Horse racing at Royal Ascot

Stuart Forster reports on the heritage of horse racing at Royal Ascot.

Mention Ascot and images of gentlemen wearing top hats and elegantly dressed ladies are conjured into most people’s heads. The small town 30 miles west of central London – and a short hop from Heathrow – is synonymous with scenes from the annual Royal Ascot race meeting, held for five days each June.

It’s more than just horse racing. Royal Ascot is a key event in the British social calendar. Queen Elizabeth II has attended each of the meetings held since she ascended the throne in 1952. The arrival of the royal family at the racetrack has become a much-anticipated tradition. Each morning they are driven to the Royal Enclosure in an open-topped, horse-drawn carriage and the royal standard is raised to mark their presence.

Windsor Great Park

Ascot, which is adjacent to Windsor Great Park, is actually leased from the Crown Estate. It’s said the idea to hold a race meeting here came from Queen Anne, who spotted the area’s potential while out riding on what was then heathland known as East Cote. The heath was cleared and the first race meeting was held in 1711. Seven sturdy English Hunters, all aged six years or older, competed for Her Majesty’s Plate over a distance of four miles. The name of the first winner is lost to time.

The meeting is now the richest in the British racing calendar, with prize money in excess of £5.5million. Thoroughbreds are drawn from around the world. The prize funds for last year’s Prince of Wales Stakes and Diamond Jubilee Stakes were each £525,000. A pot of £375,000 was available for the Queen Anne Stakes and the Gold Cup, a race with traditions dating to 1807.

Royal winners at Ascot

In 2013 jockey Ryan Moore rode home the filly, Estimate, to win the Gold Cup wearing the Queen’s colours. Her Majesty was visibly overjoyed by the 22nd Royal Ascot win of her reign, 60 years on from her first, when Choir Boy romped home in the 1953 Royal Hunt Cup. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, duly presented his mother with the winner’s trophy.

Racing fans associate the meeting with some of the sport’s great names. Those that stand out include Frankel, the horse which retired unbeaten, and Sir Henry Cecil, the man who trained a record 75 Royal Ascot winners.

Entering the Royal Enclosure

Yet for most people Royal Ascot is primarily a grand social occasion and entry to the Royal Enclosure, which is by invitation only, much coveted. The formal dress code within the Royal Enclosure is enforced by distinctively dressed stewards, renowned for their bowler hats.

Fashion commentators have a field day talking about the clothing and hats worn by female attendees, who are not permitted to bare their midriffs or to don strapless dresses. Gentlemen have a choice between grey or black morning suits with waistcoats and black shoes. If they wish to remain inside the Royal Enclosure they are not even permitted wear a coloured band or ribbon on their top hats. Military dress uniforms, however, are permitted and overseas visitors are welcome to attend in their national costumes.

Champagne and Canapé Receptions

Though there’s an aspect of exclusivity to Royal Ascot it’s also a highly popular event. 280,268 people were present over the five days in 2012, making it Britain’s best attended race meeting. A glance at the logistics of Royal Ascot reveal more about its scale. Over 6,000 members of staff were employed, including 2,400 cleaners who helped recycle 547 tonnes of waste. With more than 100 bars and food outlets, it required 39 kitchens and 330 chefs to produce the dishes consumed onsite. The meeting’s Champagne and canapé receptions are much celebrated. 2,050kg of lobster was consumed three years ago, along with 51,549 bottles of Champagne, 173,776 pints of beer and 44,524 glasses of Pimms.

As you’d expect for an event of such standing, dishes by some of Britain’s top chefs cooked during the meeting. Michael Caines, who holds two Michelin stars for his Gidleigh Park restaurant, will oversee the menus served this year in On 5, the fifth floor grandstand restaurant with views over the final two furlongs of the track. The two-starred chef of The Square, Phil Howard, will be serving British cuisine in the Panoramic restaurant, which overlooks the straight and the surrounding countryside; land that was enclosed by Act of Parliament, in 1813, to ensure it would be fit for racing.

Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot

As many eyes focus on the attire of female attendees they do on the track during Royal Ascot’s Thursday. It’s thought the informal term Ladies’ Day, as it’s known by the public, grew in popularity from 1823 when an anonymous poet penned poem with the line, ‘Ladies Day, when women, like angels, look sweetly divine.’

Anticipation is building regarding the dresses, hats and winners that will be seen at the next Royal Ascot meeting.

Further information

Find out more about the race course and Royal Ascot race meeting, including how to acquire tickets, on the Ascot website.

Learn more about nearby attractions in southern England on the Visit South-East England and Visit England websites.

If you enjoyed this post about horse racing at Royal Ascot you may enjoy my look at the Grand National.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Visit England / Doug Harding.

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