By Alejandra Ocampo
June isn’t just any old month in England; June is high season, a month that boasts the most exclusive events in the social calendar. June also marks Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday, celebrated by the ceremony of Trooping the Colour, where officers parade from Buckingham Palace along The Mall to Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall and back again. The Queen rides in a carriage back to Buckingham Palace at the head of her Guards, before taking the salute at the Palace from a dais. Her Majesty joins other members of the Royal Family on the palace balcony for a fly-past by the Royal Air Force.
Virginia Woolf, one of the most relevant figures of British Culture, described the social events that took place in June in many of her novels, most memorably, in “Mrs. Dalloway,” written in 1925, but set in 1923. Here Woolf describes a day in the life of aristocrat Clarissa Dalloway, who organises a party during “the high season” at her house in Westminster in June 1923, and alludes to high society events at Hurlingham, Lord’s and Ascot.
And Ascot is still as relevant today as it was then. The annual horse races are one of the most important social events of the country; this year they will run from June 14-18. Ascot Racecourse is located in Berkshire, near Windsor castle, thirty miles from London. The English racing season culminates with Royal Ascot, with the Queen and other members of the royal family in attendance. This year Ascot will be another opportunity to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.
Usually, Royal Ascot weekend coincides with the final week of the 15-goal Royal Windsor Cup (quarterfinals, semifinals, and final), which is held at Guards Polo Club. It is therefore common to see men in top hats and ladies in racing attire driving through the Windsor Great Park in their carriages.
The media coverage surrounding Royal Ascot is almost bigger than the event itself, not only because of the presence of the royal family, but because of the elegance and sophistication of the traditional event, dictated by a strict dress code. The ladies certainly don’t miss the chance to show off their headgear, and hats get bigger and more outrageous every year (one brave woman once wore a headpiece which included a live bird in a cage).
It was Queen Anne in 1711 that first saw the potential for a racecourse at Ascot (in those days called East Cote). Whilst out riding near Windsor Castle she came upon an area of open heath that looked, in her words, “ideal for horses to gallop at full stretch”. The first race meeting ever held at Ascot took place later that year, on Saturday 11th August. The inaugural event was Her Majesty’s Plate, worth 100 guineas and open to any horse, mare or gelding over six years of age. Each horse was required to carry a weight of 12 stone and the seven runners were all English Hunters, rather different to the speedy thoroughbreds that race on the flat today. Queen Anne’s gift to racing, founding the Royal Racecourse, is marked by the tradition of opening Royal Ascot with the Queen Anne Stakes.
The racecourse was laid out by William Lowen, assisted by a team including a carpenter, a painter, and a racing administrator. The first permanent building was erected around 1794 by a local Windsor builder. Holding 1,650 people, it was used for almost fifty years. The races in Ascot enjoyed much popularity during the 18th century, becoming the one of the greatest social event of the country.
The precise origins of the Royal Meeting are unclear, as the event evolved from the first four-day meeting that took place in 1768. The meeting as it is known today only really started to take shape with the introduction of the Gold Cup in 1807. Royal Ascot was the only race meeting held at Ascot until 1939. The Gold Cup remains the feature race of the third day of Royal Ascot, traditionally the busiest day of the week and colloquially known as “Ladies’ Day”. If we compare The Gold Cup to polo, it would be like the Triple Crown – a very hard title to earn. In 2009, Yeats, ridden by Johnny Murtagh and trained by Aidan O’Brien, won his fourth consecutive Gold Cup – a magnificent achievement, and one that is unlikely to be repeated.
Although founded by a Queen and located on Crown property, the administration of Ascot is handled on behalf of the Crown by a representative appointed by the Monarch. The Ascot Authority was established in 1913 by an Act of Parliament, with His Majesty’s Representative becoming Senior Trustee. The Racecourse was closed for a 200-million redevelopment in 2004, and was reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on 20th June 2006.
Royal Ascot has three enclosures:
Royal Enclosure: To this day membership continues to be by invitation only. Non-members are nevertheless welcome to dine in several of our Royal Enclosure Fine Dining restaurants and enjoy access to the enclosure courtesy of a day guest badge. It opened during the 1807 Gold Cup as a space exclusively reserved for the family, guests and Household of King George III.
Queen Anne Enclosure: On the lawns and terraces of the Queen Anne Enclosure, you can enjoy first-rate views of the day’s six races, joining the jubilant crowds as they cheers each winner home. Here you’ll be at the heart of the day’s activity; close to the runners and riders in the Pre-Parade and Parade Ring and front row as the Royal Procession passes by the Grandstand. After the last race is over, the celebrations continue with wonderful communal singing on the Bandstand lawn.
Windsor Enclosure: Enjoy close-up views of the Royal Procession as it journeys past the stylish lawns of the Windsor Enclosure. This is the enclosure the horses past first on their way down the home straight when racing begins. It is here that the roar of the crowd starts in earnest, creating an unforgettable atmosphere. The atmosphere in the Windsor Enclosure is always vibrant with guests enjoying betting facilities, artisan food stalls, Champagne and Pimm’s bars, and picnics on the lawn. From Thursday onwards, live music plays into the early evening.
Ascot Races are without a doubt a highlight of the British summer; one of the most exclusive social events in the world, as people from all over gather to watch the best thoroughbreds run.
HRH QUEEN ELIZABETH AND ASCOT
The 2016 races will celebrate The Queen’s 90th birthday. Last year Ascot came to life as it celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. For that reason, the Golden Jubilee Stakes was renamed the Diamond Jubilee Stakes; it was won by Australian horse, Black Caviar.
Her Majesty has always been a horse lover, and has never missed a date in the legendary racecourse. In 1947, as a young Princess, she used to watch the races with her parents, King George Vi and Queen Elizabeth I, and her sister, Princess Margaret. Today she sits in the Royal Enclosure with her husband, The Duke of Edinburgh, her children, and her grand children.
Many of Her Majesty’s horses have won at Ascot. The Queen’s registered colours are as distinctive as they are eye-catching – the jacket has a purple body with scarlet sleeves and gold braiding, and the jockey’s black velvet cap has a gold fringe. Those same colours have represented horses belonging to King Edward VII and George VI. The Queen leads the prize giving at the Gold Cup and the Diamond Jubilee.
Elizabeth’s big moment came 66 years after her first visit to Ascot, when her horse Estimate won the Gold Cup. Images of the jubilant Queen were published around the world. It was the first time a monarch’s horse had won the prestigious race.
The Queen has had many winners at Ascot since her coronation in 1953, a total of 21:
1953: Choir Boy (Royal Hunt Cup)
1954: Landau (Royal Memorial), Aureole (Hardwick Stakes)
1955: Jardiniere (King George VI Handicap)
1956: Alexander (Royal Hunt Cup)
1957: Almeria (Ribblesdale Stakes), Pall Mall (New Stakes)
1958: Restoration (Kind Edward VII Stakes), Snow Cat (Rous Memorial Stakes)
1959: Above Suspicion (St. James’s Palace Stakes), Pindari (King Edward VII Stakes)
1961: Aiming High (Coronation Stakes)
1968: Hopeful Venture (Hardwick Stakes)
1970: Magna Carta (Ascot Handicap)
1979: Expansive (Ribblesdale Stakes), Butress (Queen’s Vase)
1992: Colour Sargeant (Royal Hunt Cup)
1995: Phantom Gold (Ribblesdale Stakes)
1999: Blueprint (Duke of Edinburgh Handicap)
2008: Free Agent (Chesham Stakes)
2012: Estimate (Queen’s Vase)
2013: Estimate (Gold Cup)