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The British Royal Ascot is held for four days in June.  Although this is held in England, it is popular with horse racing fans worldwide.  The origin of this event goes way back to to Queen Anne, the second daughter of King James II, who was a very enthusiastic horsewoman.  One day, she spotted a broad, flat field near the village of East Cote (later renamed to Ascot).  This was a few miles south of Windsor Castle in Bershire.  Queen Anne felt it was a great location for a racecourse.  The very first races were held on August 11, 1711. Queen Anne presided over the event's festivities.

In 1760, when George II came to the throne, the once humble Royal Ascot became the second most popular race in all of England. The first and most popular race had been the one held at Epsom, which started way back in the 17th century. 

In 1822, a grandstand was built. Soon afterwards, a permanent stand (including reception rooms) for the King and Queen, and the royal family was built where they could view the races. During the 19th century, the buildings surrounding the racecourse were either added or the current ones enlarged numerous times. Then came private boxes, hundreds of open and closed stalls, a paddock for saddling the horses and accommodations for carriages. They also had a large dining hall built with a verandah.

Besides the race, there are also many social festivities and balls. Many of the  infamous social events usually are held in private luncheon rooms of the Grand Stand, or in the large dining halls on the lawn behind.  Many private clubs also set up their own tents for refreshments. The Royal Ascot race is considered among many British as the high point of their social season.  The royal family traditionally attend the races. And, the English upper classes can be seen flaunting their best fashions before cameras of local and international press.  (See the Hats section below also)  

The well-known broad necked scarf worn by the well-dressed English gentlemen got it's name from this even. This is how the ascot scarf came about.  In Cecil Beaton's "black and white" scene in My Fair Lady, the Ascot is the setting. 

Because the Royal Ascot is often identified with the rich, the Royal Meeting has unfortunately also attracted a lot of thieves, gamblers and various con artists.  Although gambling booths eventually became prohibited, this didn't stop the gambling at all. Often arguments, physical fights and in some cases riots broke out.  In the mid-nineteenth century, new rules and regulations were adopted curtailing some of this bad behavior during the Ascot.  But, rules or not, it has never been stopped 100%.

 

As I said above, the races go on for four days. But the main event is the Ascot Gold Cup, originating back to 1807.  This is run over to close to a 2 mile course by horses older than 3 yrs.


 

 

 

 


Customs and Symbols

Ascot Racecourse The racecourse is built on a geological formation known as the Bagshot Sands.  This sandy soil is unusually dry for (rainy ol') England and therefore makes growing grass hard.  During the years, many attempts have been made to permanently change the nature of this ground. Large amounts of manure have been spread. The hardiest seed of grass has been planted. The course has been irrigated.  They let sheep graze over the course thinking this would help, but they nearly ruined it.

The course is basically circular (oval?) in shape and is just 66 yards short of being 2 miles long.  The first half of the course is on a graduated descent. The second half, also known as The Old Mile, is basically all uphill.  The New Course (aka The New Mile) measures a little over a mile and it is both uphill and straight.

 

 

 

Gold Cup

Although the first races were held in 1711, there was no cup. The first race that gave a cup as a prize was held in 1772. This was started by the Duke of Cumberland, who instituted a race for 5 yr. old horses over a 4-mile course.  This was the origin of the race that in 1807 became known as "The Gold Cup."  By this time, it was considered the most highly prized trophy in horse racing.  Although this isn't the only race run at Ascot, it is still felt to be the most important and elite. Other races are the Gold Vase and the Royal Hunt Cup.

Who made this cup?  It was originally made by Garrard's of London, the same company that also made the America's Cup. The cup is shaped like a wide urn, with two very ornately decorated handles on either side.

 

Grand Stand The original wooden buildings that once were the Grand Stand at Ascot were replaced by a mass of buildings whose facade extends for almost 1/4 mile along the course.  It is still called The Grand Stand, with it's most prominent feature being the clock tower, where a spectator can get a panoramic view of the race course and its surroundings.

The ground floor of The Grand Stand is predominately waiting rooms and refreshment lounges, including a Japanese Tea Room. The first floor balcony has private boxes, holding a max of 6 people. There is usually a waiting list for these boxes that is quite long. It might be several years before one becomes free.  Behind the uncovered stalls of the first floor is a large room known as the Drawing Room.  This room contains free seats for the public. The roof also contains free benches arranged in tiers that go all the way up to the clock tower.

 

 

The Hats

 

 

 

 

On the Thursday of Ascot Week, is "Ladies Day." This is a long-standing tradition in which there is a parade of women displaying their hats. These aren't just normal hats mind you. They are so fancy, full of frou frou and elaborate that it's often difficult to see who is wearing it.  England has always had hats as a style statement.  But, tradition demands that women wear them at the Royal Meeting. In fact, a woman can not enter the exclusive Royal Enclosure (see below) without wearing a hat that must cover the "crown of her head."  In other words, no little hat band will do. All during race week, photographs of the more outrageous hats dominate the pages of the British tabloids and newspapers.

Who is the renowned Ascot hat maker?  Many of the hats seen at the Ascot are made by Herbert Johnson, Ltd. of London. This company has been making hats for more than 200 years for famous kings, czars and Princess Diana.  What's the cost?  A custom-made hat can start at $500 and go up into thousands of dollars!

 

 

Royal Enclosure

King George IV in 1822 commissioned John Nash (architect) to build a 2-story Royal Box at Ascot.  The only people allowed to enter the surrounding lawn of this box would be guests who had an invitation from the king.  This exclusive surrounding area soon became known as The Royal Enclosure.  Those who are admitted to this enclosure wear a small badge on their lapel. This badge displays their name and title (Lords, Dukes, Marquesses, Viscounts, Earls, Ambassadors or Members of Parliament).  Cameras are NOT ALLOWED in this area, except certain designated press areas. This is to prevent any aristocrat being caught by paparazzi in an unflattering pose!

 

 

 

Royal Procession

The Royal Procession was started by George IV in 1825, and it has changed very little since. The procession begins at 2:00 pm each day during Ascot week.  Queen Elisabeth and Prince Philip lead the procession in their exquisite horse-drawn carriage, followed by other family members, then friends, then race officials. All ride in open carriages, while thousands stand and cheer.

Tailgate Parties

Just like at sporting events (mostly football games) in America, the Ascot also has fans that several hours before the event fill up the parking lots.  These people spread blankets, set up tables and chairs. Instead of beer, most of them open champagne.  In the private tree-filled parking areas adjacent to the Royal Enclosure, picnics are held.  Unlike in America where most of theses are trucks, vans or economy cars, the automobiles at this picnic are mostly Rolls Royces and Bentleys.  And, they are also accompanied by butlers who pour vintage champagne; and, serve lobster or poached salmon.  These are probably the most elaborate tailgate parties ever!

 

 

 

Return to our June Holidays Page for more celebrations.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Horse animations were not made by me. They were acquired from a site that collected them (not made them)
and said they were "free domain."  Therefore no specific credit is given.

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