So that was Royal Ascot 2014. How was it for you?
As is the case every year, there were winners and losers, and this post is dedicated in equal measure to both of them. It will take in along its meandering path TV viewing figures, competition winners, and - of course - the horses.
We'll start with the telly. Channel 4 has been under pressure of various sorts with its horse racing production pretty much since it acquired a monopoly to transmit racing to terrestrial TV audiences in 2012. The main points of that pressure have been raised elsewhere on here, and it is not the purpose of this blog to reprise them.
However, last week was a huge one in terms of the fundamental commercial viability of the station's coverage, in light of dramatic decreases in both viewing numbers and audience share during Epsom's Derby weekend.
So how did the numbers stack up last week? And, as importantly, what changes did C4 introduce to attempt to halt the slide?
Before I go on, I think it is important to say that I am a supporter of Channel 4's coverage of racing. Not necessarily in its current format, but I do believe the channel is extremely committed to the sport.
I also feel that the general media consensus of C4-bashing rather cherry picks its data to serve that negative end. The headline figure is that average viewing across the week was down from 658,000 to 583,000, a drop of 13% or so. But that figure does not offer a fair comparison.
Firstly - and implicit in this is the nub of the issue - C4's share of the TV viewing audience was actually up on last year. In that context, the channel can be argued to have done a decent job.
Indeed, the recruitment of Frankie Dettori - insightful and media-savvy - is a great addition; and, specifically for Royal Ascot, Gok Wan was a surprisingly (to me, anyway) good presenter and fused the necessary fashion blethering with the racing pretty well. In getting behind the scenes about the morning wear palaver, I - as a confirmed informal dresser - learned some new stuff that was of mild interest. And I'm generally not at all interested in such things.
I think it is hard to crab C4's effort in terms of Royal Ascot, and there are clear signs of their determination to turn the viewing situation around.
There are still issues - such as the lack of variety in the form analysis department; the banality of some of the immediate post-race interviews (which, in fairness, did seem better than usual - personally, I'd be happy to dispense with, in favour of a more considered view after the jockey has spoken to connections); and the pointlessness of asking all members of the cast for their tips, as though they all have an equally relevant contribution to make on that score.
But in covering all thirty races at the Royal meeting; in merging the requirement to reflect the social/fashion elements of the fixture with the high class racing; and in bringing in A-Listers in Frankie and Gok, who know their business and have keen existing audiences, C4 has bounced back well since the flop of Epsom just a fortnight prior.
It's a long game, and a legacy super-tanker doesn't turn in a short space of time. It is my opinion that the channel has earned the right to slightly more empathic, if not supportive, media coverage. Alas, it is seemingly the malady of British racing, and its mainstream media, to search for stains which others may not notice or consider material.
The Royal Ascot viewing figures need to be taken in the macro context: in a context which externally recognises the rise of live streaming on the internet, and of catch up TV; a context which accepts that people spend more time surfing than they do watching telly; and a context that, consequently, accepts that comparing viewing figures year on year is a meaningless likeness, unless it is undertaken against the backdrop of the overall reduction in viewing figures.
Audience share is a far more contextual measure, and the C4 numbers were up on that basis. We should further keep in mind that there is a World Cup on and, despite the disappointing performance of the home team (for some of us), it has been utterly riveting fare. And, moreover, the rather splendid weather will have given cause for many to take a walk in the park, or to sit in a beer garden, rather than jab their finger at the remote control.
These are all material factors in the somewhat two-dimensional 'viewing figures' debate, which have been largely (and conveniently) overlooked by some members of the press who should be - and usually are - more responsible.
Let's hope C4 can build on what I thought was solid progress last week, in the coming weeks and months.
To the sport itself now, and it was a great week for high class action, and also for followers of the top end of the market. (I avoid the use of sayings like "a great week for punters", which assume we all back favourites religiously).
Tuesday is always a high class day, and this year was no exception, with Toronado underlining his Group 1 credentials in the very first race. Some people consider that this race should be moved to later in the day, or even later in the week, but I don't agree. I think it is a suitably high profile race with which to shout to all-comers that Royal Ascot has opened for business.
Unlike other meetings, people don't turn up at Royal Ascot just before the third race. They get there early, have a picnic and a Pimm's - or a pie and a pint, and they're there for the full six races (note, not seven or eight, like other meetings where cards have expanded with a resultant dilution of quality elsewhere).
That said, there was a case for moving the feature race each day from the third to the fourth on the card, and that was another successful change this year.
The fourth race on Tuesday was the St James's Palace Stakes, won in striking style by Kingman. In swerving rapidly into the lead inside the final furlong, Kingman showed he had electric acceleration and cemented his place as the top Classic generation miler this term. He will be a strong favourite for the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood given the excellent record of three-year-olds against their elders (weight for age and all that), and I'm looking forward to seeing whether Toronado takes his seat at the Sussex table.
Clock watchers - and especially the sectionalistas, who seem to largely hang out on twitter - were moistened by the performance, and you can get a view on their excitement for Kingman here.
In the sprint department, Eddie Lynam again showed his power - actually, he showed his Powers: Sole Power winning the King's Stand on Tuesday, and Slade Power the Golden Jubilee on Saturday. In between, the relatively small-time Irish handler unleashed another speedster in Anthem Alexander to win the five furlong Queen Mary. That gave Lynam a 75% strike rate on the week, which is frankly preposterous. Excellent work.
The biggest disappointment of the week, the loss of three horses aside, was the defeat of the amazing Treve. She wasn't suited by the distance or the going, but most of all she was inconvenienced by what has subsequently emerged as pulled muscles in her back. She is the sort of older horse that the flat variant of our sport absolutely must cherish if it wants to retain its appeal, and so it is to be hoped she enjoys a speedy convalescence, and can return to a racetrack near us in time for late season events, most notably the Arc.
Despite her trailing in third, it was an excellent race with genuine Group 1 horses beating her. The Fugue is a machine on lightning fast ground, and she (re-)confirmed that ten furlongs is her range when readily despatching of Magician, himself operating under optimal conditions.
Thursday's Gold Cup was a belter. The first three home were separated by just a neck and a short head, with stories everywhere. The oft-maligned (occasionally by me!) Joseph O'Brien rode one of his uncomplicated stormers on Leading Light, 10/11 favourite. In fact, that might not do him enough credit, because a car park draw, some mid-race scrimmaging, and a devil of a fight to hold off the other podium protagonists showed 'son of Aiden' in a very good light.
That he was repelling the Queen's defending champ, Estimate, at the death added spice to the tale; and that long-time leader, and hugely popular dual purpose race mare, Missunited, was fractions back in third, made it an epic of a Gold Cup. My big-priced fancies are still running, and it's a race in which I have a pretty consistent profile... of finding loser after loser after loser.
Friday started with a possible early contender for next year's 1000 Guineas. Cursory Glance deserves at least that for those tempted to wager so far in advance, and her post-race quote of 20/1 for the Newmarket Classic looks fair enough, given that she fair scooted away from some speedy types, and that she's bred to get the mile. Against that, she might need it quick - something far from guaranteed in early May - and her sire, Distorted Humor, is a noted producer of 'early types' (i.e. two year olds).
One to take from that race was Malabar. Flagged in my preview of the race last week at 33/1, she ran on stoutly to be denied second by just a head and a neck. She'll clearly win races, though is likely to be a very short price next time she lines up.
The King Edward VII Stakes - the Ascot Derby, as it's become known - was won in facile fashion by Eagle Top, a Johnny G-trained dark'un having just his third run. He'd been 'wrong' when only fourth last time, and showed his true colours here to hack up. He'd lobbed into the race and then booted more than three clear of the second, Adelaide, and almost six clear of the third.
I guess it might be another King next on Eagle Top's agenda: the King George over the same course and distance. However, the trainer is in no rush and may wait for late season targets like the Arc. Clearly this fellow is held in very high regard.
Saturday's final day was a good one for Sir Michael Stoute, as the week as a whole had been, and he enjoyed a back-to-back double courtesy of Arab Spring and Telescope, the latter charging seven lengths clear of his field. Both were impressive, though, and the former - winning a handicap here - looks every inch a Group horse, and might be a smidge of value next time in Group 2 class.
The Wokingham was won by the well-backed Baccarat - maybe that should be the well-bacc'ed Baccarat. My two were a little unlucky. Glen Moss won the race on the far side by over a length, but that was only good enough for ninth overall. And Seeking Magic looked as though he was feeling the ground a bit, finishing a six length eleventh. Ho hum.
Overall, it was a great week. Attendances were up 5%, all of the races were covered on terrestrial telly and, despite three equine fatalities, the ground staff did a fine job of ensuring safe and fair ground in a very dry week.
And finally, we had a competition. 115 of you entered, and some did better than others! An impressive 42 of you broke even or better, with seven players achieving a greater than 100% ROI. Nice shooting, and I hope you all followed up your tips with real cash, which you're still counting now. 🙂
To the winners, and at the top of the pile, with six winners from 18 selections, and a profit of 760 points, is racingguy, aka Paul Graham, aka 'Scottish Paul'. I've known Paul a long time, and he was responsible for some of the smarter elements of geegeez' look and feel back in the day.
He's a keen punter, and I know it will have given him great satisfaction to claim this title. The £100 will be a welcome bonus too!
Paul had an amazing week, notching winners at 20/1 (Field Of Dream), 14/1 (Born In Bombay), 10/1 (Richard Pankhurst) and 9/1 (Baccarat), as well as a couple of shorties.
The runners up prize of various Royal Ascot goodies goes to Richiebhoy in what I'm assuming could be a Scottish 1-2. Richie's five winners from twelve picks included Domination (12/1), Hootenanny (7/2) and Slade Power (7/2).
Stod180 also pushed hard but couldn't find the winner he needed to get in the mix on Saturday, meaning he settles for a prizeless (though kudos-rich) third. His consolation is that a nice winner at Ponty yesterday leaves him well placed for the monthly prize in the tipping league. If you're not yet playing that game, why not? We give away £240 in prizes EVERY MONTH, and it's free to enter. Full details are on the 'Rules' tab here.
That's all from me. What did you think of the Channel 4 coverage? And how about the racing? How did you get on? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.