Your guide to going to Ascot
It probably depends on whether you frequented the Grandstand or Premiere enclosure of the old Ascot as to how you feel about the redevelopments unveiled over 10 years ago.
The Grandstand enclosure was as good as any around the south-east for viewing, although you couldn’t get very high in the stands.
If you wanted refreshments, the food and drink outlets were under the stand in an unattractive concrete area with a low ceiling and in a curious mezzanine level with an even lower ceiling.
But the biggest drawback was the trek to the summer paddock (the jumps parade ring was in front of the stand) either via a path along the front of the Premiere Enclosure or through a dank tunnel with traffic lights to control the crowds on busy days.
Premiere Enclosure patrons fared better. You could get high in the stands for a panoramic view of the course, bars and food outlets were on three levels, including a bar in an eerie high up in the roof.
There were also popular bars behind the stands and Tote windows were plentiful. Perhaps the only downside was the distance from the parade ring to the bookmakers.
All of that was demolished and, after 20 months, the new stand was opened in 2006. And the response was truly awful. A now acknowledged design fault meant that at ground level, viewing was seriously impaired, particularly of the straight mile.
The new stand was likened to an airport terminal, although that doesn’t necessarily make it unattractive. And the parade ring in the tree-lined paddock was now situated in a concrete bowl behind the stand. It offered better access, but had lost its charm.
That said, if you ask a first-time visitor to Ascot what they think of the place, you’d probably get a positive reaction – there is most certainly a wow-factor.
In just under an hour from Waterloo, via Clapham Junction and Richmond, you get to Ascot station, which is seriously stretched on busy days. A new footbridge, in addition to a subway, helps reduce the congestion but it’s a station not fit for a major sporting venue.
You’ve then got an uphill 10 minute walk before crossing Ascot High Street to get to the course.
Whilst trains run about every 15 minutes for Royal Ascot, racegoers down the line stand little chance of being able to board the packed carriages. For other meetings, it’s mostly a half-hourly service and do check if there’s rugby at Twickenham on the same day – then it’s a real scrum.
After the unhappy opening of the new stand, which cost £180m, a further £2m had to be spent to rectify the design fault that basically meant racegoers at ground level in the Premiere Enclosure could see little of the straight course and not a great deal more of the round course.
There is good viewing on the fourth level but in a much reduced all-seater area where the house-full signs appear above the doors on the big days.
Things did improve at ground level one year on and can be summed up as ‘this is as good as it’s going to get’.
Viewing from the Grandstand hasn’t changed that much – there wasn’t much high ground, and there still isn’t. And there’s no access to the upper levels – that’s the exclusive preserve of box holders, annual members, Premiere Enclosure badgeholders and corporate hostility.
Oh, and Royalty.
We’ve referred to Premier and Grandstand enclosures, but Ascot give them different names and sometimes introduce further enclosures on big days so they can generate maximum revenue. Bute a word of warning, with the exception of the Royal Enclosure, paying more money doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a better view of the racing.
It’s a different story with the parade ring. Situated immediately behind the stand, in a sunken bowl, it has steppings for 8,000 spectators.
Whilst not being the loveliest parade ring, the view of the horses is pretty much uninterrupted and Grandstand racegoers are no longer herded like cattle to get to see horses before the races and the winners afterwards.
But, the attractive old tree-line paddock is now an out of the way and lost facility except for those who go down to the pre-parade ring.
Eating and drinking
From one end to another, the ground floor of the new stand is shared by Grandstand and Premiere Enclosures customers, so bars and food outlets are open to all, except when on quiet days some are shut, and once the shock of caterers Sodexo‘s prices wears off.
One thing Ascot does well is a mid-price self-service restaurant, situated under the stand, level with the lawns where the bandstand is now situated.
Fine dining is also available, but requires coming up on the Jackpot to ease the pain.
Further food and drink is available on the fourth level for those in the Premiere, and as the course monitors traffic flow new bars have been opened or repositioned to reduce the queues.
Apart from the dress code and whether or not you can or want to be in the Royal Enclosure, the Royal meeting means an area of the ground floor is sectioned off. Only those with the required personalised badge, top hat, morning suit, formal hat and dress that is no higher than just above the knee can get in.
So apart from mixing with those there to be seen, Grandstand visitors also have abide by a dress-code, pay a lot to get in and cope with huge crowds, particularly Thursday through Saturday. But, the quality of the racing just about makes it tolerable.
The old stand had its faults and much of the charm has gone. The old parade ring is much missed, particularly as there are some fine bronze statues to be seen
The new stand is big, has some issues with traffic flow (an impressive atrium at the expense of floor space, although a lot of comfortable seating has been provided wherever possible), but it propels Ascot to being a modern, destination sporting venue which, for all its defects, does racing proud.