Sunday 19 January 2020

Global interest adds to Ascot's lustre

Trainer Aidan O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
Trainer Aidan O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile

Chris Cook

How about putting a TV camera inside the Queen's carriage as a way of enhancing coverage of her arrival each day at Royal Ascot? You hadn't thought of that? Well, it was one of several ideas kicked around by imaginative producers at NBC when the American broadcaster got the rights to show last week's action, a broadening of coverage that may have lasting significance for this event.

A fresh perspective is always useful but it seems the monarch is not quite ready for her close-up. NBC's Rob Hyland told the New York Times there had been "no response" from Ascot to his suggestion, but in all other respects the new relationship has got off to an excellent start.

"The feedback has been almost universally positive," says Nick Luck, the former Channel 4 Racing presenter who has been fronting the coverage on NBC's sports network for four and a half hours each day.

"Anecdotally, the viewing [numbers] over there has been phenomenal," says Ascot spokesman Nick Smith, who has yet to see official viewing figures. Two winners early in the week for US trainer Wesley Ward must have helped, and the thinking is that US owners and trainers will now have an increased appetite for crossing the Atlantic in midsummer, pursuing prize money paid in pounds.

Smith knows for sure that US betting turnover on Ascot has gone up 60 per cent on previous years, and it seems punters around the world have had Berkshire on their minds. When there was midweek racing in Milan, the punters there bet more on the Royal racing than on the action taking place in front of them, despite no Italian runners at Ascot and no Frankie Dettori, the great man having been sidelined by injury.

Ascot also has a partnership with Sina TV in China, Smith says, and coverage there is well received, even though it's almost midnight in Beijing when the big race is run. "They put on events to promote the coverage. It's late but that's okay. They get dressed up and go to Royal Ascot parties."

That global interest in Ascot takes the event as far from the moorings of ordinary British horse racing as is the Grand National. The domestic audience seems as interested as ever, with total attendance approaching 300,000 and "unprecedented" interest in the most expensive hospitality packages, Smith reports. ITV's viewing figures have been higher than those achieved by Channel 4 in recent years.

So a couple of incidents of bad behaviour in the crowd are survivable. Smith is unfazed by Twitter footage of aggression between two men here that went viral on Thursday. Noting that only one such fight has turned up online, he suggests that means, in our social media age, that perhaps only one took place.

Friday's case of a racegoer throwing beer at a racehorse and walking away undetained is more worrying. But the spectator experience is all the better for Ascot's light touch approach to security, rather at odds to its old reputation for petty officiousness, and there is no compelling case for making a change so long as such issues are rare.

The racing may, during the build-up, have seemed to lack one or two high-profile stars but when the gates opened, competition was hot, finishes were closely fought and the experience as enjoyable as ever. Caravaggio stood out for brilliant speed but Big Orange and Highland Reel leave with more admirers, both veterans having shown improbable courage to resist persistent rivals.

Coolmore finished as top owners but it took a countback of placed horses for them to get the verdict over Godolphin, both superpowers having won six races each.

Top trainer Aidan O'Brien won the Group One battle, bagging three of those against two for the Dubaians. Still, any racing fan could feel cheered by the return of Godolphin to top-class success, which should ensure a much-needed depth to the competition at that level for the rest of the season.

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