Dating back around 300 years to the rein of Queen Anne, Royal Ascot is most prestigious of all flat racing meetings. Held over five days in the middle of June, it is an important attraction for many of the world’s top jockeys and best horses.
Not only is it famous for its place in the racing calendar, it is also an important part of the social calendar and a highlight of the traditional English season, attracting around 300,000 visitors every year.
The English Season
The traditional English season began in Edwardian times when the aristocratic land owners forewent their country mansions to spend the summer in London in order to immerse themselves in politics and socialising. It was also an important time for young people to find husbands and wives of the right class.
Known simply as The Season, it included many social and sporting events such as the Henley Royal Regatta, tennis at Wimbledon, cricket at Lords, the Glyndebourne Opera, the Chelsea Flower Show and horse racing events such as Royal Ascot. The Season events are still much the same as they were and, although now popular amongst ordinary people, many of the old traditions are still upheld.
The History of the Royal Ascot
Queen Anne, who was a keen horsewoman, founded the Ascot Racecourse in 1711 and the first race held there was “Her Majesty’s Plate”. Open to all-comers the only rules were that the minimum age of the horses was six years and the weight to be carried (including the rider) was twelve stone. The horses were English Hunters and very different from the horses that race at Royal Ascot now.
An 1813 act of parliament ensured that the grounds, which were part of the Royal Estate, would function permanently as a public racecourse and in 1913 the Ascot Authority was created to manage the course. Until 1945 the only event was the Royal Meeting which was held over four days, but today the course is used for several other fixtures, including steeplechases.
Racing at Royal Ascot – Climbing the Hill
On each of the five days there are six races, and at least one of these is a Group One race; on some days there are up to three Group One races. There is also a feature race every day and these include the Queen Anne Stakes; the Prince of Wales’s Stakes which is the most valuable race with a £500,000 prize purse; the Gold Cup which is the highlight race of the festival; the Coronation Stakes; and the Diamond Jubilee.
The race course at Royal Ascot is also very special and in terms of flat racing it is one of the sport’s most demanding courses. Uphill almost all the way, from the start in the valley to the finishing post there is a twenty two meter climb.
Only really fit horses have a competitive chance, and preparing horses for this event requires months of careful preparation in order to bring a horse’s stamina, strength and speed to their peak. Not surprisingly it tends to be the top trainers who enjoy year on year success.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh usually attend for every day of the meeting as do several other royals who all turn up in a Royal procession of horse-drawn carriages. There is generally considerable speculation regarding what the queen will wear and bookmakers will take bets on the colour of her dress.
A keen race horse owner, the Queen takes a deep interest in the sporting aspects of the event, and probably makes a few bets on it too.
What to wear
Royal Ascot retains a strict dress code which varies depending on the enclosure. The strictest dress code is in the Royal Enclosure. There it is obligatory for men to wear either black or grey ‘top hat and tails’ (morning dress) with a waistcoat and tie, along with black shoes. Women should wear skirts or dresses with hemlines below the knee and straps on dresses or tops must be at least one inch wide. Jackets are permitted as are trouser suits. Hats must be worn and fascinators are no longer allowed for anyone older than 16.
In the Grandstand there is more flexibility. Many people still stick to the Royal Enclosure dress code though here women are allowed to wear fascinators as an alternative to hats, but they must not show a bare midriff or wear a strapless top or dress. Men may wear a suit, shirt and tie as an alternative to morning dress.
The silver ring & heath enclosure is altogether less formal; ordinary smart clothes are fine, though there is still a sense of occasion particularly in the case women who tend not give up the chance to wear a hat, although doing so is not obligatory.