Racing: Ascot thins out the Royal throng

THE USUAL blizzard of statistics will greet the opening day of the Royal meeting at Ascot next Tuesday, from the extraordinary tonnage of salmon that the racegoers will consume to the equally impressive amount of champagne with which they will wash it down. One figure, though, is certain to show a sharp decrease, and it is the one which many courses care about above all others.

Not Ascot, however. Attendance at the four-day meeting next week will decline by about 10 per cent on its 1997 level, but only because of a deliberate decision by a course which is so popular that its customers were beginning to feel squashed. Last year, nearly 10 per cent of all days out at British racetracks were days out at Ascot, and the Royal meeting alone accounted for almost five per cent. Now, like Cheltenham's Festival in March, the track has decided to limit the crowds before it becomes a victim of its own success.

What this means is that if you were planning to go to Ascot next week, particularly on Thursday, it may already be too late to get a ticket for anything other than the Heath enclosure in the middle of the course. A handful of tickets remain for the Grandstand for all four days (bookings are taken on 01344 876456), but the Silver Ring is sold out on Thursday, and heading in the same direction on the other three days. As for the Royal enclosure, of course, the only possibility is to apply for tickets in 1999.

Those who manage to find their way into the course next week - and the unrestricted Heath enclosure remains one of the bargains of the season at pounds 2 per head - will find that the executive have not been idle since last year, and the benefits will be felt in the cheaper enclosures as much as in the Royal. The main Grandstand bars, previously the dingiest part of the course, have been redesigned and repainted, while an enormous marquee in the Silver Ring will offer cover in case of poor weather. The closed circuit televisions, meanwhile, will show uninterrupted coverage of World Cup matches for those who prefer their thoroughbreds with two legs rather than four.

If this is starting to sound like a PR puff, no apology is offered, since the change in attitude at Ascot in the last few years is something to celebrate. Serious punters, admittedly, will always be frustrated by the conspicuous lack of interest in either horses or betting displayed by many patrons of the Royal enclosure. Just as irritating - some might say positively frightening - is the claustrophobic tunnel between paddock and grandstand which ensures that the toffs do not rub shoulders with the proles (who have, lest we forget, paid up to pounds 42 for their tickets). None the less, the feeling these days is that ``ordinary'' racegoers are a priority rather than an afterthought, and the racing public clearly agrees.

It helps, of course, that the standard of the racing never seems to diminish. At a press briefing at the course yesterday, six leading trainers, including Godolphin's Saeed bin Suroor, discussed their teams for the meeting, often with considerable optimism, but such is the quality of the opposition that it would be no surprise if they could not manage a winner between them next week.

For the record, however, when Suroor was asked to nominate his best chance of success from a large potential team, he opted without hesitation for Daylami, who runs in the Prince of Wales's Stakes on the first day of the meeting. Mick Channon believes that Bint Allayl, who runs in the Queen Mary Stakes on Wednesday, is the best juvenile he has trained to date, while David Elsworth was quietly confident that Persian Punch will go close in the feature race of the entire week, Thursday's Gold Cup.

This, as some punters may recall to their cost, was also the case 12 months ago, when Persian Punch started favourite for the same race but found nothing off the bit and finished 12th of 13. Elsworth, though, believes that the unpleasant experience of being put into the stalls early next to the highly unstable Moonax was enough to ruin his chance.

Mark Johnston is looking forward to the St James's Palace Stakes, the highlight of the opening day, with a fancied runner named Lend A Hand.

In the competitive heat of Royal Ascot, however, there can be no certainties. Smart punters will dismiss nothing and treat short-priced favourites with suspicion. They will also count themselves lucky to reach the end of Friday with their starched dress shirts still on their backs.

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