Mother’s Day – what better way to spend it than with your family and complimentary tickets to Ascot’s Country Fair Race Day.
So that is exactly what I did! When I was first asked to come along to a family day at Ascot Racecourse, I must admit I was dubious. My memories of a trip to Ascot were pre-children and involved drinking jugs of Pimms and lazing in the sun. How could a race course be family friendly? By family, I mean my husband, my parents (on-site baby sitters ;-)), my 2-year old and my 6 month old… oh and me!
Panic set in. How would I entertain my 2 year old? He would never sit still. Oh no he would have to miss his nap! Would there be a mega toddler meltdown associated with sleep deprivation? However, I love a freebie and the opportunity to go in a Private box was not one to be missed. I have to point out at this stage that if anyone is going to find fault, it will be me.
On arrival, parking was easy and plentiful, we spent very little time queuing and there was plenty of staff on hand to take tickets, ask directions etc. We walked through the grounds of Ascot and I was struck with amazement at how good it looked with all the children and family activities set out. There were games to play such as a coconut shy etc, there were farm animals in a petting zone, a softplay & toddler area, a climbing wall and a huge blow up slide attached to a climbing frame where you had to scale about 6 levels in order to get to the top of the slide! Oh and not to forget the obligatory Ice Cream Man.
The concourse entrance had several stalls outside selling items such as hats and inside there were food stalls and a craft area for the children and a mum chill out zone where you could have a complimentary massage with tea and cake. All looked good so far!
We found our box and I enjoyed several cups of tea whilst fretting that my 2 year old was going to some how scale the balcony and fall over (not possible for one so small) or leg it under the dividing rail outside that links the balconies of all the private boxes (very achievable for one so small and so quick). Of course, he did manage the latter but we soon learned to hang out by the barrier.
We then went on a quick tour so we’d know our way around. We had a look at the third floor which is for premier admissions, so premier ticket holders can go on a balcony and watch the races, we were shown where the finish line is (surprisingly not obvious for a complete novice). Premier tickets are £30 per adult (children under 18 are always free).
We were then taken down to the concourse where it was explained to us how the system worked i.e. the concourse is slim so you can stand in the grandstand to watch the races but it is only a short walk to place a bet/collect your winnings before walking back outside to the grandstand again. I have to admit, it was a great atmosphere. It was buzzing and nicely busy but not jam-packed. Grandstand admission is the cheapest tickets starting at £15 per adult if you are booking for 6 or more adults or £25 per adult for less than 6 people.
We then went back to our Private Box for a wonderful lunch. If you can stretch to a Box, I’d recommend it because it’s great to have a base for the family to hang out or leave your stuff whilst you explore the grounds and having your own balcony means a great view! However, if you opt for the Grandstand or Premier admission there are plenty of restaurants and places to sit and eat and drink. So whether you fancy fish and chips, fine dining or just a sandwich, there was something for everyone.
Speaking of food – If you didn’t fancy eating inside and wanted the little ones to run around, there is plenty of green space to chuck a picnic blanket on the floor or take some fold up chairs to sit on and plenty of picnic benches on the lawn of the grandstand. In fact, it was such a lovely sunny day I was (almost) envious of the families sat on the lawns sunning themselves whilst we sat eating our very gorgeous meal upstairs. What a lovely treat to not have to cook for once!!
After lunch, I took my 6 month old and my mum to the concourse to find the location of the mum’s chill out zone while my husband and dad took my son off to find something toddler friendly. This brings me to a slight negative – the lifts. I have a Baby Jogger City Select Tandem buggy so it’s very long. We waited over 10 minutes for a lift that we could get in. We gave up and abandoned the buggy because, not only did we have to wait what felt like an eternity for the lift to arrive, when it did, it was full of people from the floor above so we could never get in it. Anyway, as I say, we took the buggy back to the Private Box and just carried the baby downstairs.
The massage was nice. It was right next to the concourse so you were surrounded by people which slightly negated from the relaxing element of the massage. However, relaxing it was and it was nice just to sit down and let someone work out those knots for you! In fact, even whilst my mum had her massage (after mine), I was still being offered complimentary teas and coffees.
This brings me quickly to the staff. They were all so incredibly polite and helpful. I could not fault them. My mum even ran the buggy over a member of staff’s feet and he was incredibly polite about it despite the fact it hurt. Now, you do expect great service but you don’t often get it so it was lovely just to have people offering you help all the time and being really approachable. I actually can’t fault the staff at all ( and I am normally so good at picking fault with customer service!).
After the massage, we went over to the bandstand where we joined the rest of the family at the animal petting zone. My son was in an enclosed area petting rabbits. It was so cute! All the children were allowed to go in the Rabbit pen and feed or stroke the rabbits. There were also goats, a sheep, ducks & geese, as well as baby chicks. Hand sanitiser was provided so I didn’t have to worry about my sons germy hands. I was really impressed. Even the layout was good. There was a white picket fence with an entrance and inside the area, the animal pens were nicely spaced out so there was plenty of room for everyone and to navigate buggys and pushchairs. On one side of the animal pen was the children’s play area. This was very busy as you can imagine as it was filled with children. It was quite hard to keep an eye on my two year old but there was lots of play on that was suitable for him and other equipment as I mentioned above, more suitable for older children.
A bit further over they had a Sheep Racing area for the Lamb National. It was quite funny to watch as these sheep were dressed up with a knitted jockey on each sheep and a sheep dog chasing them round. The commentator made it really good fun to watch. Unfortunately, we missed the falconry display but I am sure it would have been impressive and I was told that older children would be able to get involved with the show.
I have mentioned feeding myself and I have mentioned feeding my toddler (children eat free in some of the eateries) but I haven’t mentioned feeding my baby. I am breastfeeding my baby and although I am happy to breastfeed in public wherever I need to, I do prefer the quiet of a private feeding room. This is partly because my baby is distractable and likes to be nosey and partly to reduce the likelihood of exposing myself to anyone who might be bothered by it (not that they should be mind you!). I was pleased to see a baby feeding room by the Box Holders entrance to Ascot. I didn’t venture inside but I took note it was there. What then took me by surprise was the fact that there are no private baby feeding areas within the main Ascot Racecourse building.
Once we had arrived at our Private Box, I asked a member of staff to find out if there was anywhere I could feed my baby. She was great and went off to find out immediately. What wasn’t great was her answer. I am welcome to use the ladies toilet or the disabled toilet. What?! Feed my baby on the loo? Despite the fact there was nothing negative intended, but merely the offer of somewhere quieter to feed, offering a nursing (or bottle feeding) mum the use of the toilet to feed her baby is never acceptable. In the end, most of her feeds were done in our Box but I did resort to one feed in the loo in the afternoon because it was very busy in our Box. It would have taken me about 10 minutes to walk across the Racecourse grounds to the baby feeding room at the entrance. Anyone with a hungry baby will know that seconds count when it comes to producing food. Although the toilets were clean and well-kept, it is quite difficult to feed a baby whilst sat on a toilet seat. One suggestion for future improvement might be to at least put a couple of comfortable chairs in the toilets in the corner for nursing mums (not ideal but better than actually sat on the loo) or to use some of the space within the main building to create a baby feeding room with facilities not only for nursing mums, but also bottle feeding mums i.e. bottle warmers, sterilising equipment etc.
I would like to make it clear that I felt very welcome to feed my baby anywhere and that I believe Ascot Racecourse to be supportive of mothers however they feed their babies. This is proven by the feeding room they already have in place as well as being friendly whilst I was nursing my baby.
Moving on…… Each child was given a little pack with a brochure, colouring pencils and a chocolate lollipop. The brochure included pictures to colour in and games for older children, as well as information on the horses. This meant it was not only fun but educational too. Win Win! If I was going to be picky I’d suggest a piece of fruit instead of chocolate for the children but who doesn’t love a bonus chocolate lollipop from time to time as a treat?
Increasing it’s family friendliness even more, and engaging children in learning about horses, Ascot Racecourse also has a free club that under 16’s can join called Colts and Fillies (www.coltsandfillies.co.uk). On the Race Days there are activities that are exclusively available to these little members. This is taken directly from the site:
The club is free for children age 16 and under and organises activities throughout the year which
allow youngsters to engage in horse racing and learn about it in a fun and exciting way.
For 2014 the club will have a horse in training with Eve Johnson Houghton. This will enable the members to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership. A large number of regular visitors to the races had their interest sparked as a child, usually by being taken racing by a parent who loved the sport. The club aims to ignite that spark in children by making it easy and free to be involved so that no child, whatever their
circumstances, is excluded from enjoying this wonderful sport.
All race days are family friendly and children are welcome any time. However, they do run certain events throughout the year that are specifically aimed with children in mind. Look out for the following dates:
19th May - Victoria Cup Day 27th July - King George Family Sunday 9th August - Shergar Cup Day 1st November - United House Group Raceday And Fireworks Spectacular 19th & 20th December - Christmas Weekend Meeting
If you strip out all the family activities and focus purely on the racing side of it what do children really think of it? Do they take any notice? I can tell you my two year old enjoyed it – he really enjoyed seeing the horses trot past to go to the starting line and actually propped himself up on the balcony to get the best view for him if no-one was volunteering to hold him up. Once the races actually started he did get a bit overwhelmed by the noise and cheering but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the screens with the horses on. We spent some time at the parade ring and got to see some of the horses close up and I was so pleased my son got to see these beautiful animals up close.
Observing all the older children, I’d say they enjoyed watching the racing too but it was good they had entertainment in between races or instead of watching the races.
Earlier on I discussed the price. Cheapest tickets are £15 per adult (don’t forget children are free up until 18!) if you are booking for 6 adults or more, or £25 per adult for less than 6 people. Does this pose value for money for a family? A family of 4 (based on two adults and two children) would be £50. This does sound expensive but when you consider you are there for the whole day, children are free and you can bring all your own food and drink then I think it offers not only value, but experience, education and atmosphere. I do think for family days all Grandstand tickets should be £10-15 per adult regardless of the number of adults in the party – this would make it more affordable to the general public and therefore more appealing to a wider audience. Plus you get to dress up a bit! The only downside was that the staff weren’t able to tell us which horse would win 😉
On that note, I did find myself talking to other parents who weren’t placing bets on the day because they did not feel comfortable gambling in front of their children. This article isn’t here to discuss the ethics of gambling and children but it is nice to note that there is absolutely no pressure to have a flutter and that for us, whether we placed a bet or not, this did not influence the enjoyment of the day.
Overall, my family had a brilliant experience. The day went very smoothly, the staff were impeccable in both manners, helpfulness and knowledge and a credit to Ascot Racecourse, there was plenty to do without being overwhelming and had a nice relaxed pace set so there was no feeling of being rushed at all or thinking that you’d miss out on something if you spent too long in one area. There was lots to see and do for the children and the adults so very much a day for all. As I mentioned above, my only real disappointment was the lack of baby feeding areas within the main building. I probably wouldn’t take my toddler to a race day if it wasn’t a family day because I think I’d spend it running round after him rather than enjoying the races, but I would take him to another family day in future. Older children and teenagers are likely to get more out of it on non-family race days than very young children. Plus we all need a bit of grown up time on occasion! Well Done Ascot Racecourse.
*Photos supplied by Ascot Racecourse and William Stott Photography