Racing: Punters to pay for Ascot loan: The Royal meeting is saved after inspection discovers 30-year-old electrical wiring

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The Independent Online
DEDUCTIONS from punters' bets are being used by the Levy Board to provide an interest-free loan to the Queen's racecourse, Ascot, it emerged yesterday. Without the pounds 1m loan for essential improvements to meet safety regulations, next week's Royal meeting would not have been able to go ahead.

Officials at the course, which is owned by the Crown Estates Commission, learned in January that renovation work costing pounds 3m had to be carried out if it was to obtain a safety certificate. Buildings at the course had not been re-wired for 30 years and this, along with the need to provide more escape routes from the huge main stand, meant that it did not meet the requirements of Berkshire's Chief Fire Officer and the Heritage Department.

Their decision came two months after the blaze which destroyed parts of Windsor Castle, just a carriage drive away. The destruction of the Queen's Berkshire home prompted a major debate over whether public money should be used to pay for renovation work.

That was partly resolved when the Queen agreed to open Buckingham Palace to the public to help meet the cost of the work. This use of Levy Board money, a tax on punters' bets to benefit the horse-racing industry, is sure to rekindle the debate.

Central to the issue is whether the Queen's course should receive Levy funding in the same way as Britain's 58 other tracks. Although racing at the course, particularly the Royal meeting, is popular with punters and makes a weighty contribution to the levy, the track spurns the investment of sponsors at the Royal meeting. Instead it is putting up pounds 946,081 towards prize money at the four-day fixture next week, money which could be distributed usefully elsewhere.

'The Royal meeting is one of the largest generators of off- course income,' the Levy Board chief executive, Rodney Brack, said. 'It supplies a substantial part of that income, therefore it is logical to claim a loan from that source.'

The Levy Board asked Ascot to provide financial forecasts to justify the loan, which is being repaid in two instalments, pounds 500,000 next April and the rest 12 months later. 'The figures demonstrated the loan was needed to get the work done in the time scale,' Brack said.

It also seems extraordinary that the same electrical wiring has been allowed to remain in position for 30 years and that the course seems to have been caught out by the more stringent rules which now apply to sports grounds in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster.

The clerk of the course at Ascot, Nicholas Beaumont, yesterday explained that the improvements were ordered in January when responsibility for safety certificates for Crown property was transferred to the Heritage Department.

'We could have done nothing, but the crowd restrictions would have been so severe that racing could not have taken place,' he said. 'The number of people per box would have been limited to six, the top floor of the Royal enclosure to 435 instead of over 5,000 and the stalls seats to 300 instead of 2,000.

'Since January the roofs of the grandstand and Royal enclosure have been replaced and a brand new fire alarm installed. There was no other way of getting the money at such short notice. It is remarkable what has been achieved in such a short space of time.'

Suggestions that the Levy Board should have used Ascot's need for a loan to force the track into accepting something as vulgar as sponsorship for the Royal meeting were refuted by the board's chairman, Sir John Sparrow. 'I am out of sympathy with sponsorship of Royal Ascot,' he said. 'The course is in an unusual position in terms of international reputation and is owned by somebody who wishes not to have that meeting sponsored.

'To suggest that we should have taken advantage of a situation that was dangerous for racing would have been entirely wrong. If you had changed the names and it was a proprietor of some other course in question you would not be asking for change with the same conviction.'

The course is due to receive its safety certificate tomorrow.