A Brief History of Ascot
Royal Ascot, one of the world’s greatest sporting events has a very interesting history. Many of our clients enjoy attending (despite the unpopular changes that were made to the enclosures in the recent past) and we thought we would share our research with you in this blog.
For over 300 years the Ascot racecourse has been synonymous with prestige, tradition and heritage, with Royal Ascot week taking centre stage. Not only the place to view the best racing and horses in the world, but also the highlight of the social calendar and a very important venue for fashion. The Royal Ascot dress code is synonymous with tradition and conformity but also with style.
In a normal year (pandemic aside) with over 300,000 visitors descending upon the course over five days, Royal Ascot is also Britain’s most popular race meeting. So just how did the event become the jewel in the crown of the British racing calendar?
Ascot actually started from royal beginnings in 1711, when Queen Anne first saw the potential of the site as a racecourse. Known at the time as East Cote, the first race meeting took place on the 11th of August of that year, and the key race at the inaugural event was Her Majesty’s Plate, with a prize of 100 guineas. Since that time, Royal Ascot remains the most valuable British race meeting with a total of over £5 million in prize money during the week.
The first meeting was open to any horse over the age of six, however racing at that time was remarkably different from modern day racing, consisting of three separate heats, each a gruelling four miles long (roughly the length of today’s Grand National course). There are no records as to the winner of that first race, but Queen Anne’s gift to racing was the founding of the famed Berkshire racecourse. The meeting still opens with the Queen Anne Stakes, at 2.30pm on Tuesday of Royal Ascot week.
The first permanent building at the site was created by a local craftsman in 1794 and could house 1,500 people. Over the following decades, as the course and meeting became increasingly popular, the future of the racecourse was finally secured in 1813 when parliament passed an Act of Enclosure, ensuring that Ascot Heath would be kept for use as a racecourse for the public.
The exact origins of when the June meeting became Royal Ascot are unclear, but what is known is that the first four-day event took place in 1768. The meeting as it is known today however, really started to take shape with the introduction of the Gold Cup in 1807. In a nod to tradition, the Gold Cup is still on the third day of Royal Ascot, usually the busiest day of the week and commonly known as ‘Ladies’ Day’.
It may come as no surprise, given that the event was founded by a Queen and takes place on Crown property, that Ascot is administered by a representative appointed by the Monarch. Initially the racecourse was managed on the Sovereign’s behalf by the Master of the Royal Buckhounds, however in 1901 Lord Churchill was appointed as His Majesty’s Representative, responsible for running the course and determining entrance to the Royal Enclosure. The Ascot Authority was established in 1913 by an Act of Parliament, with His Majesty’s Representative becoming Senior Trustee.
Royal Ascot Dress Code
Entrance to the royal Enclosure has always required a particular dress code which has evolved over the years. In the 1960s when mini-skirts and trouser suits were fashionable, the Royal Enclosure did not permit the wearing of trousers by women. Young ladies who had come unprepared were reputedly undaunted by this and simply removed the trousers! Trousers suits are now allowed but skirts are to be of ‘modest length’ in the 21st century. The dress code however was not the only restriction to entry, and until 1955 divorced persons were not admitted to the Royal Enclosure. Today the event provides the opportunity to showcase the height of fashion, with Ascot dresses and outfits taking centre stage at the event.
It is well known that our present Queen has a very keen interest in flat racing and is an owner and breeder of many horses. Over the years however Her Majesty has only had 22 winners at Royal Ascot and so when her horse Estimate won the Gold Cup in 2013 this was a very special event, and she doubtless considers this to be the pinnacle of her racing achievements. This was the first time that the Gold Cup had been won by a horse owned by a reigning monarch and The Queen had been due to present the trophy to the winner, but Prince Andrew had to step in to enable her to receive it!
The Queen’s horses can be easily recognised as her jockeys wear the distinctive Royal colours of a purple body with gold braid, scarlet sleeves, and black velvet cap with gold fringe (just as those of her predecessors, going back all the way to the Prince Regent who later became George IV). Her Majesty too is renowned for wearing a wonderful array of colours, and so the racing is not the only thing that bets are placed on during Royal Ascot week - the colour of the outfit that The Queen will be wearing each day also appears in the stakes! Every day the crowd lines the course to view Her Majesty arriving at the head of the wonderful parade of landaus, not only so that they can catch a glimpse of her and other members of the Royal family, but also to see if they have won! Apparently, having a finely attuned ear, The Queen uses the journey along the course to listen to the wheels of the carriage and the hooves of the horses, to assess the going, and therefore how her horses will run.
When is Royal Ascot?
Royal Ascot remains an event to be thoroughly enjoyed and it occupies a special place within the British psyche and sporting calendar. It is held in the second or third week of June and enjoyed across the world. Viewed in over 200 countries, quite simply nothing else matches up to the spectacle and the excitement - the highlight of the British flat racing season and the social season.