Not A Bowl Of Cherries

Since my last blog I’ve had a few people ask me about my comment regarding coverage of Royal Ascot, hopefully this will clarify things.

As the website has developed over the past five years so has the emphasis of the coverage. Initially it was a web site concentrating exclusively on reviews of racecourses and a beginners guide to racing.

Indeed the racecourse reviews are still and always will be an integral part of the site.

One area that has changed is the coverage of racing. Initially concentrating on race reports the emphasis has changed over the past years to also concentrate on paddock reporting as well, to this end the site also provides a Twitter feed, concentrating on paddock reports.

As well as the reporting the aim is to also add some colour to the meetings, particularly at the big festival meetings. At most meetings providing the paddock comments is relatively straightforward, it’s just a matter of popping down to the parade ring to see the runners and, if it is a particularly busy meeting and the crowds are ten deep, my press badge allows me access inside the paddock so I can still see the runners, although my preference is always to watch them from outside.

Now when it comes to the festivals it is a different matter. Due to the demand from “the media” there has to be some control and that I fully understand.

The number of people who say they are envious about me attending all these big meetings is huge, and yes it is a privilege to see all the great performers however it isn’t all a bed of roses.  

Basically there are five big Festivals in the UK and each have their own challenges. The first four all have separate arrangements in place for the media.

The year begins at Cheltenham. This meeting has a two class media set-up, the lucky ones get in the main press room, the remainder of us are in the temporary media centre in the Guinness Village.

Only the chosen ones in the main press room have a vantage point from which to watch the racing with their own balcony, the remainder of us have to fight to find a vantage point to watch the racing – in reality the only option is to pay for a seat in the Guinness stand and that’s a furlong from the finish.

Regarding the parade ring now Cheltenham provide a viewing area for the press which is fine in theory but in practice is impractical as you have to fight your way through the crowds to get there, bad enough on the first three days and impossible on the Friday.

The media centre is well equipped but there is a big disadvantage with it being in the Guinness Village – the band.

Now I quite like Irish music but when you hear the band, located right outside the media centre, rehearsing at 10:00 every morning then playing their entire set four times a day every day it gets tiresome – especially when the marry ragegoers start stamping along on the metal infrastructure.    

Next up is the Grand National meeting in early April and one I cannot comment on. Aintree has a large press room /media centre but it isn’t big enough for all the demands. Unlike most of the  other Festivals Aintree don’t provide overspill areas for the media. One thing that is clear with Aintree is that if you are working for any online media outlet then you can forget getting any accreditation for the Grand National meeting. Actually that’s not quite true, you can have access to the course but no access to the media centre.

Now to provide coverage of a race meeting I carry a bag of equipment weighing around 25lbs. Now Aintree expect me to use this equipment to provide updates either sitting on a bench outside, if I can find one and it’s dry or, if it’s wet sitting on the floor of a bar and getting kicked and tripped over.

Needless to say I don’t bother with the Grand National meeting any more.

Early June brings The Derby at Epsom.  Now Epsom has a very small press room so a media centre is built for the meeting. Well-equipped and, usually, well located (this year it was inside the course which caused problems of its own as there were issues crossing the course). The press are given a viewing area in The Queen’s Stand (exempt from the strict dress rules). Now at Epsom access to the parade ring is severely restricted, however they do provide an easily accessible viewing area for all media, so paddock inspections are relatively easy.

All in all Epsom is the best festival to cover from a working perspective. There is no segregation within the media and everyone is treated equally and it works.

This brings us onto Ascot. No surprise there is segregation at Ascot, defined by the colour of your badge. The chosen ones have a red badge which allows access to the main press room on the second floor. Although not guaranteed holders of the red badges get access to the parade ring as well.

Us lesser mortals have the blue badge, it doesn’t mean we are disabled but we may as well be.  Blue badge holders are based in the media centre, or as we call it “the dungeon” a windowless,  cramped room in the bowels of the Grandstand.  The most frustrating part is just outside the media centre is a courtyard besides the parade ring but we are deemed unworthy to enter that hallowed ground because our badge is the wrong colour.         

The powers that be at Ascot have the view that blue badge holders have no need to see the runners in the parade ring or that if we do need to see them then we can stand with the crowd.

They are not in the real world – take day one tomorrow. By the time I have written my report on Frankel winning the Queen Anne and uploaded the report it will be around 14:50 – I am then supposed to go outside to a parade ring twelve deep with racegoers and carry out a proper paddock inspection – it ain’t going to work. That’s why there are unlikely to be any paddock updates this week. Very frustrating when there is a near empty courtyard just yards away.

Another interesting thing to note is with Ascot being such a large site there is a lot of walking involved – one of the days last year I wore a pedometer and it worked out I had walked six miles by the end of the day.

The final festival of the year shows why the other ones have special arrangements, namely Goodwood. At Glorious Goodwood there are no media restrictions – if you have an RCA press badge you can go in the press room and it doesn’t work. Despite being a large pressroom and Goodwood installing extra desks it does not work. Last time I tried it I arrived about four hours before racing and I ended up sitting on the floor bay the photocopier – my one and only day at Glorious Goodwood.

The other thing to bear in mind is the long hours, to get a place in the car park or media centre you need to be at the course early, any later than 10:00 am and you're in trouble. With the post race traffic it's often an hour after racing before you can think of getting away.  

So the media restrictions at the big meetings are a necessary evil, what does rankle however is how the places are divvied up. Many of those who automatically get the best badges are those who only seem to appear at the big meetings, indeed there are even some who turn up for the hospitality and don’t actually do any work. However those who attend the meetings throughout the year, come rain, come shine are effectively shunted out of the way.

It rankles, at Ascot for example, that I attend almost every meeting throughout the year, meetings most of the "glory boys" wouldn't be seen dead at, yet come the Royal meeting I'm not even allowed to stand in a courtyard to view the horses.

I do wish the courses would look at a more equitable system for the Festivals. What happens is once you are allocated a colour or particular level then you are stuck with it, so if your needs change from when you first attended you are stuck with it and have to make do with your lot without complaint. On the other hand once you get the higher level access you have it for life, even if you no longer need the access given.        

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