A look at the history of Royal Ascot
PUBLISHED: 09:22 27 May 2020
With thousands of racegoers left disappointed that Royal Ascot won’t be open to the public this year, we take a look back at the history of the event.
This month, I, as well as thousands of others, was looking forward to attending Royal Ascot, one of the highlights of the sporting calendar. Scheduled to take place from 16-20 June, it now won’t be able to go ahead as an event open to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. I will just have to don my extravagant hat and beautiful dress at home in celebration instead...
Jo Wales, Head of Events & Operations at Ascot Racecourse, says: “We will be reopening to the public as soon as it is safe, and no one can guess when that will be. Firstly though, in-line with Government guidelines and recommendations, we’re planning to race behind closed doors with the minimum number of personnel we can manage while adhering to all necessary testing and social distancing to make that possible. There is a racing industry resumption group operating, which I am personally involved in, and the timings and logistics are being worked through.
“But we hope that once all the restrictions are lifted and as a nation we are through the other side, we will be back to racing with customers and we are all very much looking forward to that day.
“Royal Ascot 2020, if we are allowed to go ahead, won’t be an event with crowds, but we are already thinking about how we can make Royal Ascot 2021 even better than ever before!”
So, rather than bring you the lowdown on all the fixtures and the inside information on the entertainment taking place, we thought we’d take a look back on the famous racecourse through the ages – a huge part of our county’s heritage – to find out why Royal Ascot is such a shining star in our events calendar, welcoming around 300,000 racegoers across the five days. It’s also the most valuable race meeting in Britain, with £7.3 million in prize money. It’s an event that truly showcases the very best of British fashion and style and it sets the trends for the summer season event dressing.
It was Queen Anne who started it all, over 300 years ago. She saw the potential for a racecourse at East Cote while she was out riding, and she said it looked like an ideal place for “horses to gallop at full stretch” – and so Her Majesty’s Plate was held, worth 100 guineas. And from then on, the event quickly grew in popularity...
What is now known as Royal Ascot started to take shape with The Gold Cup in 1807. The winning owners still receive a gold trophy to keep.
In 1965, the first National Hunt meeting took place and saw the introduction of jump racing.
In 1813, Parliament passed an Act of Enclosure. This Act ensured that Ascot Heath, although the property of the Crown, would be kept and used as a racecourse for the public in the future.
Although a Royal Stand dates back to the 1790s, the Royal Enclosure that current regulars are used to was conceived in 1822 when King George IV commissioned a two-storey stand to be built with a surrounding lawn. Access was by invitation of the King. The Royal Enclosure was further developed in the mid-19th century when the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas I, visited Ascot for the first time as a guest of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. The concern raised from an impromptu descent into the winners’ enclosure by the Royal Party prompted authorities to enclose the area in front of the Royal Stand in 1845. To this day, entry is still by invitation only.
In 1961, the Queen Elizabeth II Grandstand opened at a cost of £1m, containing 280 private dining rooms as Ascot pioneered private corporate hospitality boxes. The Grandstand that you see today was 220 times the cost of its predecessor. Ascot closed for a £200-million redevelopment in 2004, and was reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on 20 June 2006. The Royal Meeting was held at York during the intervening period.
The Greencoats, or Yeoman Prickers, originally staged hunts. Their uniform is thought to have been made from curtains in Windsor Castle. They formed the ceremonial guard for The Monarch at Ascot and they were also responsible for crowd control – they used their prickers to move racegoers off the course. Today, Greencoats assist guests throughout the Royal Meeting.
The wearing of Bowler Hats by the Ascot Stewards is one of the most endearing and defining sights of Ascot. But the dress instruction was met with near mutiny when it was introduced in the late 1950s in an attempt to address slipping standards. The trustees had to give payrises at the time to stop the staff striking.
At 2pm, each of the five days begins with the Royal Procession – the arrival of The Queen and the Royal party in horse-drawn landaus, which parade along the track in front of the racegoers.
The inaugural Royal Procession was in 1825 when King George IV led four other coaches with members of the Royal party up the Straight Mile.
Every evening at Royal Ascot, the Bandstand plays host to an unmissable sing-a-long of British classics, which is enjoyed by thousands of racegoers. The same iconic British songs are played every year, including Jerusalem and Rule Britannia. The tradition was started in the 1970s by the wife of the Clerk of the course.
In 1873, Ascot witnessed the first victory for riding supertsar Fred Archer. Over 14 years, he rode 80 winners at the racecourse.
Brown Jack was both a crowd favourite at Royal Ascot and a household name of his time, though his background was highly unusual. After his win in the 1928 Champion Hurdle and following the recommendation of top flat jockey Steve Donoghue, Brown Jack’s trainer, the Hon. Aubrey Hastings, switched him to the flat. It was a decision that paid off handsomely. Donoghue rode the horse to victory in the 1928 Ascot Stakes and subsequently six consecutive renewals of the Queen Alexandra Stakes between 1929 and 1934.
The 1975 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes is known as the Race of the Century with good reason. Grundy was the 4/5 favourite for the race with Bustino his nearest rival at 4/1. What made the duel so captivating was the way in which each horse rallied to the other’s challenge. The race time smashed the course record by two and a half seconds and it wasn’t until 2010 that it was broken. It was the final act of these two brilliant horses and they both enjoyed an honourable retirement.
Lester Piggott is the most successful jockey in flat racing, and Royal Ascot history. In his own Royal Ascot career, he rode 116 – his first in 1952 and his last 41 years later in 1993. No other jockey comes close to his record tally, which includes 11 Gold Cups.
With over 50 Royal Ascot victories, Frankie Dettori, with his trademark flying dismount, which has thrilled spectators the world over, is synonymous with Ascot. It may not have been at Royal Ascot but in 1996 Dettori made racing history when he won all seven races on the card. That feat has been immortalised at the Racecourse in the form of a statue that you can see near to the Parade Ring.
Of all the great horses of the modern era, none has become more synonymous with Royal Ascot than the legendary Yeats, who won four Gold Cups in a row from 2006 to 2009. To ensure his feats will never be forgotten, Ascot unveiled a statue of him in the Parade Ring in 2011.
Sir Henry Cecil trained a then record 75 winners at Royal Ascot. He had dominated the meeting from the late 1970s through to the mid-90s before enduring a fallow period. Those rocky times were exorcised in his last years, thanks to his training of the wonder horse Frankel. It completed a glorious renaissance, all the more remarkable considering he was battling a terminal illness. The highest rated horse in flat racing history, Frankel retired unbeaten after a career which includes five appearances at Ascot and a stunning victory in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot 2012.
Since acceding to the throne in 1952, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has been an unswerving patron of Royal Ascot. She has never missed a Royal Meeting. She has also owned 22 winners of races at Royal Ascot. In 2013, Estimate, owned by Her Majesty The Queen, won the Gold Cup – the first time in the race’s 207-year history that it had been won by a reigning monarch.
There’s no doubt about it, Ascot will have a very different summer season this year. However, Juliet Slot, Chief Commercial Officer at Ascot Racecourse, says: “Ascot recognises the difficult situation this pandemic has put so many industries in... but it has been truly incredible to see the way in which so many businesses and individuals have pulled together to fundraise, for their local communities and the frontline, while also using their skills to support the crisis by making PPE. We’re working with our stakeholders and partner brands to celebrate Royal Ascot week in style, while supporting those in need, and will be encouraging Royal Ascot fans and customers to support us.
“As a business, Ascot looked at what we could do to show our support very early on and have several initiatives running while we aren’t able to go about our usual business as normal. We have been donating essential food items and cash to local food banks, have made financial donations to various Berkshire charities and community funds, and a significant portion of our workforce has been volunteering for the local NHS Trusts and in their local communities. We have also been an NHS drive-in test centre since the beginning of April and continue to look at other ways we can support the frontline and the wider communities impacted by this crisis.”
Ascot are also lighting up the Grandstand in blue and turn all the lights on as part of the ‘Clap for Carers’ each Thursday as well as showing a rotating ‘thank you’ message on their giant screen that faces the road. We hope to be back at the racecourse very soon.