The Secret Racegoer’s guide to going to Ascot races
Ascot’s iconic new grandstand (new insomuch that it was first used 13 years ago and replaced a structure from the sixties) has been likened to an airport terminal, although that doesn’t necessarily make it unattractive.
What is well documented is that when it opened a major design fault was immediately apparent. At ground level viewing was seriously impaired, particularly of the straight mile as well as stretches of the round course. The steppings were too low and the horses disappeared where the course dipped.
New terracing was installed at a further and considerable cost and the view improved, but the odd blind spot still exists. It can be summed up as “this is as good as it’s going to get.”
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.
Trains from the other direction come from Reading.
You’ve then got an uphill walk of around 10 minutes before crossing Ascot High Street to get to the course.
Whilst trains run from Waterloo every 15 minutes during Royal Ascot, passengers down the line stand little chance of being able to board the packed carriages.
For other meetings, it’s mostly a half-hourly service but do check if there’s rugby at Twickenham on the same day – then it’s a real scrum.
And, with strike action announced for the duration of this year’s Royal Ascot, things could get busier still, although the train operator is promising a frequent service to the races, mostly at the cost of passengers on other lines who face replacement buses, including some which come into Ascot. (see below)
Whilst at ground level viewing is far from perfect, the further down the course you are from the winning post, the better the view gets. However, there’s no access to the upper levels for those who have purchased general admission tickets.
There is good viewing on the fourth level but this is an all-seater area where the house-full signs appear above the doors on the big days.
Ascot operates its own pool betting, called Bet With Ascot, but it does feed into the Tote. This year’s Royal Ascot sees Betfred taking over the on course betting shops from the independent west-country operator Winning Post. If that means the end of the ghastly runners and rider screens sourced from Timeform then racegoers are immediately better served.
On course bookmakers have pitches in front of the grandstand, at either end of the Royal Enclosure and around the parade ring.
Oh, and Royalty
Ascot sometimes creates further enclosures within the grandstand on big days so they can maximise revenue. But 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 (flower beds and hedges have been planted to soften the concreter harshness), the view of the horses is pretty much uninterrupted
But, the attractive old tree-lined paddock is now an out of the way and a lost facility except for those who go down to the pre-parade ring.
From this year, that’s being made more accessible with the installation of an escalator at the back of the grandstand concourse leading down to the wash-down area and pre-parade ring. A cynic might suggest that it was put in place for a wealthy owner and breeding operation famous for its blue colours to given them a quick route to and from their box.
Eating and drinking
Bars and food outlets stretch from one end to another on the ground floor of the grandstand, but on quiet days quite a few are shut.
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 who’ve paid the extra, and as the course monitors traffic flow new bars have been opened or repositioned to reduce the queues.
In the summer months, outdoor bars are opened.
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. The upper level also forms part of the Royal Enclosure.
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 especislly in wet weather – an impressive atrium is centrepiece at the expense of floor space – but a lot of comfortable seating has been provided wherever possible. It has propelled Ascot to being a modern, destination sporting venue. For all its defects, it does the sport proud.
ROYAL ASCOT TRAINS
Royal Ascot features
The Secret Racegoer’s Guide to going to Ascot http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-2aJ
The story of Royal Ascot’s 30 iconic races http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-28d
300+ years of Ascot history http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-29A
The Stradivarius story http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-2ao
TV coverage http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-28w
The Gary McKenzie Group 1 View http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-29r