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Breaking with tradition: Royal Ascot agrees Qatari sponsorship deal

Story highlights

  • Qatari company QIPCO to have sponsorship rights at Royal Ascot
  • Historic deal will see limited branding at famous royal meeting
  • Will provide a prize money boost for Royal Ascot and other racing at the famous course
  • Extends growing Qatar influence in horse racing and other sports

It needed permission from the British monarch and has the potential to enrage traditionalists, but one of horse racing's most regal occasions has crossed the rubicon and will allow sponsorship branding for the first time in its 300-year history.

Like Augusta for golf's U.S. Masters and Wimbledon in tennis, Royal Ascot has thrived with barely a nod in the direction of the commercial world -- until now.

The most quintessentially English of all sporting events has signed a five-year partnership deal with a company controlled by the Qatari royal family.

Do not expect to see massive advertising hoardings bearing the name of QIPCO, shorthand for Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company.

But on the first day of the event, which takes place in June, the name will appear in places such as the top of stalls and at the back of the parade ring.

"It will be limited branding in Royal Ascot colors," Charles Barnett, chief executive of the race course, told CNN.

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    Barnett said Acot was actively seeking "appropriate partners" for the other four days of the meeting but was quick to stress there were some traditions that were not for sale.

    "This most certainly does not extend to the names of races or the name of the event, which will be forever Royal Ascot," he said.

    As part of the deal, QIPCO has also agreed to sponsor the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, a race for leading middle-distance specialists, usually classic winners, held at Ascot in late July.

    "The time is right for us to maximize the commercial value of our properties," Ascot head of communications Nick Smith told CNN.

    Competitive era

    Smith also revealed that a major driving factor was the need to attract the best thoroughbreds to Royal Ascot and its other premier meetings.

    "It's a competitive market and we want to make sure our prize money is competitive," he added.

    But while there are clearly sound commercial reasons for the branding deal with QIPCO, would not such a major development need the permission of Queen Elizabeth, an avid racing enthusiast?

    "Anything as important as this we would discuss with Buckingham Palace," said Barnett.

    "Ascot was set up by an act of parliament (Enclosure Act of 1813) and we will be reinvesting everything we can into the business in the form of better facilities as well as better prize money."

    QIPCO and Qatar's involvement in elite flat racing in Britain and Europe is a relatively new development, dating back to 2011.

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    Their sponsorship of the British Champions Series, culminating in Champions Day at Ascot in October, broke new ground, with both the Champions Stakes and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes now carrying seven-figure prize money.

    Nick Attenborough, spokesman for Great British Racing which runs the series, welcomed the latest investments at Ascot.

    "It's a real signal to the sport globally that they are here to stay," he told CNN.

    Previous Middle Eastern involvement in the flat racing scene was centered around the Godolphin operation of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

    Now the new kids on the block are certainly making an impression, additionally sponsoring English classic races, the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket.

    Frankel connection

    QIPCO also lent its name to the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood, famously won twice by the unbeaten super horse Frankel.

    At Europe's most prestigious race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Qatari branding is emblazoned over the race course at Longchamps and last year's winner Treve is Qatari-owned.

    Qatar is also flexing its financial muscle in other sports, notably football, which will see the 2022 World Cup staged in the small Arab state of just over two million people.

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    Qatari investors also own French champions Paris Saint-Germain.

    But aside from the controversy about playing conditions in the heat of the Gulf summer, there has also been criticism of its treatment of migrant workers employed to build the stadia and infrastructure for the competition.

    Read: Upping the stakes: Royal Ascot in prize money bid

    FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the situation was "unacceptable" and has met the Emir of Qatar to seek changes.

    Ascot chief Barnett would not comment on these specific issues, but added: "We are dealing with an individual investment company -- a private company -- not the Qatari government."

    Attenborough added: "There are no labor issues in horse racing."

    Unique event

    The queen's views on these matters, as ever, will remain a closely guarded secret, but it is her patronage of Royal Ascot which ensures it remains a unique event in the sporting calendar.

    Last year, her filly Estimate won the Ascot Gold Cup, the first victory for a reigning monarch since the famous race began over 200 years ago.

    She was presented with the trophy by her son Prince Andrew in front of a hoarding on which there was a sign advertising the QIPCO Champions Series -- of which the Gold Cup was one of the key races.

    A sign, then, of the times to come, and this year the reminders of a more commercial age will be a little more obvious in the most traditional of settings.

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