Racing: Ascot's new audience

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ASCOT'S progress towards the Millennium has gathered pace with the news that the Berkshire course has wangled four more weekend days' racing for its 1999 programme. Those in charge have sacrificed midweek meetings for two new Saturdays and two new Sundays; in other words, they wish to stage the entertainment at a time when most people can go rather than when they cannot.

And an example of what can be done to put bums on seats on a new occasion in the calendar will be evident in four days' time with the inaugural running of the pounds 150,000 Tote International Handicap. This Saturday was bagged by Ascot during last year's fixture-list shake-up, and the race - which attracted 40 high-class seven-furlong handicappers at yesterday's five-day declaration stage - was created specifically to enliven the punting lull between Goodwood and York.

The Tote and Ascot have always been close bedfellows. The handle of some pounds 6m generated by the "nanny" at the Royal meeting is comfortably the highest of any British Flat meeting and the course takes its five per cent. The value of the International makes it Europe's second richest handicap purse - after the Tote-sponsored Ebor - and was a cunning long-term plan that suited both the racecourse and the pool bookmaker. The contest, with a maximum field of 30, will carry a guaranteed pounds 100,000 kitty for the Tote's new bet, the Trifecta, for the second successive Saturday.

"We had to be big and bold to excite the public and the racing professionals," the Tote's Rob Hartnett said. "And the response from trainers in this country has been magnificent."Read, correctly, into Hartnett's phrasing a modicum of disappointment that the race, which involved the European handicap panel in its framing, has failed, this year at least, to attract competitors from the Continent. The sole non-British or Irish entry, Is Tirol from Germany, declined to take up the engagement yesterday.

The sponsors anticipate a thoroughly competitive contest, offering 14- 1 the field as an opening gambit with Decorated Hero, Misbah, Crumpton Hill and Sheltering Sky heading the list and only two points separating their first 14 in the betting.

One of the early market movers was the Stewards' Cup flop Gaelic Storm. Mark Johnston immediately nominated the Ascot race after the four-year- old finished 15th as a gambled-on joint favourite for last Saturday's Goodwood heat and yesterday it was a case of once bitten, not at all shy as undeterred punters waded in again.

The Ascot management is - obviously - hoping that their new venture will be a success, but is not taking anything for granted. "One thing we have learned," Douglas Erskine-Crum, the course's racing director, said, "is that new fixtures take time to bed in and our targets will not be overambitious. We will be pleased to attract 20,000 people over Friday and Saturday."

The 300 acres at Ascot will absorb that number with comfort, which is a message that Erskine-Crum, who took over the reins of the course three and a half years ago, is keen to get across. Another is to emphasise that there is more to the place than its traditional image of nobs and snobs.

The innovations set in motion by the former Scots Guards officer - which put the customer first - have blown a welcome wind of change through Ascot's stately portals, though no doubt have some former custodians of the Queen's track impersonating Black & Decker drill bits in their graves.

"The view that we are doing the paying public something of a favour by letting them in is not applicable, not acceptable, not tolerable," Erskine- Crum said, "and if we can race at weekends rather than in the middle of the week it makes complete sense to do so. It is more convenient for racegoers and more cost-effective for both us and the BBC. Next year we will have three Sunday meetings for the first time and will be looking towards a new clientele. A 30-mile radius catchment area includes London; if we can stage racing every two or three weeks that will be a very strong message for our marketing department to grab hold of."

Recent structural changes to the fixture list mean that there will be a record 1,203 days' racing in Britain next year, 675 on the Flat and 525 jumping. Twenty-four of them will be at Ascot, the same as this year but with one more Flat day (15) and one fewer over jumps (9).

Although Ascot heads the prize-money and attendance leagues, 13 of Britain's 59 racetracks (with the three all-weather venues at the top of the table) will hold more racing next year. With the state of the ground before the prestige Royal and King George meetings to consider, there are limitations.

But within those parameters Erskine-Crum's targets are still onward and upward. "We know things have improved here, but there is still a long way to go. We will be reviewing our fixtures with a view to getting the optimum number, and best, slots. We want to compete with the best in the world, not just in terms of other racecourses, but rival leisure activities.