Promotion keeps Ascot on course

RACING COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
The British turf is not short of problems, but nothing, it seems, which a few rays of sunshine cannot solve. A fortnight ago, the gloomy mood which followed the Derby's somewhat underwhelming move to the weekend felt like it was here to stay. Now, thanks to four blistering days at Ascot, the rest of the summer just can't come fast enough.

Forget the complaints - some more justified than others - about greedy betting combines, incompetent administrators and low prize-money. Forget too all that PR-waffle about "increasing competition for the leisure spend". At Ascot last week they were leisure spending like mad. Crowds were significantly higher than those in 1994 on all four days of the Royal meeting, and more than 21 per cent higher on the final afternoon. In total, 214,000 people paid to go racing at Ascot last week, striking evidence that when a product is of sufficiently high quality, there can be no competition.

It is tempting, of course, to compare the prevailing moods at Ascot and Epsom, not least because both courses are under new management and have recently completed their most important weeks of the year. It would hardly be fair, though, since Edward Gillespie, the new man at Epsom, is trying to reverse an institution's decline. By contrast, Douglas Erskine-Crum and Nick Cheyne, the fresh team at Ascot, faced the difficult but more welcome problem of inheriting a roaring success which required, at most, minor maintenance.

None the less, the meeting's attendance figures are a considerable cause for celebration. "Of course, we were very pleased," Erskine-Crum said yesterday, "particularly on Friday when the attendance was the biggest for at least 10 years. But of course the weather had a lot to do with it, we really were very lucky."

The sudden arrival of summer was certainly fortunate, but no less than the course deserved. It followed a concerted - in fact in Ascot terms revolutinary - campaign to promote the meeting, in particular at the lower end of the ticket range. "We were trying to get across that from a racing point of view, the Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday are as good, if not better, than the Thursday," Erskine-Crum said. "It's also important that while everyone thinks Royal Ascot just equals the Royal enclosure and all that, the fact is that we have three times as many people in the grandstand as we do in the Royal enclosure."

On Ladies' Day, there were 20,000 people in the Silver Ring alone (admission: just pounds 5). Seven thousand more paid pounds 1 to picnic in the centre of the course. Ascot's new regime could hardly have enjoyed a more encouraging debut, but last week is seen as a foundation, rather than an end in itself. King George day, 22 July, is the next target, while the Festival of British Racing in September, expanded this year to fill a weekend rather than just a day, offers the greatest challenge.

"We really want to get people through the gates at the Festival and we're going to go flat out for it. It's a difficult time of year and we may be trying too much, but we must give it a go." The concept of Ascot "giving it a go" is clearly one we will need to get used to.

This week, meanwhile, "good weather" will mean different things to different people as we embark on another tedious "will he or won't he?" debate over Celtic Swing's participation in the Irish Derby at the Curragh next Sunday. The going in Ireland is currently good to firm, and Celtic Swing, of course, is that annoying contradiction, a top-class horse who is very choosy about the ground.

"A decision will be made towards the end of the week," Nick Babington, racing manager to Peter Savill, Celtic Swing's owner, said yesterday. "He will run at the Curragh if it is good ground. The alternative is the Grand Prix de St Cloud, but it is also quite firm in France."

When Savill makes his decision, the post-Ascot glow may face its first serious test.

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