What could be more encouraging for horse racing, a sport that seems to struggle for self-confidence much of the time, than the strong viewing figures recorded by ITV for its coverage of Royal Ascot last week? Here was a race-meeting shorn of flummery, sideshow and distraction, so that the focus had nowhere else to go but on the action and the horses, and large audiences evidently found it compelling.
ITV reported eight-year audience highs on all five days and added: “Most days, over a million people watched all the big races”. On the Thursday, the programme averaged 13.4% of the available TV audience, having been less than 4% on a different channel four years ago.
The fact that so many people are confined to their homes and starved of live sport is a ready explanation for the increased figures but it is clearly good news that they were sustained through the week, despite the absence of things like the royal procession and the focus on well-dressed people having a jolly time which are commonly thought to be part of Royal Ascot’s appeal. As the trainer Mark Johnston put it pithily on Twitter: “And they thought people watched it for the hats.”
“I wasn’t being too serious,” Johnston said on Tuesday. “The conclusion to be drawn is not necessarily that we can attract those figures every time. But there’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever, there is an audience there for pure horse racing. And the higher the quality, the bigger the audience, something that we’ve often had a struggle with the betting industry about, and even some sections of the media, obsessed with the idea that it’s about field size. If we sell the sport, the betting and everything else will follow.”
Ascot’s spokesman, Nick Smith, also saw the viewing figures as “an endorsement of the appeal of the pure sport. Obviously, ITV did a tremendous job of presenting the event, with some excellent montages and royal pieces and their own take on the national anthem and singing around the bandstand.
“In a normal year, there’s room for everything. What this and the Guineas has shown and what hopefully the rest of the summer will show is that there is an appetite for racing, that it is accessible and doesn’t need to be dumbed down. The Pattern has been even more complicated than usual this year and yet has been embraced and understood. It should encourage us to be more confident as a sport about what we have.
“We should be proud of the sophisticated nature of our sport and less defensive about the allegation that it is not accessible. It is accessible but it requires a certain amount of thought and consideration and devotion. You can see from the viewing figures that there clearly are new people who were prepared to make that effort last week and hopefully have a clearer idea now of where things are going; which, in this strange year, is towards the Derby and the Oaks.”
Francesca Cumani, one of ITV Racing’s co-presenters, said of the ratings: “From my perspective, it’s all very positive because there was such a huge focus this week from us on the horses, pre-race, post-race, in-depth analysis, looking at almost every horse in the paddock, having Luke [Harvey] down at the start. You’d like to think people were staying tuned in because they were learning and then were more invested in the outcome.
“Telling the back story is really what gets people engaged. Less so the celebrities in marquees drinking champagne.” But Cumani insisted that, assuming a more normal summer next year, there would have to be a return of some features that would help broaden the event’s appeal. “I think there are things you can do that aren’t just racing, that do still appeal and are still true to the sport.”
Wednesday’s best bets
A Mark Johnston horse with obvious claims has been made favourite in the last at Hamilton but Dawaaween (3.50) looks a better option at 11-4. This lightly raced filly ran well enough to deserve a win on her first start for James Bethell a fortnight ago but, having battled her way to the front, was done close home by a well-backed rival on a tumbling rating that hadn’t scored for three years.
Dawaaween has been nudged up by just a couple of pounds and still looks well treated. She’ll be a bit straighter this time and can hopefully get the job done.
Tinochio (12.45) did easily best of those to come off the pace on his Pontefract debut, having been drawn wide. The market sees his chance but 6-4 is fair.
At Haydock, High Flying Bird (3.40) has been allowed to drift to 12-1 but her reappearance was encouraging, when she was third here after racing on her own against the far rail for much of the straight. The winner has since been second in the Britannia.