Ascot officials are all geared up for a huge day of racing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday.
The meeting, founded in 2011, is set to live up to its billing with the cream of thoroughbreds at a variety of distances lining up.
For the crowd of around of 25,000 to enjoy there is the added attraction of the nail-biting jockeys’ title race between reigning champion Oisin Murphy and William Buick coming to a conclusion.
Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing and communications, is in expectant mood after the final declarations were published on Thursday.
“You couldn’t have asked for a lot better. The weather is pretty sound, so it will probably be the best renewal we’ve had since Excelebration and Frankel kind of bookended the card early on (in 2012),” he said.
The six-race card has attracted an array of stars, opening with the clash of staying giants Trueshan and Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup. That is followed by the Champions Sprint that has been thrown wide open by the enforced absence of Starman.
Snowfall, brilliant winner of the Oaks, lights up the Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes, followed by the two biggest prizes of the day.
The showdown between Palace Pier and Baaeed in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes has been eagerly anticipated, and comes before another high-octane duel between Derby hero Adayar and Juddmonte International scorer Mishriff in the Champion Stakes.
The curtain comes down with a 20-runner cavalry charge over the straight mile in the Balmoral Handicap – a race that could decide the championship.
“The final declarations are great. The stayers’ race is looking like the race of the year over that trip, which is slightly unexpected after a strong Cadran but great to see,” said Smith.
“The Champion Stakes and the QEII are probably joint highlights with Adayar running now against Mishriff – the King George one and two. You’ve got to say that now has become the outstanding clash. It’s not bad to have Baaeed and Palace Pier as the appetiser, so we’re really thrilled. It’s going to be a great day.”
Smith sees the epic battle for the Flat jockeys’ championship as a fascinating bonus.
“It will probably go to the wire now. It’s an intriguing added dimension, especially if it ended up going to the Balmoral. It’s fascinating really,” he said.
“The declarations didn’t need another story, but it certainly is another thread.
“We’ll have a crowd of about 25,000 with the weather looking set. It will still seem reasonably comfortable. It will be a tremendous day and a fantastic way to see the season out with a real bang.”
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Officials at Ascot and York are ready to welcome racegoers for the first weekend meetings since many Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.
York are anticipating a figure of around 30,000 on Saturday, with a sell-out in all enclosures on the stands’ side of the course.
Ascot’s projected attendance will be around half that number – between 14,000 and 15,000 for a card which features the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Qipco Stakes.
Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing and public affairs, said: “The King George is going to be a fantastic race. Hopefully they all stand their ground. We’re just waiting on the weather to have the final say.
“We’re forecast some rain overnight and in the morning. As we know from Royal Ascot (last month), predicting how much rain we’re going to get is nearly impossible. Hopefully we don’t get too much.
“We’d like enough to bring the whole field into it, but not so much that it turns the ground soft.
“We’re expecting a crowd of somewhere between 14,000 and 15,000 – it depends on walk-ups.
“We’d normally get between 24,000 and 25,000 for the King George. We’re obviously going to be some way short of that, but we wouldn’t want too many more than we’re going to have, to be honest. It’s better to have a manageable crowd – safety first.”
The weather is expected to be kinder at York, where McFly are in concert after racing – during which the highlight will be the Sky Bet York Stakes.
James Brennan, York’s head of marketing and sponsorship, said: “Unlike the south we are looking at a dry and pleasant forecast, and the other remarkable thing is we have not had the Clock Tower (or Picnic) enclosure open in 21 months.
“Tomorrow we might reach the 30,000 mark.
“Stands’ side – County Stand, Grandstand and Paddock – we have reached capacity. The Clock Tower enclosure only goes on sale on the day. Its capacity is several thousand. We wouldn’t be expecting to turn people away from that, but you never know. None of us knows what life will be like as we emerge from the pandemic, but there’s a real buzz about the place.
“Aidan (O’Brien) is sending one over from Ireland (Armory) for the York Stakes, for the first time in a long time. We’re delighted at that, and the music broadens the base and engages more people. If it’s the only time they come racing then it’s great. We hope they gave a great time.
“There is real excitement in terms of seeing people back.”
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Ascot officials are working on a plan on how best to accommodate a larger crowd for their King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Qipco Stakes meeting.
The two-day fixture, featuring the middle-distance showpiece on July 24, will be one of the first prestigious race days after the planned lifting of Covid-19 restrictions on July 19.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday that the limit on numbers attending sporting events would be scrapped.
Though a final decision will not be made until next Monday, the Prime Minister outlined details that included the lifting of the one-metre social distancing rule, the compulsory wearing of face coverings and the need for proof of a negative test as a condition of entry.
Since May 17 there has been a cap of 4,000 allowed at meetings, except for Royal Ascot where up to 12,000 could attend as part of a Government pilot scheme.
“It’s great news. We’re looking forward to welcoming back a larger crowd than we’ve able to and we’ll work on that in the next couple of days,” said Ascot director of racing and pubic affairs, Nick Smith.
“It’s early days. We’ll just develop a plan and see where that goes in the next couple of days.
“We’re moving in the right direction and we’ll look at the logistics and the planning and see what the numbers look like.”
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Bookmakers hope racing can again demonstrate its flexibility by pushing back the date of the Grand National to ensure betting-shop punters are able to enjoy the annual “celebration”.
Coronavirus put paid to the 2020 National – along with so many other major sporting events – and after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday, this year it is set to take place just two days before the earliest possible reopening of non-essential shops.
Racing administrators have had to adapt to a series of challenges posed by the pandemic over the past 12 months, first with a halted fixture list, then a suspension of attendance for owners and spectators and shop closures also impacting on revenue.
Only recently, the winter weather has brought its challenges, too – but racing administrators were quick to draw up rescheduling plans to save big meetings lost to the freeze.
Ladbrokes Coral PR director Simon Clare is suggesting the sport can show more of that pro-active spirit – and give itself a much-needed financial boost – by delaying the Randox Grand National, currently scheduled to take place on Saturday April 10, so that it can be run with shops open again.
The National is by far the biggest betting race of the year, worth an estimated £300million in turnover.
Clare said: “Now we’ve seen the dates for the Government road map – which are provisional – and the fact that there is potential for betting shops to open on April 12, the obvious issue is the Grand National.
“It is the biggest betting race of the year – the race which millions of people enjoy as a national celebration. It was lost to the pandemic in 2020, and would take place two days before the shops open this year.
“It is the one race where betting shops provide a big service. There are a lot of once-a-year punters who want to come and have a bet on the big race.
“There’s the celebratory aspect of the Grand National. It’s the showcase for racing and for betting – so we’d love to see it happen.”
Clare concedes it may not ultimately prove possible to push the race back by a few days or up to a week.
But he is pinning his hopes on another example of the resourcefulness which has helped the British Horseracing Authority, Jockey Club and other stakeholder administrators plot a path through the pandemic so far.
He added: “Just shops reopening is great – that’s the most important thing.
“The Grand National is the biggest betting race of the year. It’s worth 10 times more than the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which is the second biggest, in turnover.
“Obviously, racing has done an amazing job being flexible during the pandemic. It’s been an amazing effort.
“It may not be possible – but if it can be done, it would be fantastic.”
Bookmakers have, of course, felt the financial consequences of having to keep shops shut during the lockdowns of the past year.
Clare said: “It’s an important source of revenue for betting shops who’ve had a really tough time and for racing which has done a brilliant job keeping the show on the road but has been supported heavily by the Levy Board.
“The Grand National taking place when shops are open would give a big injection of money.”
Both Jockey Club Racecourses, who own and manage Aintree, and the BHA have declined to comment as yet about the prospect of any rescheduling.
Officials at Ascot, meanwhile, are considering the dilemma of whether to try to put the five-day Royal meeting back a week in the hope of having a full crowd.
As the road map currently stands, a limited number would be allowed at the current dates of June 15-19 – but restrictions could be lifted in their entirety on June 21.
Ascot’s director of communications Nick Smith told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast: “We were quietly surprised and probably quite pleased at the level of detail the Prime Minister was able to share (on Monday).
“It was certainly a surprise to us there was so much detail about the return of crowds to sporting events so early – so we’ve got an awful lot to digest.
“It’s natural the question (of moving the meeting back a week) would be asked. I think the reality is what the Prime Minister said was that stage 4 would be June 21 at the earliest. With Royal Ascot due to end on June 19, if it were to move a week later, that doesn’t give an awful lot of room for slippage.
“At this particular point in time, bearing in mind all the complexities of moving a race meeting with Pattern issues and the real uncertainty over whether June 21 will become tenable, we’re just watching this space.
“I wouldn’t want to set hares running to say there is a plan in the background to move the Royal meeting because a) it’s too early to think about that and b) there isn’t at this stage.
“I think we have to be realistic. It’s not impossible, and some would say it’s likely, that there will be some slippage in this programme – which won’t mean it’s failing, it will just mean the natural course of events aren’t as quick as people would like.
“It’s extremely complicated. Saying one week we could plan for ‘x’ thousand and the next plan for 70,000 capacity – or what have you – would require a huge amount of expenditure, and if you aren’t absolutely certain you would be able to deliver it one week later would be financially a very difficult risk to take, especially given what we faced last year and what we face this year.
“The really great news is that it appears to be likely we will be able to welcome at least some crowd. We don’t know what the number will be, as the Government has detailed what you can accommodate in a stadium – which is seat-based – and courses don’t operate like that.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveiled her own “cautious” route out of lockdown on Tuesday, with the reopening of the economy expected to start from April 26.
Following the announcement Scottish Racing – the body which represents Ayr, Hamilton Park, Kelso, Musselburgh and Perth – tweeted: “Further to today’s announcement from @ScotGovFM, Scottish Racing will continue to engage with @ScotGov on plans to allow horseracing to welcome spectators as part of the government’s new roadmap out of lockdown.”
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