The stands will be empty but, in terms of the action on the track, this year’s Royal Ascot will be bigger than ever, six races having been added to a heavily revised running order for the event, due to begin on 16 June. Racing insiders praised the changes, designed to give chances to as many horses and therefore owners as possible, and to fit in with the unusual timing of this year’s Classic races.
The new races are handicaps, including consolation races for horses who miss the cut for the Royal Hunt Cup and the Wokingham, as well as the return of the Buckingham Palace Handicap, much lamented since being removed to make way for the Commonwealth Cup in 2015. The seven-furlong dash will now be the very first race of the meeting, setting a serious challenge for punters and offering a fillip to the betting industry.
A bumper eight-race card is now lined up for the Royal meeting’s final day, Saturday 20 June, including the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Coronation Stakes. Both those top-class contests are being held later in the week than usual to allow contenders to recover from the Guineas a fortnight earlier.
The best two-year-old races, the Coventry and the Queen Mary, will also be held back until the Saturday, for the benefit of young horses who may have had their debut run in the previous two weeks. Conversely, the Ribblesdale and the King Edward will be run on the Tuesday, earlier than usual, as they have effectively become trials for the Epsom Classics scheduled for July.
Andrew Balding, who trained Dashing Willoughby to win at last year’s Royal meeting, said he was delighted by the extra opportunities for trainers, owners and jockeys starved of recent action. “Given the circumstances, it must be the right thing to do, to make it more of an event.
“It shows great initiative and should be applauded. I hope we’ll have plenty of horses to go there. Whether they’ll be going there with a run or not is the question. We need a lot to go right between now and then.”
Ascot’s Nick Smith said the revised programme had been shaped by extensive consultation with horsemen and the betting industry. “It’s a tough year for owners. They won’t be able to be at the races but at least there are now six more opportunities to become a Royal Ascot winner and we’re working on a whole Owners At Home program as well, which we’ll talk about more when we’ve put that together, a special service for owners.”
Although it has often been said that the Royal meeting should be expanded beyond its traditional six races per day, Smith denied that some of the extra races could be retained next year if they proved popular. “This is very much a one-off plan for this year, working in very different and difficult circumstances, and the running order will return to normal next year with six races. But for this year, with so many horses and horsemen looking for opportunities, we thought the chance was there to expand the meeting and provide more.
“The new races provide chances for a whole new range of horses. There’s going to be an absolute plethora of three-year-olds looking for opportunities and that was the thinking behind the new races.”
Racing officials hope government will allow the sport to resume on 1 June. Next week will see publication of the safety protocols to be followed in order to minimise the risk of coronavirus being transferred between people working at the racecourse.