Thousands given free taste of Turf

Racing for Change initiative lures big crowd to Ascot but trial of decimal odds goes down badly with bookies

Unlike several thousand others, it seemed safe to assume that Andrei Arshavin had not been tempted here yesterday by the prospect of free admission.

Sure enough, it turned out that the Russian football star was a guest of one of Ascot's new sponsors. But the people at Racing For Change, responsible for nine free meetings round the country this week, will be encouraged that Arshavin was by no means alone in appearing to enjoy an agreeable sample of life on the Turf.

Admittedly, they might acknowledge as no less typical the mystified looks worn by several prominent racing men, when their attention was drawn to the presence of one of the world's more famous footballers. But then that is precisely the challenge embraced by Racing For Change: to dismantle the barriers around the sport – whether these reflect its own, arcane ways, or the insular outlook of its professional community.

The dilemma remains, of course, that the sport's existing audience will be affronted by any crude new motorways through a cherished landscape. Sooner or later, presumably, they will be invited to exchange five furlongs for 1,000 metres, though a trial of decimal odds yesterday suggested that it will not be any day soon. The betting ring is a notoriously conservative environment, and only five bookmakers agreed to the trial. Charles Barnett, the Ascot chief executive, proved less reluctant, eagerly striking one of the ring's first ever decimal bets on the favourite for the opener. Generally showing at 4-11, Zebedee was instead offered at 0.36 and Barnett duly made £3.60 on his tenner.

At the risk of discouraging novices with precisely the sort of technicalities dreaded by Racing For Change, 0.36 itself represents a confusing departure from established decimal markets already familiar through betting exchanges and the Tote. These always incorporate the stake so that 2-1, for instance, is represented as 3.0. In effect, 0.36 was neither fish nor fowl, being a decimal representation of fractional odds.

Be that as it may, the trial went down so poorly with those bookmakers prepared to take part that it will be interesting to see how Racing For Change goes about persevering with the experiment. One, Barry Johnson, grumbled that he had missed out on the turnover on adjacent boards. "I gave up a day for an experiment, because I wanted to help," he said. "But it's been a complete waste of time."

Regardless, there is no arguing with the arrival of 19,215 people for a meeting that drew only 8,257 last year. Free admission, of course, is not on the project's overall agenda, so for this week to prove a lasting success the curiosity of newcomers needs to have been stimulated sufficiently to pay at the turnstiles next time.

And the seduction that works best will be precisely the same as that which first won the hearts of the sport's aficionados. Anyone discovering a frisson of pleasure in the acceleration of Zebedee, for instance, would surely like to see how he fares back here at the royal meeting, probably in the Norfolk Stakes. Who, moreover, could fail to be intrigued by this man Henry Cecil, who saddled Aviate to win the next race? Especially when they learn, as they should, of his dizzy rise and fall and the brave, precarious redemption condensed by the fact that Aviate is only one of three fillies in his care with the potential to become his ninth Oaks winner.

Cecil expects Aviate to improve considerably for her reappearance, and is confident that she will stay a mile and a quarter – though a longer trip again at Epsom would be another matter. With Principal Role heading to Newmarket on Sunday, and Timepiece to Lingfield on Saturday week, Aviate is likely to go for the Tattersalls Musidora Stakes at York on 12 May. Dansili, her sire, is not a conspicuous source of stamina but his son, Illustrious Blue, promptly flourished for an experimental run over two miles in the Moss Bros Sagaro Stakes – in the process completing an indelible hour in the life of his trainer, William Knight, who had just won a listed race with King Of Dixie. Here was one young man, at any rate, who could get used to days like these.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Gamesters Lady (6.30 Brighton)

Has not always seemed the most dependable creature but looks transformed since joining this stable in the winter, with three wins over hurdles.

Next best

Katy's Secret (2.40 Folkestone)

Began season needing just one more run to qualify for a modest handicap rating, and received little help from an inexperienced rider on her reappearance. Frankie Dettori will be more proactive.

One to watch

Issabella Gem (C G Cox) was set plenty to do in a strong fillies' maiden at Sandown on Friday, running green before staying on well for second, and is likely to prove useful over middle distances.

Where the money's going

Fencing Master is 10-1 from 16-1 with Totesport for Saturday's 2,000 Guineas.