Not a crowd packed to the rafters – but those at Ascot rewarded in style

If you build it, they will come. The well-worn cliché, the bastardised classic Kevin Costner line ‘If you build it, He will come’, from the 1989 baseball movie Field Of Dreams, does not always ring true.

Take Saturday’s crowd for the SBK Clarence House Chase Raceday at Ascot, for example.

A clash between Energumene and Shishkin in the Grade One feature was built up – rightly so – in the media, yet was in most cynics’ minds, always a pipe dream.

Such big pre-Cheltenham Festival clashes between two unbeaten chasers, one from Ireland and one from England, used to be a more regular occurrence before the Festival meeting became the monster it is now.

Officials at Ascot were satisfied with Saturday's crowd
Officials at Ascot were satisfied with Saturday’s crowd (Simon Milham/PA)

Yet despite all the pessimistic prognostications, the clash was on. The sport did its best to promote a mid-season contest which took place on a cold, grey afternoon in the middle of January.

Nicky Henderson, oddly pilloried in some quarters for not declaring Shishkin for the Tingle Creek at Sandown in early December, had every reason to shy away from the media spotlight.

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The horse was not right, he was not ducking anything, yet still the naysayers – of which there were many – wanted to twist the knife for whatever reason.

But Henderson is not a man for hiding. He answers every call, offers insight, wears his heart on his sleeve. But above all that, he knows the game, knows that publicity is what the sport desperately needs and he more than does his bit, often to the frustration of his wife, Sophie.

“It can be annoying at times and I have to sometimes tell him when it is enough,” she said. “But he knows he has a job to do.”

And the sport desperately needs more like him.

The fervour and anticipation created by round one of the heavyweight Shiskin-Energumene clash sent a few more people through the gate – arguably not as many as hoped – yet it will have certainly added a few more viewers on TV, with the ensuing epic duel up the Ascot straight pure Saturday afternoon box office stuff.

“In terms of ticket sales, there will have been about an additional 500-1,000 sold,” said Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing and public affairs.

“People tend to plan their weekends in advance and while we have had an uplift on the last renewal, and while we sell tickets on the day, we would estimate a crowd of around 9,000. For context, we usually generate around 16,000 for the pre-Christmas meeting.

“The sales are what they are. The point is, we are getting big pull-outs in the newspapers and we are trying to get away from the binary mechanism of assessing everything by ticket sales.

“The world has moved on. For a start, hospitality is absolutely through the roof and hopefully the TV figures will reflect what we have been seeing through the season so far. This has been well-publicised by ITV and the racing channels.

“Nicky and Willie (Mullins) have both played their part in building this up, as has Kim Bailey, who has been brilliant – and it is very much ‘don’t forget me’ since he won this last year with First Flow.”

Most in racing are very conscious that there are not enough of these type of races in the run-up to the Festival.

The racing narrative is broadly OK until you get to just after Christmas and then a lot of Pattern races tend to be small fields – and they tend to be uncompetitive small fields or parades for the top names before they go on to Cheltenham.

“So, the more the genuine competition can be encouraged, the better,” added Smith.

“This is the sort of thing that created rematches at Cheltenham. It is all very well having showdowns, but there is nothing to stop matches on the way and rematches at the Festival.”

The participants have played their part over and above what is required at times. We should be thankful for that.

Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival
Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival (Nigel French/PA)

“Willie is fantastic all the time,” said Smith. “Nicky is fantastic all the time and there have been points in time where he has been frustrated by comments about Shiskhin, and the great irony here is that this is the most brave route he could have taken – this is not hiding!”

It is a pity that more were not at Ascot to see the big clash.

Smith, however, was “very happy” with the attendance figures.

“The numbers for these meeting are always broadly flat,” he added. “They go up by 500 they go down by 500. It could be the weather, it could be that there is a star horse.

“The figure we get in a normal year is 600,000 people and we have capped capacity at Royal Ascot and are actively looking to have less people on site because it is all about customer comfort at that level.

“We had 15,000-plus for the Christmas meeting which was huge. Between 9,000 to 10,000 people at a jumps meeting outside of Cheltenham, you have to compare it with elsewhere and that is a very big crowd – and there is nothing happening here today, apart from the horses.

“This day, and the one in February, are for racing purists and hopefully for those who begin to engage with the sport and start to understand it – and showcase clashes like this will make that happen.

“It is amazing that our two biggest profile jumps races in the last 10 years have been fields of three and four, but as long as the big two turn up, it doesn’t matter.”

There may be plenty of space at Ascot but the publicity generated will ensure that the sport achieves a better profile than it has over the past few months. It will ensure that people will come. People will most definitely come.

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