Wednesday 1 July 2015

Reflections on Royal Ascot: Is It Now the Biggest Brand and Racing Event on the International Stage?

I lived in Windsor for 15 years and for a fair chunk of that time had an office in Ascot, so I’ve observed the “Royal Ascot experience” pretty closely over the last couple of decades. Personally I believe there has been a transformation in the event, particularly since the £220m of investment culminating in the opening of the new stand. In effect, Ascot has reinvented itself and has reached new heights. Having been lucky enough to go along to two days of this year’s Royal meeting, here are some reflections on both racing and broader issues.

Day 1: Savoured by the purists and the next best day’s racing after Champions’ Day

Ascot peaked early this year! Freddie Head’s Solow was majestic in the Queen Anne, making it 7 wins from 7, while Gleneagles confirmed his status as champion miler, adding to wins in the English and Irish 2000 Guineas. Not for the first time, Aidan O’Brien confirmed him as his “best ever miler”, adding to similar comments when both Henrythenavigator and Rock Of Gibraltar did exactly the same. It will be magnificent if these two clash in the Sussex Stakes.

Internationalism: I believe that Ascot this year was the best international meeting that has ever taken place in England, despite the non-attendance of California Chrome and the dismal flop of Able Friend. For the first time there were more winning horses trained outside England. In Wesley Ward, British racing has a superb ambassador. Indeed he is positively evangelical about our sport.

Day 2: Love him or loathe him, when Frankie Dettori does well, so does British Racing

Acapulco looked as though she wouldn’t have been out of place in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham – a massive filly who completely burnt off the field of 2yos in the Queen Mary. She cut an awesome presence and, in the words of Ryan Moore, “looked and rode like a 4yo”. With his win in the Prince of Wales, Free Eagle could be a potential Arc horse. Incredibly Dermot Weld had his first winner at the meeting 42 years ago. Dettori’s triumph on Osaila was his 50th winner, putting him in 4th place behind Lester Piggott (116), Pat Eddery (73) and Willie Carson (56). That is one to remember for the pub quiz! What a rejuvenation in his career.

Personalities: racing definitely needs them. I suspect there were more column inches in the daily newspapers about Dettori than about the horses that day. Although everyone appreciates Ryan Moore’s brilliance (and by the end of the fourth day, his 9th win at the meeting was a record in modern times), there is very little broader public awareness of his contribution to the sport. A challenge there for some personal re-branding?

Day 3: Embodiment of racing’s heritage with the Gold Cup

If there is one race in which I would love to have a runner, it is the Gold Cup (and like The Open, it never has a qualifying introduction – it is the Gold Cup), partly because of its heritage going back well over 200 years when the Czar donated his trophy, but far more importantly because staying warriors, in my eyes, are the real equine stars. So the captivating moment, despite its being substandard, was Trip To Paris’s win, and hopefully booking his passage to Melbourne.

Ordinary owners: the platinum tier of ownership with ultra-high net worth individuals dominating both Flat and Jumps has clearly made a huge contribution to the sport. But this can be disillusioning for the ordinary owner. On Day 1, my wife and I were standing right behind the Act D Wagg Syndicate (including jockeys’ wives such as Gillian Walsh) when their Clondaw Warrior won the Ascot Stakes, and it was marvellous to see / hear their jubilant reaction. Similarly with the La Grange Partnership that had sportingly supplemented Trip To Paris for £35,000, having been so impressed by him when he won the Chester Cup – a marvellous return on investment.

Day 4: Continuous improvement of the racing programme has been richly rewarded

It is easy to forget that 20 years ago there were only three Group 1 races at Ascot, whereas now there are eight. The racing structure has evolved, names have changed and yet the overall heritage and quality have significantly improved. None more so than this year, when Muhaarar was an impressive winner of the newly introduced Commonwealth Cup – an undoubted success and tremendous incentive for 3yo sprinters. Illuminate winning the Albany also made it an emotional day, with a winner for Richard Hannon Jr. / Richard Hughes at their last Royal Ascot together before Hughesie competes against Hannon as a trainer.

Racing as an event: over 293,000 racegoers came along over the five days to enjoy the spectacle. How many of them will attend any other meeting? Just think of the impact on the sport if the majority of them could be persuaded to attend just one more day of racing? In many ways, though, spectators are now really supporting sport as a pageant and a huge social event, rather than necessarily being interested in the sport per se. That must have massive implications for the way in which racing is promoted and the fixture list organised.

Day 5: Betting finally falls apart – normal service resumed

By the time Day 5 arrives, wallets are light and energy depleted. Alas, the Wokingham was a complete disaster, with my nap of the week Huntsman’s Close deciding it was time to become a jumper and the back-up, Watchable, only running into 5th place. One result though that I enjoyed tremendously was the win of a €12,000 purchase at Osarus in Bordeaux, Suits You, for Eoghan O’Neill in the Chesham. This is a sale where I am intending to look for a yearling in the autumn with our trainer Karl Burke, who has also bought well there.

Investment and sponsorship: the Queen’s patronage of Royal Ascot adds massive brand value and must be one of the key factors in securing the considerable sponsorship of QIPCO as the leading commercial partner with £50m committed until 2024. Indeed if you consider the six brothers behind QIPCO led by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani, Sheikh Mohammed and the Coolmore trio of Messrs. Magnier, Tabor and Smith, then ten individuals in many ways now completely dominate the Flat. Obviously fabulous for all concerned, but not without risk.

All in all, a tremendous five days and a huge showcase for British racing. Already looking forward to June 2016!

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