick Cheyne, the clerk of the course, will be responsible. Punters in the Grandstand will find a large new bar beneath the Pavilion which includes outlets for both hot and cold food. Those in the Silver Ring, meanwhile, will find a new big screen position solely with them in mind, which must mean that the pounds 6 admission charge is now among the best deals in sport, along with the pounds 1 it costs to watch from the centre of the course close behind.

Also present yesterday were some of the country's leading trainers, admiring the track's latest innovation, a boom-style watering system, and discussing their running plans.

Mark Johnston, who will saddle Double Trigger as he attempts to win his second Gold Cup, reported his stayer to be in perfect condition, but those who still hoped to see him take on Double Eclipse, his younger brother, will be disappointed since the medication he is receiving after a recent injury will not clear his system in time.

John Gosden is confident that Shantou, third in the Derby, will offer an early test of the Epsom form in Friday's King Edward VII Stakes, while Michael Stoute nominated Election Day, a runner in the Hardwicke Stakes, as his best chance of a winner from a strong contingent.

Stoute and his colleagues certainly have a considerable incentive to succeed next week, with prize-money for the Royal meeting expected to exceed pounds 2 million for the first time. The purse for both the St James's Palace Stakes on Tuesday and the Gold Cup on Thursday will include pounds 160,000 in added money, and while Double Trigger may be a banker in the latter contest, the former may be the race of the week. Johnston will run Bijou D'Inde, narrowly beaten in the 2,000 Guineas, but the French raiders Ashkalani and Spinning World will be difficult to repel.

Other improvements at Ascot may not be immediately obvious but in time will serve a useful function. A new computer system will enable the course to log all racegoers who book tickets by telephone so that future mailshots can tempt them back. Ascot has even set up a web site on the Internet, a concept which would have baffled previous managers.

Some things will never change, of course. Grandstand punters who want to study the runners in the paddock will still be forced to tramp through a long, dark and often frighteningly claustrophobic tunnel beneath the Royal enclosure. Up in the daylight, though, the course will be as captivating as ever, and vanloads of bedding plants were still arriving yesterday to add to the colour of the enclosures.

And if Charnwood Forest, installed yesterday by Ladbrokes as the 5-4 favourite for Tuesday's first race, the Queen Anne Stakes, can oblige his backers, both the nobles and the hoi-polloi will unite in celebration.

ROYAL ASCOT: Latest betting (Ladbrokes): Queen Anne Stakes (18 June): 5-4 Charnwood Forest, 4-1 Timarida, 8-1 Cap Juluca, Distant Oasis, 10- 1 others.

(William Hill) St James's Palace Stakes (18 June): 2-1 Spinning World, 5-2 Ashkalani, 7-2 Mark Of Esteem, 6-1 Bijou D'Inde, 10-1 Beauchamp King, 14-1 Cayman Kai, 16-1 others.

(Ladbrokes) Royal Hunt Cup (19 June): 10-1 Yeast (from 12-1), 12-1 Blomberg, 14-1 Tregaron, Behaviour, Night Dance, Master Charter, Green Perfume, Chief Burundi, Donna Viola, Tertium, Kayvee, 16-1 others.

(Ladbrokes) Wokingham Handicap (21 June): 8-1 Coastal Bluff, 10-1 Top Banana, 12-1 To The Roof, 14-1 Brave Edge, 16-1 Jayanpee, Madly Sharp, Astrac, Anzio, Green Perfume, Prince Babar, 20-1 others.