Royal Ascot lacks special feeling, says top trainer

Stripped of its immaculately dressed crowd and, with reduced prize money due to the coronavirus pandemic, it may be hard to feel "Royal Ascot is as special this year", says record-breaking trainer Mark Johnston.

The 60-year-old Scot has experienced the virus at close quarters, having suffered from it himself, being laid up for a fortnight and "completely out of it for five days".

Johnston, who became the most successful British trainer in terms of winners in 2018, says Royal Ascot is going to have a strange feel about it when it gets under way today.

"It is hard to feel it is as special this year," he said by phone. "It is not the same. What makes Ascot special as a trainer is it is a world shop window.

"I had a runner in my second season (1988) and raced every year at Ascot prior to 1995 without a single winner, but you felt the importance of being there for the owners.

"Many a time, I looked at the prize money and felt it was not equal to the competition you are up against. However, I always said we treat it differently as a race meeting to any others."

Johnston said even if prize money historically was less than at other meetings, winning a race at Ascot carried a rare cachet.

"It is very important for owners to have runners there for resale and breeding value," he said.

"Ascot carries a significant premium. This year, the prize money is even worse, although there is no alternative this time so that has to be a positive for it."

Johnston usually has a plethora of runners, especially in the handicaps, but this year, he is being conservative.

"Does it have attraction for me? I have mixed feelings about it," he said. "My team will be depleted in numbers, as I am simply not going to throw darts at a board this year like I might do when it is the usual Royal Ascot."

Nevertheless, Johnston is excited about his chances of landing the prize he treasures the most - and the first race he won at the meeting in 1995 - the Ascot Gold Cup.

"The big excitement will be Nayef Road in the Gold Cup and he has a great chance," said Johnston, who has won it three times.

"There are more commercially attractive races at Royal Ascot, but there is no race I would prefer to win than the Gold Cup. It is an historic race and my first win at Royal Ascot with Double Trigger in 1995. It was a very, very special day."

Johnston, whose staff stand out at racetracks with their tartan waistcoats, says it is a shame owners cannot come racing due to the strict regulations laid down.

"The owners have kept the business afloat," he said. "From a business point of view, obviously, profits are down as we have not been racing. However, we have not really suffered like other industries because owners have paid.

"They kept it going, so the sooner racing gives them something like allowing them back on the racecourse, the better."

Johnston feels racing is more like a chore at the moment.

"Weird is the word," he said, of the atmosphere without spectators. "It is not much fun going racing at the moment.

"Frankly, having another 300 people (the owners) on course would not have touched the surface. They are large, open-air complexes suited to social distancing. It is not asking too much to have owners on site." - AFP