28 May 2006

Whatever happens in Germany this summer, England is going to have one big winner. Stand by to be really rocked by Royal Ascot.

Being shown round the new £200 million stadium on Friday evening in advance of yesterday’s “dress rehearsal” for the Royal Meeting in three weeks’ time was to pinch yourself in wonder. Unless every sense betrayed me, here was not just a stadium being completed on time and on budget, here was a new world leader.

Yes England, our so mocked England, the home of the ludicrous Millennium Dome, the failed Picketts Lock fantasy, and the ever-delayed undercosted Wembley, has in just over 18 months knocked down and re-built one of its most famous venues and come up with something that will dazzle every visitor. And of all the sports to set this new standard, it was the long-ridiculed racing game, for so long riven with internal feuding and so often portrayed as top hats and toffee noses. Ascot may be the Queen’s personal racecourse, the redevelopment may have been masterminded by the Duke of Devonshire and the doubled-barrelled Douglas Erskine-Crum, but this is tradition turned trend-setter. There is no stadium to match it.

Aptly enough the trick has been a very English one. Deliver unmatchable heritage (it’s nearly 300 years since Queen Anne started things) and knockout location but then add superb service without losing the original attraction. It’s a bit like the very best of country hotels and, as with them, the good manners on the outside cloak the hardest of professionalism underneath.

We have listed the stadium fiascos, but what about Sydney Opera House, the Millenium Stadium and Arsenal’s new Emirates-sponsored home? Surprise, surprise, it was to Australian Ron Sheard that Ascot’s chief executive Erskine-Crum turned when the Ascot challenge took shape and on Friday night he stressed that this was still an unfinished project. “Things will go wrong tomorrow,” he said, “we only took over the building from the contractors this morning. Only part of the stand will be used, and the 650 corporate boxes will be for inspection only. But that is what dress rehearsals are for.”

Yesterday did indeed have a problem or two, but there was also an undisguised sense of achievement and as someone who has looked at new grandstands in every part of the globe, I can tell you that it was well deserved. Because while there is tremendous flair in the 400-metre long, seven storey-high grandstand, while there is a dramatically efficient and stylish service in the way everything from the food outlets to the betting windows to the escalators all interlink, the whole thing is conceived above all to give a better view and involvement with the racing.

Ascot just as a glittering venue would never be enough. This new set-up has been arranged with the understanding of the equine athletes in mind. Eight thousand people can see the back of the stand paddock, flat screens everywhere can keep you up to date with everything that follows.

British horse racing thought it was going to struggle to compete with other countries let alone against other sports. Ascot has shown that “it ain’t necessarily so”. Leaving the old but now so new place on Friday was to find a strangely unfamiliar sensation rising in the chest. It’s called pride.

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