Updated: Mar 31, 2023 6:07 pm
The Royal Ascot is one of the most famous racecourses in the UK, if not the whole world. It has a long and storied history and has seen countless decades come and go. Most people are probably familiar with the Ascot racecourse, but few are aware of all the details which make up its incredible past. Today, we’re going to look at the history of the course, the races, and what has gone on there over its 300-year history.
Let’s get started.
When Queen Anne was out riding from Windsor Castle in 1711, she found a section of heath which, to her, looked absolutely perfect for horses to gallop across at full speed. Thus, a racecourse was announced in July of that year, and the first meetings were held in August. Eventually, by 1793, a permanent building was constructed, capable of holding 1,650 people.
The first race meeting was announced in the London Gazette of 12 July 1711, where the queen called for ‘any horse, mare, or gelding’ that was no more than six years old could come to enter three heats in the last days of July. Though the first actual races were delayed for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the first races took place on 11 August. The Queen drove to see the debut from Windsor Castle, and the first race was a seven horse £50 plate, won by a horse named Doctor.
Annual races took place ever after, and to this day the Royal Ascot is opened with the Queen Anne Stakes over the straight mile. Horse racing as a whole was really beginning to take hold during this time and becoming more and more popular as thoroughbred horses began to be bred and certified by official breeders. No doubt, the Royal Ascot played a huge role in the initial development of horse racing here in Britain. The Royal Ascot itself
A lot would change over the next centuries, nonetheless.
The 19th and 20th centuries
In 1813, and Act of Parliament cemented the Ascot Heath’s position as a racecourse, ensuring that it would continue to be used for the public good in this way for many years to come. The grandstand that was erected in 1793 was eventually replaced in 1839, for a whopping £10,000.
The administration of the racecourse always fell to the Crown, usually handled by a representative appointed by the reigning monarch. For most of the course’s initial history until 1901, this representative was the Master of the Royal Buckhounds. In 1901, Lord Churchill undertook the role, acting as His Majesty’s Representative and being responsible for the management and smooth running of the racecourse. An Act of Parliament in 1913 made the royal appointee the Senior Trustee at Ascot.
In the Second World War, between 1940 and ’43, the course was commandeered by the British army, and racing eventually resumed in May of 1943. In 1945, the 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth would attend the races for the first time. The very first meeting of the National Hunt was held at Ascot in 1965.
Where does that leave the Royal Ascot today, then? In 2004, the course was closed for an enormous redevelopment that would cost around £220 million. This remains to this day the single largest investment in horse racing history, and an additional £10 million would be spent on more alterations in 2006.
The Royal Ascot remains a bastion of old English tradition, with some of the strictest dress code of any racecourse, depending on where you are inside. The Royal Enclosure requires men to wear morning dress and a top hat, and women must wear formal daywear as a well as a hat, at least four inches in diameter. This goes to show how racecourses hold onto these kinds of traditions even as they are lost elsewhere.
Over the course of the Five Days of the Royal Meeting, the most prestigious race events of the year, Thursday is the day filled with the most excitement. The Gold Cup, ran over around two and a half miles, is one of the greatest tests even for the best horses. Up until 2020, it was won consecutively over three years by Frankie Dettori, riding the horse Stradivarius, but more recently the racing bookmakers have favoured other jockey/horse combos for the win.
No doubt the Royal Ascot today still showcases some of the greatest talent in global horse racing, jockeying and indeed horse breeding.
The course has changed a lot over the last 300 years, then. The Ascot was an instant icon when it opened in the beginning of the 1700s, and now stands as a quintessential British and English symbol. The world of English horse racing would be much quieter without the Ascot, and no doubt far poorer. It’s hard to overstate the role that this iconic course has played in British racing history.
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