Ascot Racecourse's dash for cash

Ascot race
Image caption Money is obviously a central feature of horse racing, but on race days the punters' passion is clearly also a response to the jockeys' and horses' performance on the racecourse

The maddening roar from a 32,000-strong crowd will do little to drown out the sound of hammering hooves this Saturday when Frankel, the world's top-rated race horse, will run in Britain's most valuable race towards what could be his 14th victory.

With the Champion Stakes' prize-pot totalling £1.3m ($2.1m), prize money for the day exceeding £3m, and swathes of punters filling the grandstand seemingly intent on losing their shirts, there is no use denying that money is a central feature in the world of horse racing.

But the electric atmosphere during race day at Ascot suggests it is about much more than that.

Image caption Ascot's chief executive Charles Barnett is working hard to expand the business

Loud laughter, outrageous flirting and boisterous banter brings the well-dressed crowd to life as it shuffles in an eternal circle, from the parade ring, to the bookies, to the race track, to the bar.

And whilst there are pros in their midst, most are here to have fun.

"There are people who know most horses that are racing," observes Ascot's chief executive Charles Barnett. "But most people who come racing expect to lose money and have a great day out.

"The bookies wouldn't make money if the punters were to win."

A similarly philosophical approach is normally taken by the people who own the horses, and thus employ the jockeys and their small armies of support staff such as trainers and grooms.

"You do not own a race horse to make money," Mr Barnett says. "You own it to have fun."

Sweating the asset

Following Saturday's race, Frankel's trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, will be waving goodbye to Frankel. The flat-racing season's finale will also mark the final race for the horse dubbed "Usain Colt", before he is sent off to stud.

"The best owner breeders in the world will send their mares to him," predicts Tom Goff, co-owner of Blandford Bloodstock, which specialises in thoroughbred horses.

Back at Ascot, meanwhile, the show will go on.

Next month, The Open at Cheltenham raises the curtain for the jumps season, shortly followed by jumps races at Ascot, including its popular Christmas Meeting.

Image caption Legendary horse racing trainer Sir Henry Cecil is getting ready to say goodbye to Frankel

"People who don't know racing think Royal Ascot is the only race we do," says chief executive Charles Barnett, referring to the glamorous event held every year in June. "But actually, there are horses here 25 or 26 days each year."

The Ascot Racecourse is run strictly as a business, Mr Barnett insists, and it is by no means restricted to horse racing.

"There'll be something happening here every day," he says. Sometimes this means exhibitions and conferences, sometimes dinner dances for up to 800 people, or even camera crews using the grandstand and track as film sets.

Moreover, there is constant talk about what could be done next to sweat Ascot's assets more effectively during the more than 300 days each year when there are no races here.

Further business development is crucial to bolster Ascot's finances as it continues to repay a £140m loan taken out about a decade ago to move the race track and built its vast grandstand, Mr Barnett says.

Horse racing in general has seen its income hit, not only by the economic downturn but also by cuts to funding from a levy on bookmakers, which has fallen from a peak of about £100m to about £70m.

"That did create a big financial hole and it does create pain throughout the sport," according to Jockey Club chief executive Simon Bazalgette.

Mr Barnett realises that Ascot must adjust to these new realities.

"We see the world developing and we need other things to create income here," he says.

A far-reaching development plan is currently being hammered out together with the local community, in line with the government's localisation bill from 2011, to map out how Ascot will be developed over the next couple of decades, Mr Barnett says.

"We will build a hotel here in the next few years", Mr Barnett says, "and a conference centre is also considered."

Equestrian facilities are also on the list of possible projects, as are ideas such as the creation of triathlon facilities or an ice rink.

Lucrative audience

None of these activities must be allowed to crowd out Ascot's core activity, however, as it is the racing that makes the track such an attractive location to many, Mr Barnett says.

"We trade on the name," he adds, "but it's a competitive environment."

Image caption Ascot is known for its links with the Royal Family

Retaining the loyalty of the racing tribe is made that much more important by its sheer number.

"Every day, a million people go to betting shops where they're exposed to racing," Mr Barnett says, pointing out that each year racing bets to the tune of £10bn are placed.

"It's the second most watched live sport in the UK after football, with more than six million people actually going to the races, and it is the only sport that has a daily newspaper."

The size of the audience is attractive to sponsors who often pay not only to display their logos, but also to entertain clients and customers in private boxes and loges within the grandstand building.

Broadcasters are also keen to reach this audience, as in turn they too can attract advertising revenue. For the betting industry, the punters are obviously vital.

With so many players eager to dip into the racing tribe's wallets, you might think they would feel disgruntled. But on race days, there are no indications that this is the case, and Mr Barnett believes he knows why.

"Our purpose is to run horse racing," he grins. "But I suppose we're also known for parties, though they're not parties we put on - they're parties put on by our customers."

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