• Peter McNeile

Royal Ascot - a king among race meetings

Updated: Jun 9



The news that Ascot is to be allowed a crowd of up to 12,000 for each day of the Royal Meeting is another significant step on the road to recovery for British racing, which is unusually dependant among developed economies in its reliance upon spectator revenues. This year's Ascot will have at least a flavour of what people the world over love and admire about this unique fixture.


Put simply, there is simply no event quite like it.


Where it all started


British racing has traded upon its pomp and pageantry for decades, and the support of the current monarch, HM Queen Elizabeth II has been a major asset to the sport. But it was one of her ancestors who set the ball rolling. Queen Anne, on a hack way from Windsor Castle, recognized the value of the open heathland at East Cote in 1711, and enabled a race on August 11 of the same year, Her Majesty's Plate, worth 100 guineas, to be run over 4 miles, each horse to carry 12st.


Although this was quite common among races springing up all over England, it has more in common with a British or Irish Point-to-Point than the sartorial elegance of the current day Ascot of today. The hunters that took part were required to run in three heats over the 4 miles, so any winner would have been the fastest over 12 miles in total.


A key staging post in the perpetuation of Ascot as a racecourse came about with the passing of the Enclosures Act in 1813, ensuring that whilst the heath remained part of the Crown estate, it would be protected as a racecourse. The building of permanent stands had begun 20 years earlier in 1793 under George III, during a period of great wealth for Britain, but when much of Europe was convulsed in civil war or international conflict.


What has become known as the Royal Meeting developed from 1768 with a four day meeting, but the profile of the event accelerated significantly with the introduction of the Gold Cup, the meeting's centrepiece, in 1807. Unlike many other racing trophies which are re-offered year on year, each Gold Cup is a unique item for the winning owner to keep. Small wonder it is such a race to covet.


Ascot from the Georges to Edward VII - 150 years of Empire


The nineteenth century dandy Beau Brummel is largely attributed with dictating the dress standards that characterize Ascot even now. Brummel, born of middle class parentage to a father who was private secretary to Lord North, Prime Minister from 1770-82, picked up his sartorial standards through Oxford then a commission in the 10th Royal Hussars. At a time when officers had to pay for all their own mess bills, uniform and horses in the cavalry, Brummel's considerable inheritance proved insufficient, and was not wisely spent.


Befriending the Prince Regent, soon to become George IV, he became a leading arbiter of London fashion at a time when polite society was increasingly drawn to events like Ascot to see and be seen. The modern day morning suit that is de rigeur at Ascot is a direct result of Brummel's pressure on the Prince to set dress standards for both genders.


The wonderful spectacle of the royal procession dates back to 1825, three years after George IV had commissioned a royal stand, to which guests could only be invited. The process of applying for the Royal Enclosure which exists to this day dates back to this moment, where guests would be invited to London's largest private party.


After George IV's death, Queen Victoria added to Ascot's race portfolio through the Queen's Vase, although she wasn't a keen racing fan, but the Prince of Wales, subsequently Edward VII, was a keen follower of the turf, and his horse Persimmon won the Derby in 1896, as well as Diamond Jubilee in 1900, and as king, Minoru in 1909. However, the Royal Meeting was without an attending monarch from 1861 when Prince Albert died, and although this brought about the introduction of the race now known as the Prince of Wales' Stakes, Victoria never again attended Ascot before her death in 1901.



The Victorian era saw Ascot popularized as a key date in the social calendar
The Victorian era saw Ascot popularized as a key date in the social calendar


Despite this, the final quarter was a golden era for racing at Ascot and across Britain, during the zenith of the British Empire, when riders of the calibre of Fred Archer made Ascot their own. And as riders like Lester Piggott and Frankie Dettori will affirm, Ascot is a venue that can rapidly lead to an uplift in performance - a stage like no other.


Edward VII invested in new stands for a new twentieth century, and there is little doubt that his penchant for international diplomacy also accelerated the enthusiasm for racing among other major nations of Europe, where racecourses were popping up all over the place.


Twentieth Century Ascot


The twentieth century marked the longest periods that Ascot has not raced in its entire history. The 1914 Royal Meeting took place just days before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, an act which precipitated the four years of the Great War. Ascot returned in 2019, but was interrupted again between 1940-45 during the Second World War when the grandstands were used to house the Royal Artillery.



A favourite tradition is the royal procession
A favourite tradition is the royal procession


A stuttering restart to the Royal Meeting began from 1946 with watered down fixture in which even the morning dress code was relinquished. HM Queen Elizabeth first attended Royal Ascot in 1946, and hasn't missed the fixture since her accession in 1952. She enjoyed her first Royal Meeting winner with Choir Boy in 1956, and to date has enjoyed a further 22 successes, including a memorable win by Estimate in the 2013 Gold Cup.






New grandstands were built, first in 1961, then again in 2006, during which time, Royal Ascot transferred to York.


In 2002, the Royal Meeting was extended to 5 days.


Ascot the innovator


Ascot has always been at the front of innovation in European horseracing, and is unsurprisingly the market leader among British, Irish and continental racecourses.


  • in 1762, Ascot was among the first to introduce owners' colours to better identify the horses. In 1838, numbers were introduced as a further means of identifying horses before and during a race

  • in 1947, Ascot allowed BBC Television to broadcast the Royal Meeting. Since then, its broadcaster has changed a further twice, and the current worldwide audience for the 30 races of the meeting extends across 120 countries, from mainland Europe to 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, South East Asia and both Americas.

  • Ascot is the only British racecourse to ring a bell as the runners enter the final straight

  • In 1965, Ascot capitalized on the closure of Hurst Park by purchasing the turf to lay down as a new Jumps course. It now ranks in the top 3 UK courses of that genre of the sport

  • Around 10 years ago, Ascot embarked upon its own betting solution rather than accept an industry-wide Tote solution. The resultant partnership with Betfred has enabled Ascot once more to generate additional revenue than previously by recognizing its worth to the international pools attracted by brand Ascot

  • in 2021, Royal Ascot's 30 races will offer £6m in aggregate prize money, the richest set of races anywhere in Europe. In recent years, where the top flight of the sport has grown increasingly international in nature, Ascot has been at the forefront of attracting competition from the US, Australia and the Middle East to run at the Royal Meeting. Uniquely among the major race meetings of the world, the Royal Meeting continues to flourish without commercial apparent sponsorship, although some discreet partnerships have developed in the past 20 years.


Ascot's greatest racehorses


Brown Jack

Originally bought to go hurdling by Aubrey Hastings, Brown Jack won only the second running of Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle in 1928, before Hastings' death precipitated a change to Ivor Anthony, training from Wroughton in Wiltshire. Anthony soon recognized that Brown Jack's stamina could make him a power to be reckoned with on the Flat, and his Champion Hurdle victory was followed 3 months later with a win in the Ascot Stakes, and a further 6 consecutive runnings of the Queen Alexandra Stakes, the British calendar's longest race at 2m 6f from 1929-34.


Brown Jack - one of Ascot's most popular winners
Brown Jack - one of Ascot's most popular winners


In an illustrious career that defined Anthony and the Barbury downs on which he trained, his 18 victories included the Goodwood Cup and Doncaster Cup in 1930, the Chester Cup in 1931, and the Ebor Handicap the same year.


Sagaro

Sagaro, trained in France by Francois Boutin, a chestnut son of Espresso, won in every season he raced from 1974-77. His first major success came in the Grand Prix de Paris in 1974, which he won by two lengths from Bustino.


In 1975 he won his first Ascot Gold Cup beating Le Bavard by four lengths. The following season, he won the Prix de Barbeville and the Prix du Cadran before returning to Ascot to display a notable turn of foot to win his second Ascot Gold Cup by a length from Crash Course. In 1977 he won a third consecutive Gold Cup, which at that time was a record, only surpassed by Yeats in 2009. Lester Piggott rode Sagaro in all his major races.


Yeats

This son of Sadler's Wells earned his place in racing history on winning his fourth consecutive Ascot Gold Cup in 2009. He is also a winner of the Coronation Cup at Epsom, the Goodwood Cup (2006) and the Prix Royal-Oak at Longchamp (2008). HM The Queen unveiled a life-size statue of him at Ascot in 2011 to commemorate his extraordinary achievement.



Yeats under Michael Kinane wins the 2007 Gold Cup
Yeats under Michael Kinane wins the 2007 Gold Cup

Frankel

Another from the dominant line of Sadler's Wells, this son of Galileo retired unbeatedn after 14 races at the highest level that included a 2000 Guineas, Royal Ascot victories in the St James's Palace, Goodwood's Sussex Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II on British Champions day in his 3 year old season. The following year, he added a Lockinge at Newbury, Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, Juddmonte International at York and Champion Stakes back at Ascot in September.


Ten years on, he remains the highest rated horse in the World Thoroughbred Racehorse rankings at 140, 2lbs ahead of Dancing Brave and 4lbs in front of Shergar.


Royal Ascot's top riders and trainers


One modern day jockey stands tall above the remainder in the tally of Royal Ascot winners - Lester Piggott. With 116 wins to his name during an era when the meeting ran to a maximum of 28 races, he was simply peerless. Over a period of 41 years, his tally included 11 Gold Cup wins on 8 different horses, 7 of each of the King's Stand, Hardwicke, Chesham, and a remarkable 9 runnings of the Cork & Orrery.



Piggott and Cecil made an unstoppable combination in the '70s and '80s
Piggott and Cecil made an unstoppable combination in the '70s and '80s


The late Pat Eddery is in second place with 71 winners, in a glittering career that included 4,632 victories in Britain, and another 1,500 or so abroad. No-one who was there will forget his unique partnership with Grundy in the epic King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Daimons Stakes at Ascot's Julky fixture in 1975.





Current punters' darling Frankie Dettori fills third place with 67 winners. He has been leading rider at the Royal Meeting six times.


Ryan Moore recently pushed Willie Carson further down the list of winning riders, with his 58th winner. Doubtless, given the strength of the Coolmore bloodlines, he will rise further up the rankings whilst he continues to ride.


A mention too for Fred Archer, a rider from an altogether different era. The Victorian era never saw his like between 1867-86, when he tragically took his own life. A prolific winner of 2,748 races, he was champion jockey 13 times, winning 21 Classics and a known 4 Royal Meeting winners in an era when not only was the meeting made up of less races, but records were poor.


Among trainers, Sir Michael Stoute leads the field with 81 winners, 6 ahead of the late Henry Cecil.





The Coolmore connection ensures that Aiden O'Brien will sit high in the leaderboard of winners overall, having been leading trainer at the Meeting 10 times. His tally rests at 70 presently, but he has a good 20 years left in him. He holds the joint top record for the highest number of winners in any one year, at seven.


It can only be by dint of the fact that he trained in Ireland that his namesake, the legendary Vincent O'Brien, is not as high in the list as one might assume, with a "mere" 25 winners, ahead of the likes of luminaries like Dick Hern and Guy Harwood.


It can safely be assumed that if John Gosden's stature in the British Flat scene continues as presently, his score of 49 Royal winners will match strides with Stoute, given the number of races over the five days.


One thing is for sure; as Ascot returns to normality in a post-Covid world, the collision of elite horseracing, high society and high fashion will continue to appeal in a way that no other race meeting can match.


Let's all drink to that.