Kevin Blake

    Kevin Blake looks at why Ascot racecourse struggle to get some of their big meeting races off on time with the track seeing four of their six British Champions Day races go significantly passed post-time on Saturday.
  • Monday 23 October 2017
  • Blog

Why can’t Ascot start their races on time?

Last Saturday we witnessed the seventh edition (doesn’t time fly!) of British Champions Day and once again it could only be described as a great success. Despite initial scepticism from some quarters, it has become well established in the international racing calendar and for over 31,000 people to turn up on what was a pretty poor day in weather terms illustrates its success as an event.

While it would be easy to write a piece that reflected on the brilliance of Cracksman or the toughness of Hydrangea, I’m going to go down a slightly more obscure road to ask a simple question: Why can’t Ascot start their races on time?

Here is how Saturday’s card panned out in terms of schedule and how long after the advertised off time that each race started:

Long Distance Cup: 22 seconds.
35 minute gap

Champions Sprint Stakes: Three minutes 57 seconds.
40 minute gap.

Fillies & Mares Stakes: 24 seconds.
35 minute gap.

Queen Elizabeth II Stakes: Eight minutes 40 seconds.
35 minute gap.

British Champion Stakes: 11 minutes 57 seconds.
40 minute gap.

Balmoral Handicap: Nine minutes 14 seconds.

While such things are always vulnerable to unexpected events such as Barney Roy needing to be re-saddled prior to the British Champion Stakes after the wrong number cloth was put on him, there was no obvious reason for the preceding Queen Elizabeth II Stakes being almost nine minutes late off.

Barring the abandonment of the parade for the British Champion Stakes, there didn’t seem to be any real effort made to catch up the lost time either, with the concluding Balmoral Handicap still going off over nine minutes late.

As well as being frustrating to many observers, such tardiness also leads to wider-reaching logistical problems across the industry such as the hugely unsatisfactory clashing of races on television which requires split-screen footage, as happened on Racing UK during both the British Champion Stakes and the Balmoral Handicap.

Of course, it is easy to throw stones based on one day that could well have been the victim of an exceptional set of circumstances. However, Ascot’s tardiness in getting their races off on time has been commented on in this space after the Royal meeting in the past, so I had a look back at the start of each race at the last two Royal meetings as well as the 2016 renewal of British Champions Day in this regard to see what the numbers revealed.

Before looking at the Ascot figures, it is important to establish some context. While I failed to find equivalent statistics for British racing, here are the statistics provided by the Turf Club of off times in Irish racing in 2016. It is important to note that the vast majority of Irish races are run at 30-minute intervals.

Analysis of Irish racing off times in 2016

  Races <1 min 1-2 mins 2-3 mins 3-4 mins 4 mins+
 2016  2,577  54%  24%  11.5%  5.9%  4.5%

Now, these are the accumulated off-time statistics for the last two Royal Ascot meetings and the last two renewals of British Champions Day. It is very important to bear in mind that each of these 12 race days are made up of six-race cards with three 35-minute gaps and two 40-minute gaps on each day.

Analysis of Royal Ascot/British Champions Day off times in 2016/17

  Races <1 min 1-2 mins 2-3 mins 3-4 mins 4 mins+
 2016/17  72  22.2%  13.9%  12.5%  15.3%  36.1%

Thus, as the figures clearly show, despite having significantly longer gaps in between their races, Ascot have been performing very poorly indeed with regard to getting their races off on time compared to Irish racecourses.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t seek to bash Ascot. I’ve been to my share of tracks around the world and Ascot is right at the very top not just in terms of a facility, but how well it's run on race days. Indeed, it is with the latter point in mind that makes it so bamboozling as to how they can get everything else so right, only to fall down on something as basic as starting their races on time.

So, the obvious next question is why is this happening? It is simply a case of a blasé attitude to timekeeping or is it an indication of extenuating circumstances unique to big occasions at Ascot? It is a track of vast scale and there is a great amount of pomp surrounding the pre and post-race routines, so maybe 35 and 40 minute gaps just aren’t long enough between races there.

If that is the case, why not just increase the gaps to 40 and 45 minutes? It might not please everyone, but at least we would all get what is advertised and the races would go off in a timely manner.

Alternatively, if it is a case that a blasé attitude to timekeeping is to blame, well then that is something that needs to be addressed in both Ascot’s own interests and the best interests of the sport. For top-class races to be so frequently and notably late starting just isn’t a good look in what is a shop window for the very best of British Flat racing.

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