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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 January, 2005, 04:33 GMT
Changing face of the racing year
By Graham Jenkins

Two of horse racing's most prized fixtures will have radical new looks in 2005.

Both the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot are to undergo major changes that will test their value to the British sporting year.

Cheltenham's National Hunt Festival in March is increasing from three to four days.

And the Royal Flat meeting in June is temporarily relocating to York during a multi-million pound refit at Ascot.

Here, we look at the changes to events which each attract total crowds topping 200,000 every year.

ROYAL ASCOT (14-18 June)

York will be the temporary home for Royal Ascot until the 185m redevelopment of the Berkshire track is completed in time for the corresponding meeting in 2006.

ASCOT REDEVELOPMENT
How racing will look at the revamped Ascot course
45-year-old grandstand knocked down and replaced
Straight mile to move 42 metres north
Tunnel to be demolished
Course dug up and relaid
New parade ring
Same design team as Millennium Stadium, Stadium Australia and Wembley

Officials believed it was important for the sport that the meeting continued during the revamp.

The result means tinkering with a proud 300-year history as the meeting is moved from its famous home.

York has laid out the welcome mat to Ascot's regulars including the Queen, who will as always, lead a procession before racing on all five days.

Staff from Ascot will run the meeting that incorporates six Group One races, including the St James's Palace Stakes.

The York course - previously measuring only 16 furlongs, or two miles - has been extended to accommodate some of Ascot's longer races, such as the Gold Cup which is run over 20 furlongs.

That means a new bend from the winning post to the 12-furlong start.

The work is now completed and being allowed time to bed in before a trial race at the 2005 Dante meeting in May.

Despite the meeting's relocation more than 200 miles up the M1, officials deny attendances will be hit.

"Sales are going extremely well so we're very pleased," Ascot spokesman Nick Smith told BBC Sport. "We're sold out in the main public enclosures for Thursday and sold out in the grandstand on Friday .

York Racecourse
York Racecourse is situated 222 miles from Ascot

"We will soon sell out the grandstand for Saturday and Wednesday. The Yorkshire Course Enclosure is expected to sell out well in advance of June too."

A further family enclosure will open in the spring, increasing the capacity from 50,000 to 60,000.

Corporate sales are also thriving despite fears the venue would not boast its traditional lure.

"Hospitality sales are pretty much mirroring what we expect at Ascot and we're opening a further unplanned 1,000 spaces to meet the demand," added Smith.

He believes 2005 will be a one-off, with work at Ascot progressing well.

"The scheme is on schedule and demolitions are almost complete," insisted Smith.

"We're highly confident we'll be up and running in time for Royal Ascot 2006, but you can't legislate for everything and if it became apparent that we were not going to make it, we'd negotiate with York at that point."

Work is being carried out to demolish Ascot's grandstand
Work is being carried out to demolish Ascot's grandstand
The Yorkshire Tourist Board is using the 2005 meeting as a golden chance to market the area.

"Our objective is to ensure people have a wonderful visit and experience the best that Yorkshire has to offer," said spokesperson Lesley Wragge.

Accommodation is already at a premium, with many hoteliers fully booked for the week.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL (15-18 March)

Punters will need almost as much stamina as the leading horses when the Cheltenham Festival expands to four days for the first time in 2005.

The famous meeting, which is a huge social occasion partly thanks to the thousands of racegoers who travel over from Ireland, has been a three-day spectacle since 1923.

But now long-standing plans to extend the action have been realised, with the Gold Cup moving from its Thursday slot to the meeting's new fourth day, Friday.

The Champion Hurdle will remain the highlight of the opening day, with the Queen Mother Champion Chase headlining the second day and the newly-named World Hurdle, formerly the Stayers' Hurdle, being the main feature on Thursday.

DAILY TICKET PRICES
Best Mate won the Gold Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004
Cheltenham Festival
Club: 60 (65 on Friday) Tattersalls: 30
Best Mate enclosure 17
Hospitality: 170-500+

Royal Ascot at York
Grandstand: 50
Course enclosure: 18
Hospitality: 200-500+

Prize money for the 24 races will exceed 2.5 million, and the move is set to provide a huge boost to the local economy, with a fourth capacity crowd added to the week.

But it will be expensive for punters - admission to the Club enclosure costing a total of nearly 250 per person for the week.

That expense does not secure a seat, or even a programme, with any additional costs - such as betting - on top. Parking on the day costs another 10.

Cheltenham bosses insist the aim of a four-day meeting is not merely to bolster profits, pointing to the quality that will be on show every day.

Managing director Edward Gillespie has said the Festival was 'bulging at the seams' and demand meant an extra day was inevitable.

Course commercial manager Peter McNeile said: "At a time when jump racing is faced by all sorts of commercial threats, the growth in popularity of the major meetings has been a beacon of the underlying prosperity of the sport,.

"Injecting a further four races and an additional 500,000 into the valuable prize money at the Festival will help provide opportunities for owners, trainers, riders and horses where the current races do not suit."

The move may not suit everyone but advance sales suggest many welcome the expansion.

Gillespie was happy to declare that current sales are "about 10,000 ahead of the same time last year" and that Gold Cup day is almost sold out.
HAVE YOUR SAY

"The capacity for ticket sales is 56,500 per day and we have less than 3,000 Club badges available for Friday," added Gillespie.

"Thursday is next best with 28,000 sold and about 25,000 have been sold for each of Tuesday and Wednesday."

One big draw in particular will again be centre of attention. Best Mate, trained by Henrietta Knight, won his third Gold Cup last year and now has an enclosure named after him at the course.

And on the fourth day of the Festival, he could raise the rafters by landing an historic fourth win.




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