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Top trainers praise move to expand Royal Ascot to seven races a day

Richard Hannon and Roger Varian led the universal approval from leading trainers, owners and jockeys to Ascot's announcement it will permanently expand the royal meeting with seven races each day.

The five-day meeting, which begins on June 15, was expanded last season to facilitate extra runners whose campaigns were severely interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic before the resumption of racing on June 1.

But such was the popularity of the revised schedule with bookmakers and connections in 2020 that Ascot has decided to retain four of the additions – the Copper Horse Stakes, Palace of Holyroodhouse Stakes, Golden Gates Stakes and Buckingham Palace Stakes, which was restored having been scrapped in 2015 after the introduction of the Commonwealth Cup.

Last year's consolation contests for the Royal Hunt Cup and Wokingham Stakes have not been retained, with the Kensington Palace Stakes – a new handicap for fillies and mares aged four and up on the round mile – the only completely new addition in 2021.

The Hannon yard is synonymous with success at the royal meeting and the leading trainer said: "The appetite for Royal Ascot is almost unlimited, it's a great event for the whole industry and the more races there, the more stories created by Royal Ascot, the better. The more winning owners we can produce, the better. 

"It's the flagship meeting for the whole industry in this country. I can't imagine it will be anything but well received by everybody."

Roger Varian enjoyed an outstanding Royal Ascot in 2020, winning four races including the newly added Copper Horse Handicap with subsequent Ebor winner and Irish St Leger runner-up Fujaira Prince. He said: "I think it's good news from where I'm sitting, I can't see a negative.

"We won one of them [the new races] last year, the mile and six handicap, and they have their place. They were well received and I think they were probably right not to keep the consolation races."

One man who may be sad to see the loss of the Silver Royal Hunt Cup is William Knight, who won it last year with Sir Busker. He said: "I think the extra races were a success last year and they fill the card, it's not an extra day just an extra race each day so it can only be a good thing.

"If it's going to increase revenue, I don't think it dilutes the meeting at all and I'm sure there will be big fields. I can't see any negatives. They had a good trial last year and it worked on figures and it makes total sense to me."

William Haggas is another who would like to see the consolation races return, for all he is a big fan of the race that replaces them. He said: "It's such a prestigious meeting for all of us and I don't think it dilutes the product, the races they've put on are pretty good. The fillies' race is great and it's on the round mile, which is hardly ever used at the royal meeting.

"I think last year they did extraordinarily well and I think a Silver Wokingham and Silver Royal Hunt Cup could possibly be things for the future. I think it's good news all around."

Nick Smith, Ascot's director of racing and public affairs, said: "We had positive feedback from bookmakers and broadcasters, and the Levy Board was keen for us to continue the programme. We also had great responses from connections of horses who ran in the extra races last year. A Royal Ascot winner means a lot and it makes sense to give more people the chance to have a runner.

"Of course, there were some people who felt it would be a shame for the meeting to become too long but seven races a day is still not a very long card and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

"Expanding the meeting was always under consideration. Last year was a needs-must situation, which allowed us to test a new schedule in an environment where it would be universally welcomed. It went well and the arguments against continuing it weren't that strong."

Prize-money will be confirmed in advance of the early closing races in April and has been listed with holding values based on 2020.

"Things are so uncertain," said Smith. "Just over a month ago we were beginning our project for the return of crowds over Christmas and suddenly there was a new variant of the virus and a lockdown.

"We don't really have any idea of when crowds will be able to return and there's no magic wand in terms of the levy so we don't know the levels of prize-money on offer but we'll obviously do the very best we can and we're preparing for every eventuality."

In a statement on Monday, Smith added: "At this time, more than ever, the increased opportunity to win prize-money and to generate more levy and domestic and overseas betting income is crucial. 

"After consultation with the BHA, we decided to remove the two reserve races and bring in another high-quality handicap, as we are actually reducing the number of races run by one from last year.

"Last year's extended cards were only possible by reducing some field sizes slightly and because no overnight stabling was allowed under Covid-19 protocols. In order that field sizes can go up to their maximums again and with overnight stabling extremely important, we have commissioned extra temporary stabling to be built."

The new races will be run as the final races on each day, excluding Saturday, which will end with the traditional finale of the Queen Alexandra Stakes. The first race each day will be scheduled for 2.30, with the royal procession planned to continue in its usual 2pm slot.

Ascot Racecourse, picture Liesl King

 

 

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