The Ying And Yang Of Ascot

Five days racing in a normally sleepy Berkshire town gave us the whole gamut of racing emotions.

Exciting, pulsating finishes.

Beaten hotshots.

Estimate wins the Gold CupEmotional victories for Jane Cecil and The Queen on the same afternoon, with racing on the front pages for all the right reasons the following day.

Thomas ChippendaleThen, 48 hours later, the horrible lows that can sometimes hit this sport of ours when in a 2½ minute period we saw the benefit of plastic rails as Paul Hanagan came off Ektihaam, followed by a thrilling battle to the line with Thomas Chippendale bravely out battling the equally brave Dandino, only for the valiant winner to collapse and die shortly after the line.

Yes Royal Ascot is a special meeting and one that always manages to stir the emotions. For me it is the very best domestic flat meeting of the year, possibly in the world and the only other flat meeting coming near to it in my view is the October meeting at Longchamp and if the Froggies had not had the revolution it would undoubtedly now be known as Longchamp Royale.

Whilst Royal Ascot may be the best meeting in terms of quality it is also the worse meeting of the year for me in terms of working.

It is the most frustrating, difficult meeting of the entire year to cover and after five days I am frazzled, indeed I’m usually flagging fast after day three.

The irony is Ascot is, by far, the best course to work at any other of their meetings. It has a well-equipped press room, with a viewing balcony offering fantastic views, second only to Epsom.

An escalator immediately next to the press room makes it easy to get down to the parade ring and weighing room. It’s an absolute delight. The Royal meeting is so different.

Clearly there is much more press interest in the Royal meeting, both domestically and internationally so an accreditation system is used.

Basically a similar system to the meeting itself is used. The “elite” get to use the main press room, the remainder of the racing media are sent to the “media centre” in the bowels of the grandstand whilst the non-racing snappers are consigned to what is normally the Ascot Children's Nursery over in Car Park Two.
Now in theory that sounds a reasonable system, but in reality it isn’t that simple. As with the Royal Enclosure it’s who you know, not what you know that’s important.
Like God, Ascot moves in mysterious ways in terms of allocating the valuable space in the main press room. Of course the “glory boys (and girls)” from the National press are afforded prime positions, whether they actually need the space or not. These are the prima-donnas who suddenly appear at the big meetings and strut around the place as if they own it.

I wonder how many of them would pass what I call the Fakenham test?

The test comes in two stages.

Stage one is, if given a map of the United Kingdom, would they know where Fakenham actually is?

Stage two, having actually located Fakenham on the map, how often have they gone racing there?

Of course you could replace Fakenham with any of the so called “minor courses” – the point is most of the national racing correspondents wouldn’t be seen dead at a smaller course but they expect to be treated with respect and kow-towed to at the big meetings.

I would stress at this point my criticism is not aimed at all national correspondents, just a significant number of them.
Some of the correspondents, like Alan Lee of The Times in particular, do frequent the smaller tracks, even Fakenham and there are a handful of others who regularly appear at "smaller" meetings.

Something that really surprises me is the number of racing journalists who have been covering the sport for decades yet they still have not visited all the courses in the UK – I find that really incredulous.

By the way, in case you are thinking I’m simply envious of the national racing correspondents, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no way on this earth I would want to work for a newspaper or broadcaster and be beholden to the whims and views of an editor or proprietor.

Indeed I would rather be on the streets and starve than work for anything that is part of the Murdoch empire, which would rule out a fair proportion of the national media.
 like being my own boss and my own editor.
As one national correspondent once said to me “I envy you as you can actually write you want and what you really believe, I don’t always have that freedom."
Even more annoying about the allocation of places in the main press room though is the number of people who should, frankly, not be there. Notably the retired and the hangers on, who are not working, not filing copy but are taking up space that could be used by working journalists and reporters.

Ascot Media CentreThe lesser mortals of the racing press are confined to the media centre. Now that is an adequate working environment. It’s very cramped and windowless but we have a work area and we (normally) have working wi-fi and a bank of televisions showing C4, ATR and Ascot TV.

That should be enough I hear you say, for most it is but for some of us it isn’t.
For example we have no access to the parade ring so seeing the runners before the race is very tricky. There are around half a dozen of us who try to provide paddock reports but we cannot get near the paddock.

Annoyingly there is an area just outside the media centre which is right beside the parade ring, an area hardly used, yet those of us who need to view the runners are denied access. So the paddock pickers have to either fight their way through the crowds to try and get a view of the runners or catch the runners on the horse walk as they come out. Neither is satisfactory.

The other problem is reporting on the races. Those of us with the blue badges are allowed on the press room viewing balcony to view the racing, which is good and better than we have at Cheltenham. However we that have to report on the race based on the one single viewing as, amazingly, the media centre has no facilities for recording races for later reviewing,  unlike the in main press room.

Now I can probably do a reasonable account of an incident free 12 runner contest on a single viewing. However for something like the Hunt Cup trying to write anything coherent about the race on a single viewing through bins is nigh on impossible.
Indeed I don’t even bother trying to do a coherent write-up on the big field races any more but that's ridiculous when you are supposed to be reporting on the races.
Fakenham Press RoomAfter the meeting each year we’re asked for our feedback about the facilities and every year the same concerns are raised but is anything done about it – of course not.

Is it really too much for a racing reporter to ask for facilities to view the runners in the parade ring or a facility to record and view replays of the races?
This week I’m back to the "bread and butter" racing.

The setting may not be so grand, the quality not so high, the press rooms will be more basic but, at least, I’ll be able to see the runners in the parade ring and be able to watch as many replays of a race as I need.

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