Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Revered across the globe and synonymous with sartorial elegance, exquisite fashion and magnificent millinery creations, attract the finest horses to compete for more than £8m in prize money. Over the past 300 years, Ascot has established itself as a national institution; with Royal Ascot being the centrepiece of the British summer social calendar.
Here are some interesting timelines
QUEEN ANNE FINDS A PLACE FOR “HORSES TO GALLOP AT FULL STRETCH
In 1711 it was Queen Anne who first saw the potential for a racecourse at East Cote, declaring that it looked an ideal place for “horses to gallop at full stretch” while out riding. Her Majesty’s Plate, worth 100 guineas and open to any horse, mare or gelding over the age of six, took place on 11th August. Each horse was required to carry a weight of 12st and seven runners took part. The race consisted of three separate heats which were four miles long (each heat was about the length of the Grand National), so the winner would have been a horse with tremendous stamina.
THE ROYAL CURTAINS
Green coats have formed the ceremonial guard for The Monarch at Ascot since 1744. It is rumoured that the velvet uniforms were originally made from material left over from curtains in Windsor Castle. The Green coats, or Yeoman Prickers as they are traditionally known, started life in Queen Anne’s reign as in staging hunts. Their role was developed in the early nineteenth century to include crowd control – they used their prickers to move racegoers off the course. Today, Green coats offer their unrivalled experience to assist guests throughout the Royal Meeting.
AN EXODUS IN LONDON
By 1752 the popularity of attending the racing at Ascot was becoming apparent in social circles, prompting the Duke of Bedford to write that when arriving in London ’I could find no soul to dine or sup with.’ The extra entertainments laid on for 18th century racegoers included cockfighting, prize-fighting, gaming tents, jugglers, ballad singers, ladies on stilts and freak shows.
THE COLOURS AND THE GLORY
Until 1783, jockeys were permitted to wear whatever they liked when racing. This caused a great deal of confusion when attempting to pin down the winners of each race. Jockeys were thus instructed to wear the colours of their horse’s owners. Each jockey’s colours are unique to the owners of each horse. The BHA states that there are 18 colours to choose from when creating a new racing colour, and keeps a register of those combinations already used.
Late 18th Century
THE RISE OF THE TOPPER
Men in the Royal Enclosure must wear top hats. They were initially popular with all social classes in the late nineteenth century before developing into a symbol of urban respectability. Silk top hats made from hatters' plush are now so rare - with no looms capable of producing the traditional material anymore – that vintage models in wearable condition are in great demand. As peoples' heads in the past were smaller, larger vintage hats are even harder to find and cost tens of thousands of pounds.
Early 19th Century
A DRESS CODE EMERGES
The beginnings of a dress code can be traced back to the early 19th century when Beau Brummel, a close friend of the Prince Regent, decreed that men of elegance should wear waisted black coats and white cravats with pantaloons. Mr. Brummel is credited with introducing, and establishing as fashion, the modern men’s suit, worn with a necktie. He established the mode of dress for men that rejected overly ornate fashions for one of understated, but perfectly fitted and tailored bespoke garments. He claimed he took five hours a day to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne.
The Royal Enclosure has the strictest Dress Code, with men wearing grey, navy or black morning dress and top hat, and women wearing formal daywear and a hat with a solid base of 4 inches or more in diameter. The Queen Anne Enclosure is Royal Ascot's premier public enclosure, granting guests access to the Parade Ring, Grandstand and Trackside Lawns. Guests in the Queen Anne Enclosure are also invited to participate in the daily tradition of singing around the Bandstand after racing. The Dress Code in the Queen Anne Enclosure is still formal, but more relaxed than that of the Royal Enclosure. Women must dress in a manner that befits a formal occasion and must wear a hat or fascinator at all times. Gentlemen are required to wear a full-length suit with a collared shirt, tie and socks covering the ankle.
The Windsor Enclosure offers a more informal and relaxed atmosphere,
with no formal Dress Code. Guests in the Windsor Enclosure are the first to view the Royal Procession as the enclosure is positioned to the east of the Grandstand along the Straight Mile. The Village Enclosure has been a successful addition since 2017 and is located on the Heath, in the middle of the racecourse. This enclosure, open from the Thursday to Saturday of the Royal Meeting, offers a combination of exciting street food, al fresco dining, live music and unique views of the track and famous Ascot Grandstand. The Dress Code in the Village Enclosure is similar, but slightly less formal to that of the Queen Anne Enclosure, with women wearing formal daywear and a hat and men wearing jackets, full-length trousers, a tie and socks covering the ankle.
The annual Royal Meeting takes place over five days, each with a unique offering of racing and atmosphere. The week begins on a Tuesday, with the first race traditionally being The Queen Anne Stakes. Two further Group 1 contests normally take place on this day, which is surely the most enjoyable for racing purists. The King's Stand Stakes and The St James' Palace Stakes round off the feature races on the card.
The Wednesday of Royal Ascot provides a relaxed atmosphere off the track and an intense atmosphere on it, with the highlight on the card being the prestigious Group 1 Prince of Wales's Stakes, so memorably won in 2019 by superstars Crystal Ocean and Frankie Dettori.
Undoubtedly the most electric day of the Royal Meeting is Thursday, with the oldest and most prestigious race taking place – The Gold Cup staged over two-and-a-half miles, making it a stiff test for even the world's most elite long-distance horses. In 2020, this historic race was taken by reigning champion, Stradivarius, with jockey Frankie Dettori on board, for a third consecutive year. It is also the day where high fashion and millinery masterpieces take centre stage, and has been colloquially termed “Ladies Day”.
The fourth day of the Royal Meeting features two Group 1 races in The Coronation Stakes and The Commonwealth Cup, whilst the final day, Saturday, offers a relaxed and social atmosphere. The quality of racing is no less top-notch, with The Diamond Jubilee Stakes being the feature race, won in 2019 by Blue Point, who famously became the first horse since Choisir to win the Diamond Jubilee and King's Stand in the same year.
THE INAUGURAL GOLD CUP
What is now known as Royal Ascot started to take shape with The Gold Cup in 1807, Ascot’s oldest surviving race. The winning owners still receive a gold trophy which becomes their property.
A RACECOURSE FOR THE PUBLIC
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. Racing at Ascot was now secure. Artist, 1818.
AN ENCLOSURE FIT FOR A KING
Although a Royal Stand dates back to the 1790's, the Royal Enclosure that current regulars are used to at Ascot 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-nineteenth 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 in to 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.
ANGELS LOOK SWEETLY DIVINE
Gold Cup Day is colloquially known as ‘Ladies’ Day’. The term seems to be have been first used in 1823, when an anonymous poet described the Thursday of the Royal Meeting as"Ladies’ Day… when the women, like angels, look sweetly divine." Today a dress code underpins the sartorial elegance of the occasion. Artist, 1837.
A ROYAL RUSH
In 1823 the Duke of York arrived so late that he had to gallop up the course whilst the race was being run, and only just arrived at the Royal Stand before the winner crossed the finish post.
A ROYAL PROCESSION BEGINS
At 2pm sharp, 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. A diarist commented that the ‘whole thing looked very splendid.’
THE TALE OF THE 11 YEAR OLD BOY
The jockeys we see riding at Ascot today are highly trained and professional athletes but in the 19th century there were no real rules regulating who could ride at Ascot. Even so, the spectators in 1840 were rather taken aback to see that one of the starters for the Wokingham Stakes was ridden by an 11 year old boy. He admitted to never having raced before, although he did have experience of taking horses out on the gallops. Unfortunately there is no reference to who won the race.
THE DECLINE OF THE HIGHWAY ROBBER
The railway was brought to Ascot in 1856 marking the beginning of the end of a perilous journey for racegoers. Until then the rich travelled by carriage at the great risk of Highway Robbers while the poorer classes walked. Most stayed at Ascot for all four days of the festival at an enormous encampment near the course. By 1873 The Times wrote “Never has the South Western Railway brought down such a heavy and fashionably filled train as that which… dispersed its contents over an Ascot radius’’. It was not until 1912 when the motorcar was first sighted at Royal Ascot.
Ascot witnessed the first victory for riding phenomenon Fred Archer. Over 14 years, he rode 80 winners at the racecourse.
‘CERTAINLY’ ‘PERHAPS’ AND ‘CERTAINLY NOT’! THE EMERGENCE OF LORD CHURCHILL
The racecourse is located on Crown Estate Land, and the Monarch has always appointed a representative to run the administration of the racecourse on their behalf. The racecourse was run on behalf of the Sovereign by the Master of the Royal Buckhounds up until 1901 when Lord Churchill was appointed as the first official Representative of His Majesty. He is reputed to have taken personal charge of vetting applications for entrance into the Royal Enclosure, sorting letters into three baskets marked ‘Certainly’ ‘Perhaps’ and ‘Certainly Not.’
1910 was the year of ‘Black Ascot’. King Edward VII, who was a great supporter of racing, died shortly before the event. It was deemed appropriate that the races be conducted in mourning, with racegoers all dressed in black. The Daily Mirror described the striking monochrome scene: “The occupants of the Royal Enclosure were in black save, for where ladies wore white flowers or had strings of pearls.”
SIR GORDON'S SHOE LACES
Sir Gordon Carter served as Clerk of the Course from 1910 until his death in 1941. It is easy to make fun of a man who was so fastidious that every night he had his shoelaces washed and ironed, but Carter’s correctness and military discipline brought Ascot no end of benefit. During Royal Ascot Sir Gordon would change outfit five times a day, starting wearing riding kit in the morning and ending in evening dress for an eight course dinner of iced melon, soup, fish, entrée, water ice, saddle of lamb, sweet, savoury and dessert, followed by coffee, liqueurs and cigars.
HIS MAJESTY’S REPRESENTATIVE MOVES IN
The Ascot Authority was established by an Act of Parliament which moved the day to day operations of the racecourse out of the Royal Household. His Majesty Representative was appointed Senior Trustee of the Authority with the Clerk of the Course acting as Secretary.
NOT JUST HUMAN TRAFFIC ON THE COURSE
Today the Ascot track is seen as almost sacred turf, but incredibly, even as late as 1920, a large flock of sheep – three to four hundred strong - was kept on the course between meetings. One of their number was sent to the butcher every Monday, the meat was then hung in the subway leading under the road to the Royal Enclosure, and sold to Ascot employees at a shilling a pound.
'FIT AND PROPER' HELEN VERNET
If you brave the hustle and bustle of the betting rings at Ascot and beyond, you will see a cluster of both male and female bookmakers tempting you to part with your money. Up until after the First World War, this was the exclusive fiefdom of male odds compilers; that is until the socially-connected and upper class Helen Vernet became the first woman to pass the ‘fit and proper’ character test required to obtain a bookmaker’s licence. As far as pioneers for progress and women’s rights go, hers is a comparatively little-known story, but she takes her own place in Royal Ascot folklore. Photo from Royal Ascot 1923.
7 IN A ROW
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. It is inconceivable that any other horse will ever win at seven Royal Meetings.
THE BOWLER HAT MUTINY
The wearing of Bowler Hats by the Ascot Stewards is one of the most endearing and defining sights of Ascot.
In fact, when the racecourse closed for redevelopment in 2004, one of the assurances that the Trustees had to give at the time was that there were no plans to alter the much loved “uniform” when everyone returned in 2006. Ironically, 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 pay rises at the time to stop the staff striking over the issue.
THE RULES OF DIVORCE RELAXED
Today all kinds of people rub shoulders at Ascot - aristocracy, royalty, and ordinary men and women from diverse backgrounds. In the past this was unthinkable. When the new Iron Stand opened in 1859, it was completely barred to women; divorced men could enter but were barred from the Royal Enclosure. 1955 the rules were relaxed and divorcees were able to enter the Royal Enclosure. However, a redevelopment of the Enclosure shortly before this had added the new Queen’s Lawn. Entrance was by invitation only and the Court rules governing divorce still applied.
THE INTRODUCTION OF JUMP RACING
The Duke of Norfolk was once quoted as saying that Jumps racing would take place at Ascot Racecourse “over my dead body”. The Sunday Times reported a “Flat racing swell” who believe that having jump racing at Ascot was “like going to the Ritz and ordering fish and chips”. However, in 1965 the first National Hunt meeting took place. In the 50 years since that historic day we have witnessed some sensational racing. We have asked some of the biggest names in horse racing for their favourite Ascot Jumps memories.
THE RACE OF THE CENTURY
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 others 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. Horse and Hound write that “for a moment, two horses and two men came as near to perfection as any of the great ones around whom the history of the Turf is built”.
A MODERN TRADITION ARISES
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.
41 YEARS OF DOMINATION
‘Controversial’, ‘maddening’, ‘genius’, ‘greatest’: just a few of the words used by employers and journalists to describe the most successful jockey in flat racing, and Royal Ascot, history. In his own Royal Ascot career, Lester Piggott 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 eleven Gold Cups, or close to his full spectrum of attributes as a horseman.
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 the Royal Ascot but in 1996 Dettori made racing history when he won all seven races on the card. That feat has seen immortalised at the Racecourse in the form of a statue that you can see near to the Parade Ring.
CAR PARK 1 BECOMES NUMBER 1
The Car Parks at Royal Ascot are far from merely functional with lavish picnics, including butlers, candelabra and silver service not uncommon. A Country Life survey in 2006 found Royal Ascot to be the South of England’s most popular picnic spot and the most popular sporting occasion at which to picnic in the country. Berths in Car Park 1 are much sought after and it take many years to get a spot after joining the waiting list.
A MAJOR FACELIFT
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 (pictured) 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 20th June 2006. The Royal Meeting was held at York during the intervening period.
4 IN A ROW FOR YEATS
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. No horse had ever before matched this epic achievement. This image shows the magical moment when jockey Johnny Murtagh and Yeats crossed the Ascot winning line and into horseracing history in June 2009. To ensure his feats will never be forgotten, Ascot unveiled a statue of him in the parade ring in 2011 - a fitting honour for arguably the greatest stayer of all time.
UP LATE DOWN UNDER
When Australia’s talismanic mare Black Caviar won the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2012 a huge domestic audience tuned in during the middle of the night. She looked in command yet jockey Luke Nolen inexplicably eased off his mount at the finish and, in seeming slow-motion in the dying strides, the mare kept moving forward - just - to salvage victory from the jaws of defeat.
DEFINING A LEGACY
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 include five appearances at Ascot and a stunning victory in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot 2012.
ESTIMATE MAKES GOLD CUP HISTORY
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 has been won by a reigning monarch.