A Brief History of Ascot

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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, the pinnacle being Royal Ascot week which has become the centre stage not only to view the best racehorses in the world but also the highlight of the social calendar and quite an important venue for wonderful outfits.   With over 300,000 visitors descending upon the course over five days, Royal Ascot is Britain’s most popular race meeting - and so how did the event become the jewel in the crown of the British racing calendar?

Ascot started from not so humble and certainly royal beginnings when Queen Anne, in 1711, first saw the potential of the site as a racecourse, which at the time was known as East Cote. The first race meeting took place later that year on the 11th of August and the inaugural event was Her Majesty’s Plate with a prize of 100 guineas. (Royal Ascot still remains the most valuable race meeting in Britain with a total of £5.5 million in prize money.) The first meeting was open to any horse over the age of six but racing at that time was remarkably different to modern day racing and consisted 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 but what is sure is that Queen Anne’s gift to racing was the founding of the famed Berkshire racecourse and the meeting still opens with the Queen Anne Stakes.

The first permanent building was created in 1794 by a local craftsman and could house 1500 people.  Over the following decades the course and meeting became increasingly popular and the future of the racecourse was secured in 1813 when parliament passed an act of enclosure ensuring that Ascot Heath would be kept and used as a racecourse for the public.

The exact origins of the Royal meeting are unclear but what is known is that the event started from the first four-day event that 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 on behalf of the Crown 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.

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 2017.  The dress code however was not the only restriction to entry and until 1955 divorced persons were not admitted to the Royal Enclosure. 

It is well known that our present Queen has a keen interest in flat racing and is an owner and breeder of 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.  It 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 picked out as her jockeys wear the distinctive Royal colours of 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 is renowned for wearing a wonderful array of colours herself and so the racing is not the only thing that bets are placed on during Royal Ascot week - the colour of the outfit that she will be wearing appears in the stakes too. The crowd lines the course to view her 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 pulling it to assess how the going is and therefore how her horses will run.

Royal Ascot remains an event to be thoroughly enjoyed and occupies a special place within the British psyche and sporting calendar.  Enjoyed across the world and 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.

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