Sunday, 1 July 2018

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: The Racecourse Experience at Worcester, Bangor and Royal Ascot


On average I go racing twice a week, so around 100 times a year. Indeed many people like me, who organise partnerships or syndicates, probably see more variety of racecourses, Owners & Trainers facilities and the overall racecourse experience than almost anyone other than jockeys and trainers. However, because trainers by and large are far better looked after and treated than owners, our insights are probably much nearer the reality of British racing. Indeed the Racehorse Syndicates Association (RSA) has been lobbying for more input into the corridors of power on this subject, but so far have been cold-shouldered by bodies such as the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA), which is a real pity.

Anyway, over the last six weeks, three experiences have stood out: one terrible, two excellent.

First the terrible one. On 2nd June, Worcester staged its annual Ladies’ Day, with a huge crowd of over 10,000. Unfortunately the result was that temporary Owners & Trainers facilities had to be used and there was an outcry from such trainers as Alan King, Warren Greatrex and Paul Nicholls. Owners described it as the “worst track they’d ever attended”. This is a real pity, because the track itself is a fair, flat, galloping one which I like a lot, and indeed on the day our horse, Dr Dunraven, lost his maiden tag, winning a 2m handicap chase. It’s not really the fault though of the local management. Jenny Cheshire, who heads their marketing, does a fantastic job and is always incredibly helpful. The bottom line is that the owners of the track, ARC, desperately need to make significant capital investment. At the moment the Worcester owner experience is so dire that it is dissuading owners from going. A recent survey showed that 44% of owners who leave British racing do so because of the poor raceday experience. If they all went to Worcester regularly we’d have no owners left.

So on to a much better one: Bangor. The ROA does a jumps racecourse league table based on prize-money, and in that Bangor is very lowly at 39th of 41 tracks (Worcester is 34th). So you might think that Bangor is a course that owners wouldn’t like. When I went there recently I couldn’t help but notice that it is punching massively above its weight. They have recently built a brand-new Owners & Trainers room that provided a sumptuous buffet with complimentary wine for owners. There may be no stands, with viewing being from a bank at the side of the track, but all the owners I spoke to could not have been more complimentary. It just shows what inspired leadership can achieve, even at one of the lesser tracks. I’ve always subscribed to the adage that “Ships sink from the Bridge”, and with the excellent management of Chester and Bangor, these ships are definitely full steam ahead. Bravo, Bangor.

Then the third one, which is an obvious selection, being Royal Ascot. Having studied the style guide, ensured that there were no missing socks or naked shoulders, my wife and I were duly togged up for the Royal Enclosure and had the most magnificent time on one of the best days of the Flat season, Day 1 of the meeting. Admittedly we were being wined and dined in a private box, but the whole occasion was British racing at its absolute best. No complaints over prize-money at over £7.3m during the week, and I gather that there were over 300,000 spectators. The attention to detail was the best I’ve ever seen on a racecourse – not just for humans but also for the equine stars. As an example I was really impressed by the misting machines that the horses could stand by in the unsaddling area to cool down.

Encouragingly, as far I could see, there were no problems with crowd violence, although it was strange to observe sniffer dogs trying to find drugs, amnesty boxes and breathalysers at turnstiles in case anyone showed (in lovely Ascot phraseology) “overt signs of inebriation”. Apparently there were more than 100 extra security staff.

A few highlights of the meeting for me were:
  • Accidental Agent: really magnificent to see this winner for Eve Johnson Houghton and her mother, Gaie, in the Queen Anne. It was Eve’s first success at Royal Ascot and it was an extremely emotional one. She said that “you’ll have to man the lifeboats” to escape all her tears. The horse was named after her maternal grandfather, John Goldsmith, who was a member of the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. The horse was bred by Gaie, but led out of Tattersalls Book 2 in 2015 unsold at 8,000 guineas. This gives hope to all of us!

  • Calyx: won a really strong edition of the Coventry over 6f, and in the process became the market leader for the 2000 Guineas next year. Talk about a chip off the old block – he was the spitting image of his dad, Kingman.

  • Stradivarius: the Gold Cup has always been one of my favourite races of the season, and this was a vintage finish with three horses battling it out right to the line. Exhilarating. The horse is on track to land the £1m bonus designed to encourage the owning and breeding of stayers. All he has to do (?!?) is win the Qatar Goodwood Cup and then the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup at York. Who knows, he might even go to Australia for the Melbourne Cup in November.

  • Landmark successes: everyone seemed delighted for Sir Michael Stoute to record 76 winners on the first day, beating Sir Henry Cecil’s record. Both Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore passed significant milestones with 60 and 50 Royal Ascot winners respectively.

  • Startling moments: two horses, Vintage Brut and Main Street, each only beat one horse home in their respective races at the meeting. Incredibly they had changed hands at the Goffs Ascot sale on Monday night for £280,000 and £300,000. The buyer was Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Chairman of Leicester City. He actually spent considerably more than that and was well into seven figures. The phrase “more money than sense” comes to mind.

The day-to-day fare of grass-roots racing will seem something of an anticlimax for a few weeks.



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