Wednesday 15 June 2016

Rapidly On From Epsom to Royal Ascot – and Will We Soon See Luxury Hotels on Racecourses?

Once again going into Epsom there was a feeling that there might not be any truly outstanding horses running, but I think that view has changed following a number of superb performances, not least from Minding, Postponed and then a little bit behind them, Harzand.

A number of us were lucky enough to have a visit to Coolmore Stallions in Ireland recently, with a couple of our owners brave enough to pat the mighty Galileo. His daughter, Minding, showed great bravery and versatility, I thought, to win the Oaks having been brought almost to a standstill at the top of the straight. Aidan O’Brien was particularly effusive afterwards, saying: “Speed, class, stamina, a great mind. Real heart, courage and guts had to come into it, but she had it in abundance, like all the Galileos.” At least I’ve stood next to the great Galileo, even if I’ll never afford to buy one of his offspring. This was a particularly notable performance, as she had three demanding races in five weeks, winning the English 1,000 Guineas, coming 2nd in the Irish equivalent and then the Oaks. She looks an outstanding filly and it will be interesting to see if they bring her back in trip or keep her at 1m 4f. I could see her doing well in the Autumn, in the Arc.

Postponed has long been a favourite of mine, and he just seems to be a horse who is getting better with age. By the magnificent stallion Dubawi, he was outstanding in the Coronation Cup and presumably will now be targeted at the King George. He is currently the Arc favourite. Sea The Stars has rapidly established himself as a top stallion, and his son Harzand won the most valuable race ever staged in the UK in this year’s Derby. Amazingly it was the first win in the race for Dermot Weld, who has been a hero of mine for decades. One wonders now whether his owner, the Aga Khan, will consider having horses again in the UK. It just shows again that once a late-maturing colt really starts improving, he can take huge strides forward.

By the time this blog comes out, we will be a couple of days into Royal Ascot. Surprisingly, rather than commenting on the racing, my eyes were drawn to an article in The Times on Monday entitled “Ascot considers betting on a hotel to attract year-round big spenders”. A friend of mine, particularly when he has had a few drinks, often quotes Peter Kay from Phoenix Nights: “Garlic bread, it’s the future, I’ve tasted it!” That had me thinking that in some ways racecourses in the UK could easily redefine themselves and their assets by branching out into other related sports and leisure activities. It is easy to think that racecourses don’t really change that much, but if you take an historical perspective, the evolution has been enormous. As indeed has been their demise. I looked up the number of racecourses that have actually closed, and was staggered to learn that 186 have gone through the 19th and 20th centuries, many as a result of housing and property booms. You only have to think of Bromford Bridge in Birmingham, Alexandra Park in London, Castle Irwell in Salford, Hurst Park in Surrey and Gatwick.

Guy Henderson, the Chief Executive of Ascot, is convinced that the track is such a magnificent site that a hotel could be a real game-changer, despite the considerable capital investment. He indicated that they may look for a partner to explore the options for the site. As it is, Ascot is a highly profitable course and their annual revenues were up 10% to £75m in 2015, with profits rising by nearly 11% to £18.7m. It is easy to see top-end racecourses going down the housing and hotel route with Newbury’s ongoing redevelopment an obvious example.

All that I am hoping is that the financial re-engineering and redefinition of racecourses such as this results in substantial additional funding for owners’ and trainers’ facilities. There is no reason why the two cannot co-exist, as Ayr demonstrates so well throughout the season with the marvellous lunches provided in the Western Hotel. So maybe this is an emerging element of the future of racing. Maybe not as popular as garlic bread, but significantly more sophisticated.

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