Silence reigns as Royal Ascot swings into action behind closed doors

Tue 16 Jun 2020

When racing was suspended from March 18 amid the coronavirus pandemic, the odds of Royal Ascot taking place in its scheduled spot in the calendar seemed slim at best.

But the resumption of racing behind closed doors on June 1 meant what looked unlikely suddenly became reality – albeit in very different circumstances from the usual scene at what is always the most glamorous meeting of the year.

PA Media journalist Graham Clark was one of only two reporters allowed on course due to the strict protocols and social distancing in place, and here he recounts his experience of the day:

At first glance it would be easy to think this will be a week just like any other – not the first day of Royal Ascot, one of the highlights of both the British sporting and social calendar. Just a few flags on the outside of the course give away it is taking place.

Under normal circumstances the car parks are usually busy ahead of the action on the track, with those famed for staging after-racing parties arriving early to secure prime pitches. Not this year, with most of those sites out of bounds.

The usual security checks ahead of entering the site have been replaced by officials asking medical questions and carrying out temperature checks to ensure strict protocols put in place to allow the meeting to be staged are adhered to.

Those getting to the course early are often greeted by a hive of activity before the first wave of top hats and tails and latest designer outfits filter through the gates, with media outlets previewing what is to come. But this year silence is the only sound on arrival.

Measures to make sure everything runs smoothly are visible as soon as you walk through the gates, with signs reminding those present of the two-metre social distancing rules in place, along with hand sanitisers and a one-way system to avoid close contact with others.

The popular bandstand restaurant used to cater for thousands throughout the week has been put to good use, being transformed from an eatery to a makeshift changing room for jockeys to allow more space.

Areas outside the popular bars close to the walkway on to the course and the temporary village that fills the centre of the track are just seas of green. The sound of popping champagne corks are just a distant memory.

The flowered wall just inside the gates often attracts a large queue of people lining up to strike their best pose. That is missing – but the biggest absentee this year is the Queen, who is not present for the first time in her 68-year reign.

Though the national anthem is played out before the first race as it would be upon Her Majesty’s arrival into the winner’s enclosure – where every vantage position is usually taken in good time – this year it echoed around the stands to a few hundred rather than many thousands.

The Queen’s absence may be the strangest thing for many at this year’s meeting, but for those privileged few allowed on track a message in the racecard showed she is here in spirit.

The runners are soon sent on their way to the start for the resurrected Buckingham Palace Handicap and the sound of hooves hitting the turf is for once louder than the noise emanating from the huge grandstands.

There is no first-day roar from those dotted about the largely empty grandstands when the stalls open, but a cheer can be heard from trainer Richard Hannon as Motakhayyel flashes home in front to take the seven-furlong prize under Jim Crowley, who would go on to complete a treble.

It was soon business as usual – at least in terms of the racing – with Ryan Moore and Aidan O’Brien, so often the meeting’s leading jockey and trainer combination, striking gold with last year’s St James’s Palace hero Circus Maximus in the Queen Anne Stakes.

Going toe-to-toe with the duo is a task few can match, that is with the exception of Frankie Dettori and John Gosden, who immediately struck back with the immensely impressive Frankly Darling in the Ribblesdale Stakes to give the afternoon a much more familiar feeling.

Playing to the crowd is something that has made Dettori a household name and while the spectators he thrives on entertaining were non existent, it failed to stop him performing one of his trademark flying dismounts.

The glitz and the glamour, together with the vibrant atmosphere, have gone, for now. But if early results are to go by, then it looks like it might be business as usual as far as the racing is concerned.

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