where the horse is always the hero
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Posted 2022-06-19 17:57:52  
Roses At Ascot, Can South Africa Learn?

I’ve been going to Royal Ascot for at least 40 years on and off with really only the last 2 covid years and the odd year when I’ve been having babies missed. It’s always a success and never disappoints and I have been racking my brains to come up with the reasons why and also wonder why South African racing, particularly in the Western Cape is struggling and would be absolutely dead in the water if it wasn’t propped up by wealthy and generous patrons. Is it too late for Cape Town racing or can it be revived? By Rose Hall.

I wrote many many years ago in the Sporting Post that those who mattered in South African racing needed to visit Ascot racecourse and pick a few brains. They needed to get to the marketing people, speak to those that had actually been to visit South Africa and try and get an insight into what works and what doesn’t, learn a thing or two from the best. I don’t’ think it's happened yet. I know Klarwevlei (Stud) came over to promote South African breeding and picked up a good few clients and Peter Gibson ran a great campaign at Newmarket to promote ownership but I don’t think anyone thought it was worth bothering to come over and see how racing is marketed here. I argued that Kenilworth racing needed to get serious otherwise they would be playing to empty audiences. I suggested family days, that was dismissed as apparently the old school in charge at the time didn’t like the idea of fun for the kids as it didn’t really attract the “right” sort of person. Horses aren’t very keen on bouncy castles either but of course the location of bouncy castles has to be thought through. Eventually the odd family day was introduced with a bit of success but it was all too half hearted. Those kids could have grown up to love racing and might even bring some mates and could even be part of a syndicate.

I also remember writing those many moons ago that the man in the street didn’t seem to know racing happened at any other time than on Queens Plate day and Met day. What were the marketing department doing way back then one asks? Now it’s even easier with social media and basically free promotion. Is there a social media specialist promoting going racing? If so they aren’t very good as I have never seen a post and nobody has tagged me in anything. I am probably offending people, again, but I’m not sorry. If I haven’t seen a post and I am involved in racing as an owner and occasional race goer then there is absolutely no chance the social media is reaching non racing people. Racing needs “influencers” and they exist in droves in Cape Town as I’ve used them to my advantage in my business. They are cheap and they have a serious amount of followers. Wine and dine these people, pick them up and make them feel important. Cheap, cheap advertising. The great thing about these influencers as well is that they have a huge diverse range of followers, every ethnicity imaginable. Racing needs to be diverse and multicultural if it’s going to have any chance of surviving.

Now I will also argue that the demise of atmosphere and let’s face it what is the point of going if no fun or atmosphere, is partly but could be a huge part, the introduction of so many private boxes. This thought I have stolen from a very prominent figure in racing who voiced it to me recently and I absolutely agree. Really good days racing were spent in various bars meeting up with chums and having a drink with people who now are tucked away inside their boxes with the same group of people they see all the time. Nothing wrong with the boxes on big days when space is at a premium but how about trying a few meetings with the boxes all closed?

Another huge bugbear I have is the lack of any sort of dress code. We need "going racing" to be an occasion for party clothes and smart wear. People love to dress up, put on their glad rags and show off a bit. If you doubt that then a glance at a few of Liesl Kings wonderful Ascot photos will make you think again.

The biggest reason I think for Ascot’s success is of course the people who run the show. They don’t rest on their laurels, they are innovative and they aren’t afraid to take some risks. It is a venue that needs to earn its keep 365 days of the year. It's hugely expensive to run so it has to be run as a big business. It is run by Professionals and by people who understand business. Racing is just a part of that business but critically they understand that people want an experience when they go racing. As Guy Henderson, the retiring CEO, said this week this is an “ experience revolution”. Times have changed and unless South African racing understand that then it won’t survive.

Oh my word the “experience revolution” at Ascot was truly the best yet. This year as a bit of research I made a conscious effort to try out every single area, enclosure, and price range that is on offer. This year capacity had been reduced, a lesson learnt from the feedback from last year when numbers were limited to 12,000 per day. Feedback from that was that racegoers appreciated the space so all areas had slightly reduced numbers this year. It was so much better being able to move around, and although I heard a few complaints that the bar queues were still too long everyone I spoke to said they really appreciated the extra room. The weather plays a huge part in any outdoor event but this year it really played ball. We had the most amazing dry, sunny weather pretty well all week. It broke on Saturday but still didn’t really rain much. The ground was good to firm but with the most beautiful cover of long lush grass. No real complaints from anyone and only a handful of horses were withdrawn all week.

Back to my bit of research. I learnt something new this year on my wanders and that is that “locals”, i.e. with a SL5 postcode can actually go into a lovely spacious area on the inside of the track for free. This is an absolute find and not one I am going to tell anyone about here and going to selfishly keep it under wraps. Apparently its a Charter that goes back to Queen Anne days that local residents should have access to the Heath so Ascot honour this and provide a lovely area with a small stand and even a bookie. It is literally right opposite the Royal Box too so great viewing and with large screens behind the viewing is brilliant. I loved my few hours in there as it was a greatly appreciated by residents and local schoolchildren who came along after school. Even a local nursery bought along some tinies. It will be my go to for a picnic with the Grandchildren next year.

The area that appeals to the serious party animals is the Queen Anne enclosure. I had to say I felt a bit past it in there and not being a drinker felt that maybe it wasn’t my scene any more. Definitely a younger crowd and absolutely everything there for a great fun day out for people wanting to having a good time with their friends. Fun , but think hen parties, lads days out, students, coach parties and lots of singing and club like parties. Nothing wrong in any of that and at various stages of my life I’ve loved it. All part of the “experience revolution”.

Another area that’s fairly new is The Village in the inside of the course. This has evolved to become an area for the race goer who wants to party in style and who also wants to watch from a great viewpoint but isn’t too worried about missing out on being able to go over to the other side for parade ring viewing or being in a sheltered stand. Its actually very “festival” like and I had a great time over there a few years ago for a special birthday with a group of friends and family. We did hire one of the track side marquees for some shelter but really enjoyed being able to have some space and also listen to some bands and generally have a bit of a party.

The Grandstand, Windsor enclosure, tends to appeal to the more serious racegoer who has really come for the racing and who wants to do it in a bit more style and generally have somewhere to take the weight of their feet between races. Lots of areas to sit, eat and get in shelter or shade depending on the weather. It’s my preferred area when I am meeting friends. We like to “bag” a table early on and establish a base. Once we have somewhere then as long as someone keeps the table others can wander. It’s the best for people watching, being able to go between parage ring and racecourse viewing and although the dress code is smart it isn’t “ formal” so no need for men to wear top hats and tails.

The formal wear is most definitely required for The Royal Enclosure and men were absolutely dripping in their top hats and tails this year. When the temperature reached 30 degrees on Friday it was announced that jackets and top hats could be removed after the Royal procession so they had to stay on till 2.30 p.m! The outpouring of relief from the men was felt by all of us ladies who were smugly comfortable in floaty summer dresses. If you are lucky enough to be invited to one of the beautiful areas in the enclosure then this is the time to get out the credit cards and splash some cash. Dress the part, enjoy the food and drink and make some wonderful memories. It really is a beautiful part of the course and anyone there feels privileged and very lucky to be part of an uniquely Royal Ascot experience.

Can racing in South Africa learn from all of this? Ascot have made the whole course and various areas appeal to so many different sectors. It is a success, it is a sell out. People come from all over the country. Hotels and Airbnb’s are booked solid. It brings in massive amounts of income for the local community. We can’t give up on trying in South Africa. There is no doubt in my mind people will come if we can make it an experience. It has to be enjoyable, fun, affordable, inclusive, involve the wonderful food and wines that we have in abundance and it needs people with energy.

I can’t finish without mentioning a bit about the racing. Others have written a lot and anyone interested knows the results by now but it was incredibly special to have South African interest and winners this year. We have had runners but never winners at Royal Ascot so it was marvellous to see Mary Slack and the Kieswetter’s experience the thrill of a win at this epitome of horse racing. Both these owners and breeders have put so much into South African racing and arguably have kept it alive in the Western Cape so they really deserved these wins. Absolutely well deserved and huge congratulations to them. The stuff dreams are made of.


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