Racing: Ascot lowers ceiling and raises prices

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Royal Ascot retains its popularity as the Flat season's favourite fixture and in an attempt to reduce overcrowding, the course executive is to further restrict attendance. Richard Edmondson reports.

The vexed topic of attendance figures was again on the racing table yesterday. At many of Britain's racecourses, where unpalatable racing is served by similar facilities, there is a struggle to raise a quorum.

Ascot does not have that problem and yesterday the course executive revealed plans to counteract a different situation. Too many people, it seems, want to attend Royal Ascot, and, next summer, the numbers allowed on to the course will be 20 per cent fewer than last June.

The Royal meeting now welcomes 230,000 people over four days, a mass that can be managed quite nicely thank you as long as the weather remains clement. When it becomes stormy, however, the picture, and the colour of your trouser bottoms, changes. The crowd reduction comes largely following dirty Thursday earlier this year, when ladies' day, the busiest day of the meeting, was met by continuous rain. The chosen dress pattern for the afternoon seemed to be mud-spatter as many who had paid good money for the experience found their new togs lasting just a few hours out of the box.

Visitors will have to pay more money this year (pounds 55 a day in the Royal enclosure and pounds 42 a day in the grandstand, although there are concessions for early bookers), but there will be fewer people with whom to jostle and more refuges should the skies open once again. Double-decker marquees will be going up, with catering, television and betting facilities to take your mind off matters al fresco while raindrops are plopping from the awnings.

The message, already, appears to be book early. Advance bookings are available from 2 January and, last year, when the accommodation was greater, the grandstand enclosure for ladies' day was sold out within two weeks. Beware, there are people out there who know how to plan their lives.

The Ascot executive can also bathe in an annual attendance figure for 1997 which, at 452,100, is already ahead of the 1996 figure. And that is with Saturday's Betterware Cup meeting still to come.

There were some (ok, I mean me) who might have made a snap judgement when a chap called Douglas Erskine-Crum was appointed as Ascot's racecourse director. Dougie, as I'm sure he'll let me call him from now on, is, however, rather different from your average racing administrator. He does not treat the public as a bit of a nuisance who have turned up to ruin his private sports day.

It is easy to tell the difference. Some clerks of the course at major racing venues such as Newmarket dreamily observe you as the equivalent of bubble gum on the sole. Ascot's clerk, Nick Cheyne, and Dougie, always seem to be in a state of nervous alertness as if they are frightened that they might be doing something wrong. They care, and so do others about coming to their racecourse.

It seems inevitable then that the Berkshire track's latest initiative, the Royal Ascot Racing Club, will be a huge success. Erskine-Crum launched it yesterday with the rather modest pledge that this would be "the greatest racing club in the world". He does, though, have a glimmer of justification.

Subscribers, of which there will be a maximum of 300, will be allowed use of a club room behind the current Iron Stand for which the word luxurious is probably too understated. Canapes and drinks will be complimentary, as will Ascot raceourse admission throughout the year. Viewing at the course will be from a private stand, and an exclusive restaurant will also be available.

In addition, the Club has already bought six two-year-olds at an average cost of pounds 50,000 which will be split between the Messrs Stoute, Hannon and Chapple-Hyam. There will be stable visits to check the horses are still alive, dedicated phone lines to the group manager and regular reports on the bloodstock. And just in case you think one small detail may have been omitted, the perfect late stocking filler for your loved one is available for a knockdown pounds 8,812.50.