For racing traditionalists, there are few meetings on the calendar to match the 5-day extravaganza that takes place at Ascot every June. Known as ‘Royal Ascot’, the meeting has been the course’s centrepiece since 1711 after being founded by Queen Anne. Entry to the festival comes with a guarantee that you’ll see world-class action as there are a total of 18 Group races and at least one Group One race on each of the five days.
With a total prize fund of almost £7 million, it is among the world’s most lucrative festivals. An estimated 300,000 people travel to Ascot during the five days which makes it the best-attended meeting in European racing. There is so much ground to cover when describing Royal Ascot so let’s begin with details of why it is such a regal affair.
Why Is It ‘Royal’ Ascot?
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, attends the event annually and is accompanied by numerous Royal Family members including The Prince of Wales. They arrive in a horse-drawn carriage and racegoers are treated to the splendid sight of the Royal Procession which involves the Queen and others being transported to the course via horse-drawn carriage. However, the ‘Royal’ in Ascot was added long before Elizabeth II’s time. In fact, the first Royal Procession occurred in 1825 when King George IV led a total of five coaches with other Royal Family members; they travelled across the Straight Mile.
Queen Anne was known for her love of horse racing and in 1711, she followed through on a plan to open a racecourse. She decided to open it near Ascot village because it was close to her hunting grounds. When a monarch wants something done, it tends to happen quickly because, within a few months, the course had been created! The first meeting took place on August 11 that year and was swiftly followed by a second in September.
Queen Anne died in 1714 and the Ascot races were cancelled until 1720. William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, oversaw the first four-day festival at the course in 1749. The addition of the Straight Mile in 1785 added emphasis on speed above stamina at meetings.
It was the future King George IV, the Prince Regent from 1811, and nicknamed ‘Prinny’, who is the main reason why the festival is known as ‘Royal’ Ascot. He enjoyed gambling, banqueting, and womanizing, and was able to indulge in all of them thanks to his passion for horse racing! Prinny’s attendance and patronage marked Ascot out as a significant social occasion. Another reason was the Act of Enclosure in 1813 which entrusted the land in and around Ascot to the Crown with the proviso that it would remain as a racecourse for public use.
The famous Royal Enclosure’s origins go back to 1807 when a special area was exclusively reserved for the Royal Family and guests. After he became King George IV (in 1820), Prinny ordered an architect named John Nash to create a new stand with a lawn for the royals and their guests. The Enclosure became fully established when Tsar Nicholas I of Russia visited Ascot as a guest of Queen Victoria.
When the Royal Family ended up in the winner’s enclosure one year, authorities decided to enclose the area in front of the Royal Stand. Since 1845, entry to the stand is by invitation only. If you wish to enjoy a day of the festival from the Royal Enclosure, you must send an application and gain membership from an individual who has already been attending the Enclosure for a minimum of four years.
If you already hold a badge, Her Majesty’s Representative sends you an invitation. Your name is written on the badge and you are the only person who can use it. There are different coloured badges for every day of the festival. Your exclusive membership entitles you to the finest dining and hospitality at Ascot.
While Ascot is an open and welcoming affair today, it wasn’t always the case. The Iron Stand was opened in 1859 and women were not allowed entry. Divorced men were able to enter the Iron Stand but were forbidden from having Royal Enclosure access. In fact, divorcees were not allowed to enter until 1955. A few years beforehand, a new Queen’s Lawn had been added to the Enclosure and once again, entrance to this section is by invitation only with the Court’s rules surrounding divorce still in effect.
Great Royal Ascot Moments
With over 300 years of history and well over 150 years as a multi-day event, there is no shortage of wonderful Royal Ascot memories to share. The first Gold Cup was run in 1807 and the day on which it is run has been known as ‘Ladies’ Day since 1823. While it is normal for Royalty to arrive in plenty of time for the event, the Duke of York took tardiness to a new level in 1823. He arrived so late on his horse that he only took his place at the Royal Stand moments before the winner crossed the post.
Ascot’s history is littered with the feats of legendary jockeys such as Fred Archer and Lester Piggott but neither man can match the feat of an unknown 11-year old boy. He was a jockey in the 1840 Wokingham Stakes although no one knows the outcome of the race. Speaking of Archer, he rode his first of 80 winners at Ascot in 1873. In the 20th century, Piggott shattered all records with 116 wins including an astonishing 11 Gold Cup triumphs.
If you go to Ascot today, you’ll doubtless meet dozens of bookmakers trying to coerce you into accepting their odds. Up until 1920, racecourse bookmaking was a closed shop as only male bookies were allowed work at courses in Britain. Helen Vernet became the first woman to obtain a bookmaker’s license in that year.
Ascot historians wistfully recall the heroics of Brown Jack, a horse that won a race in seven consecutive years at Ascot between 1928 and 1934. His first win was in the Champion Hurdle but after top jockey, Steve Donoghue, persuaded Brown Jack’s trainer, Aubrey Hastings, to switch the horse to the flat, he began a record-breaking streak of success. Brown Jack won six consecutive Queen Alexandra Stakes races.
Race of the Century
1975 was the year of the ‘Race of the Century’ between Grundy and Bustino in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Grundy was the 4/5 favourite and Bustino was available at 4/1. Dick Hern trained the latter and he planned to run a trio of pacemakers at a furious pace to take the sting out of the favourite’s renowned finishing kick. Highest set off at a lightning pace and ran the first five furlongs in just 58 seconds!
Kinglet took over pacemaking duties but when he dropped out, Bustino was in the lead with half a mile to go. For the record, the first mile was covered in around 95 seconds, two seconds faster than Frankel’s extraordinary Guineas mile. Bustino held a three-length lead as he turned into the home straight but the favourite was in hot pursuit. Grundy finally overtook his rival with a furlong to go but Bustino did not wilt and pushed Grundy all the way but the favourite won by half a length.
In the modern era, Yeats is one of the greatest performers with four successive Gold Cup wins from 2006 to 2009. Big Orange is not around to defend his Gold Cup this year; can Order of St George triumph as he did in 2016? One thing is for sure, there will be no shortage of drama, or style, at Royal Ascot this year as the festival continues its proud links with the British Royal Family.