REFLECTIONS ON BEHIND-CLOSED-DOORS ROYAL ASCOT
Royal Ascot 2020 is one that we have never seen the likes of before, and will hopefully never see the likes of again. The mere notion that Royal Ascot could ever be held behind closed doors would have been considered ridiculous just a few months ago, but it happened.
Inevitably, it was very different to what we are used to. So much of what makes Royal Ascot unique was absent, but we still had the core product - five days of top-class racing. While the absence of fashion coverage and celebrities will have been a relief for many racing purists, it was a valid concern to wonder how Royal Ascot would stand up as an event in the eyes of the general public without all the sideshows. Thankfully, the answer was that with just horse racing to sell itself on, Royal Ascot stood its ground. Despite extremely testing circumstances for the broadcasters, the viewing figures were exceptional, and the meeting as a whole seemed to be greeted with great enthusiasm by the sport-starved public.
But, there was also a strong supporting cast of exciting Group 1 races that were won by the likes of Circus Maximus, Lord North, Alpine Star, Palace Pier and Hello Youmzain. There were plenty of emerging stars too, with Frankly Darling, Pyledriver, Russian Emperor, Khaloosy and Art Power all impressing enough at a lower level to suggest they could have Group 1 days ahead of them. As has come to be expected, the two-year-old races provided clarity into the current pecking orders amongst the juveniles. The most impressive performance amongst them was perhaps the Karl Burke-trained Dandalla who evoked memories of Lady Aurelia in streaking away with the Albany Stakes by six lengths.
Despite fears that reduced international participation might be detrimental to the spectacle, there was still plenty of success for foreign-based trainers. Aidan O’Brien, Wes Ward and Jessica Harrington all tasted success, but a return to greater international participation in 2021 will be welcomed.
It was a Royal Ascot like no other, and there will be lessons to be learned from it. The Covid-19 crisis has necessitated an amount of change in the sport of horse racing that would previously have considered unthinkable. While many of those changes are temporary, lessons learned during this period promise to stimulate a great amount of positive progress in our sport that can so resistant to change.
What Can We Learn From Royal Ascot 2020?
One thing that behind-closed-doors Royal Ascot hammered home is that the new races took more away from the meeting than they added. The Cheltenham Festival represents a prime example of the consequences diluting a premium product, and in my opinion, Royal Ascot suffered for the addition of six extra races.
The well-established handicaps at the meeting perform a valuable function in providing opportunities for the horses just below the highest level, as well as providing a different type of spectacle and betting opportunity to the public. However, there were too many of them last week. Royal Ascot have suggested the programme will return to a 30-race five-day structure in 2021 and that is the right decision. But, that isn’t to say there weren't lessons to be learned from the expanded and altered Royal Ascot programme in 2020.
The revised order of races worked quite well in many cases. The traditional assault on the senses that is the first day of Royal Ascot with the Queen Anne, Coventry Stakes, King’s Stand and St James’s Palace being the first four races of the meeting was very much reined back this year and, for me at least, it worked well. It makes sense to spread such valuable assets more evenly across the five days. More than anything else, I felt the Saturday worked particularly well last week. That particular day staged just a single Group 1 in recent times, but last Saturday played host to three Group 1's and two Group 2's. It was a fabulous day of racing. Keeping some of those races on the Saturday will only serve to enhance the meeting as a whole.
Something else that stood out like a sore thumb last week was the Queen Alexandra Stakes. The lack of Irish-trained runners really exposed the Queen Alexandra for what it is. A superfluous irrelevance that adds nothing to Royal Ascot beyond a nostalgic nod to the past. The case for removing it from the programme is crystal clear. The Gold Cup is for the very best stayers, and the Ascot Stakes is there for those below Gold Cup level. If the Queen Alexandra was removed and the Ascot Stakes had its rating band widened to 0-105 or even 0-110, the top two tiers of staying horses would be more than adequately catered for.
While we are at it, as it stands, the two longest handicaps for four-year-olds and up at Royal Ascot are the Duke of Edinburgh Handicap over a mile-and-a-half and the Ascot Stakes over two-and-a-half miles. That is a huge gap in trip between those two options. Reducing the distance of the Ascot Stakes to two miles as well as widening its rating band would make it a higher quality and more competitive contest. It would also make it more relevant in the wider staying handicap programme, more closely linking it to high-profile races like the Ebor and the Melbourne Cup.
World Pool Takes Giant Leap Forward
One of the biggest success stories of Royal Ascot 2019 was the World Pool. Brought about by a deal between Ascot, the Hong Kong Jockey Club and Tote UK, the World Pool was created to combine all Tote bets struck on the majority of Royal Ascot races around the world in one pool. 2019 was its first year in operation, and despite not taking bets on all the races at Royal Ascot and only having 10 countries betting into the pools, Tote turnover for the meeting grew from £17m the previous year to £92m. That was a phenomenal increase for the first year of the new arrangement and the hopes were that it would be even better in 2020. That very much proved to be the case.
With 20 countries now betting into the one pool and all 36 races at Royal Ascot being available to them, Tote turnover for the meeting grew almost 50% from £92m to £137m. This is particularly impressive given that there was no on-course turnover this year.
A strong Tote is a huge asset for any racing jurisdiction, but for it to be an attractive option for more serious bettors, liquidity needs to be strong and stable. The success of the World Pool has demonstrated how international markets can play a huge role in providing that liquidity. This is where the future of pool betting is.
Tote Ireland and Horse Racing Ireland have been painfully slow to realise the potential of international co-mingling of Tote pools. However, with Tote Ireland soon to be put out of its misery and taken over by the forward-thinking UK Tote Group from January 1 2021, there is scope for belated progress to be made on this front. With this in mind, HRI absolutely have to retain 48-hour declarations for all racing beyond the current post-lockdown period. Without 48-hour declarations, Irish racing cannot realistically compete for international betting turnover with competitors such as British and French racing, which had 48-hour declarations in place for over a decade. 48-hour declarations have unsurprisingly been functioning perfectly well since the resumption of racing in Ireland and a reversion to 24-hour declarations would be an astoundingly poor decision.