Royal Ascot: Dim view a damaging blot on Ascot landscape

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The Independent Online

Royal Ascot is the solstice of the Flat season. The bloom and growth of its early months have shaped a landscape that will last until autumn, when many of the best horses - Sir Percy and Hala Bek among them, judging from the way their trainers are talking - return from a break.

As the culmination of that initial cycle, Ascot always broadens perspective. Last week, the meeting certified that there has been no more redemptive season in many a year. Having been passed between Speciosa and Sir Percy during the Classics, the baton was seized by Takeover Target and then Les Arcs, authors of two more quixotic adventures in the big sprints. Ouija Board and Soviet Song meanwhile reproached the avarice of those who hasten champions into premature breeding careers.

This year, however, interest in the quality and meaning of the panorama was uniquely literal. Even such gripping drama could not wrest attention from the stage itself: a £210m new racecourse, conceived and completed with an audacity seldom encountered on the Turf. It was all done in barely 18 months, on schedule and on budget, and the management surely deserved the clemency they sought before the meeting, when cautioning that teething problems might occur.

As things turned out, however, much the biggest problem identified last week could not be excused as transient, as mere "wet paint". In fact, it could hardly be more fundamental. For while spectacle is admirably served by the new parade and unsaddling ring, which accommodates 8,000 at the heart of the redevelopment, it is undeniably neglected in the grandstand itself. Views on to the racecourse are scarce, good ones practically extinct.

This was only one of several problems over in the Silver Ring, though in fairness the builders only released that site at the 11th hour and the management is confident of ensuring a far more pleasant experience next year. But the shortage of viewing in the sumptuous new stand is rather more chronic.

The problem is most acute at ground level, where the lawns, betting ring and steppings afford a fine view of jockeys' caps bouncing up and down like playful dolphins. Ascot has already promised to send in the diggers, but a brand new straight course and grandstand would appear to leave them little room for manoeuvre. It does seem a remarkably basic oversight.

Anger penetrated more exalted sectors, too. There were times when better shepherding might have made all the difference, but overall there seems little question that viewing is inadequate, whether measured by quantity or quality. In an era when bricks are cemented together not by mortar, but by prawn sandwiches, it may be naïve to maintain that the provision of public vantage is the primary function of a grandstand. But while private boxes and restaurants will certainly pay for the stand more quickly, the alienation of less privileged customers could yield a still heavier debt. Having said all that, Douglas Erskine-Crum and his team have shown such vivid dread of complacency that they will surely find a remedy.

In many respects, the new stand is already a proud flagship for the Turf. Some of the other complaints were vapid, others mean-spirited. To the former category belong muttered comparisons to an airport terminal, hardly justified by the fact that this inspiring, apparently weightless edifice happens to contain glass and steel. To the latter, meanwhile, must be relegated the ingenious media discovery that a crowd of 70,000 enjoying themselves on a hot day will occasionally yield one or two sufficiently oafish to summon a punch from their fading powers of co-ordination.

As usual, condemning the wrong man allows the guilty to walk free. There are many other racecourses that face far bigger problems during the hot weekends ahead, when they must choose between their own greed and the thirst of imbeciles who cannot peaceably hold their drink.

One of the most welcome aspirations of Ascot is to dismantle, along with the old stand, its most brazen divisions. Segregation is now sporadic and horizontal, rather than rigidly vertical. There was a wholesome demographic mix in the gleaming internal boulevard of the grandstand, suggesting that the human race might some day catch up with those egalitarian animals on the track itself.

There is no way Takeover Target or Les Arcs would have been able to get into their races, if they first needed an introduction from stablemates who had already run several times at Royal Ascot.

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