The British racing calendar is full of big races; important meetings come around roughly every two weeks; there are a few spectacular festivals. However, there is one meeting that is more important than most; it hosts more big races than any other; as a
festival, it is more spectacular than anything else in the calendar. It is Royal Ascot. Every year, the racing world waits with baited breath for the
third week in June, for five days of top class racing, for men in morning dress, for women in hats, for one of the highlights of the Season.
Ascot did not begin as Ascot; it began as East Cote, back in 1711. Whilst staying at Windsor Castle, Queen Anne noticed an area of heath that she thought
would be suited to racing horses. She bought the land for £558, and the first race was held there on 11 August, 1711. That first race was open to colts, mares
or geldings aged six or over, and was worth 100 guineas. The seven horses that contested Her Majesty's Plate would have been hunters,
rather than thoroughbreds, were required to carry 12 stone, and had to race three heats of four miles. It was a bit different to the racing that
we know today.
In 1813, Ascot racecourse was made the subject of an Act of Enclosure by Parliament. This guaranteed that it would remain publicly accessible as a
racecourse, yet still property of the Crown. From 1913, the racecourse fell under the management of the Ascot Authority, which was created by Parliament.
The Clerk of the Course is Secretary to the Monarch's Representative, who holds the position of Chairman. There is now also a Chief Executive.
The transition towards the Royal Meeting as we would recognise it has taken place over a long period of time, and indeed is still changing. Although the
Royal Enclosure only became known as that in 1845, there had been an area that was reserved for the Royal Party and the monarch's guests since George III.
The Royal Procession was initiated in 1825, by George IV. Until 2002, the Royal Meeting covered four days, from Tuesday to Friday, and the Saturday was
known simply as Ascot Heath. However, in honour of Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee, Saturday's racing was also included as part of
the Royal Meeting.
Racing, Racing, Racing
There are six races on each day of the meeting, their prize money totalling £3,381,000. Of these thirty races, there are six Group 1 races (the highest class of race), which are each worth £250,000; four Group 2, five Group 3, five Listed races, eight Handicaps (races where horses are weighted according to their ability, the aim being that each has the same chance of winning) and two Conditions stakes (where various criteria have to met in order to compete). Consequently, Royal Ascot is a showcase for the best horses in training. It is an international event with horses coming from Ireland, France, United States and even Australia.
There are two Group 1 races on the Tuesday of the meeting. First is the St. James's Palace Stakes, which is run over 1 mile, for three year olds. The second is the Queen Anne Stakes (which was made-up to Group 1 status in 2003), which is also run over 1 mile, but is for older horses. The Group 1 race on Wednesday is the Prince of Wales' Stakes. This 1 mile, 2 furlong race
was inaugerated in 1862, was suspended in 1946 and re-instated in 1968. Thursday is Ladies Day, and that features the Gold Cup as its Group 1 event.
Friday's Group 1 is the Coronation Stakes, which was first raced in 1840 two years after Queen Victoria's coronation. This is a 1 mile race for three year old
fillies only. The final Group 1 race is the six furlong Golden Jubilee Stakes. Until 2002, this was the Group 2 Cork and Orrery Stakes, but was upgraded to
mark Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee.
Royal Ascot is steeped in tradition, from the Royal Procession to the dress code. The Royal Procession takes place before racing on the Tuesday, Wednesday,
Thursday and Friday of the meeting. The Royal Party leaves Windsor Castle at 2pm and travels the nine miles to Ascot racecourse in a procession of three carriages, each
drawn by four horses (which are usually white), arriving around 2.30pm. The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, Prince of Wales and Lord Vestey (the Queen's racing manager) travel in the first carriage. The second and third carriages usually carry a mixture of members of the Royal family and figures from the racing community who are invited by the Queen.
Although access to the Royal Enclosure is more relaxed than in George III's day, it remains quite exclusive. Not just anybody can buy a ticket. To be
eligible, an applicant must be sponsored by somebody who has been admitted to the Royal Enclosure for at least ten years. It is only since 1955 that
divorcees have been admitted!
The Royal Meeting is perhaps most famous for its dress code. Gentlemen entering the Royal Enclosure are required to wear morning dress in grey or
black with top hat; alternatively, full service dress may be worn. Women must wear formal day dress and a hat that covers the crown of the head. Should a
woman choose to wear trousers, they must be of a fabric matching her jacket. Foreign visitors may wear the national dress of their country, should they wish.
The dress code for the Grandstand and Paddock Enclosure is less formal than the Royal Enclosure: morning dress need not be worn, but a suit should;
women are not required to wear a hat. However, the majority of racegoers do join in with the spirit of the meeting and adhere to the Royal Enclosure dress
code. There are no restrictions in the Silver Ring. Part of the fun of watching Royal Ascot is for the outfits. Some women spend months thinking about what
they are going to wear. I have not yet made it to Royal Ascot, so I cannot tell you how long I spend planning my outfit. What I do know is that you have to
be prepared for the unpredictable British summer! Oh, and wear shoes with a sensible heel. If it rains, you do not want to find your expensive heels sinking
into the turf.
Racing away with:
- My Father
- Watching it on the BBC myself!
Owing to a major refurbishment of Ascot Racecourse, the 2005 Royal Meeting will be held at York.