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Off to the Races! The Royal Ascot

Depiction of the Ascot Gold Cup race, by James Pollard, 1834

June is a busy month in the UK’s royal calendar. In addition to the King’s Birthday Parade (also known as Trooping the Colour), on the second Saturday of June there’s the Royal Ascot – arguably the most famous horse race in the world.

The Royal Ascot races, held every year, span five days in the middle of June, from Tuesday through Saturday. This year’s event took place last week on June 20-24.

Fabulous hat seen in the Royal Enclosure at the 2009 Ascot

It’s the social event for the sporting season, and a must for everyone who can afford tickets, especially the upper classes who go to see and be seen in their formal clothes. Some female guests like to display their hats – which can be huge, show-stopping creations or whimsical “fascinators.”

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, 1964

As to the social importance of this royal racing event, who can forget the scene in My Fair Lady when Professor Higgins takes his pupil, Eliza Doolittle, to the Ascot races to prove that he has transformed her from a Cockney flower girl into a “real lady?”

But the Ascot races have a history that started long before the Edwardian setting of George Bernard’s famous play. It’s a history that includes our favorite time period, the Regency.

Here a selective timeline of that history, (as detailed on the Royal Ascot Hub, linked below), from the inception of the races through the mid 1820s:

1711: Queen Anne, an avid horse racing fan, starts a racing tradition at East Cote in London. Her race, called Her Majesty’s Plate, takes place in August and carries a prize of 100 guineas. The race was open to any horse, mare or gelding that was six years or older and capable of carrying a rider weighing 12 stone (168 pounds).

Queen Anne, painted by Michael Dahl, 1705

1744: A ceremonial guard called the Greencoats is formed. The Guard got its name from a rumor that their green uniforms were sewn with fabric left over from curtains made for Windsor Castle. By the early 19th century the guards’ duties expand to include crowd control. Today, Greencoats still can be seen assisting attendees of the Ascot races.

1752: By the mid-18th century the popularity of the annual races, especially among the ton, is becoming apparent. Peers like the Duke of Bedford complain that when he visits London during the races he can find “no soul to dine or sup with.” Surrounding the races are other diversions, and attendees can watch cockfighting and prize-fights, gamble in gaming tents, listen to balladeers, see freak shows and marvel at lady stilt-walkers.

1783: A new rule states that jockeys must wear the colors of their horse’s owners. Up to this point, jockeys could wear whatever colors they wished, making it confusing for spectators to follow the race.

Late 18th century: Men in the Royal Enclosure must don black silk top hats, or “toppers.” Vintage top hats, made from the original material of silk hatter’s plush, are very rare and valuable now. If you can find one that fits your head (apparently men’s heads were smaller 200 years ago) it can cost a small fortune – tens of thousands of pounds.

Beau Brummel caricature by Richard Dighton, 1805

Early 19th Century: A general dress code for upper class men attending the races develops. Influenced by Beau Brummell, one-time friend of the Prince Regent,  men abandon the bright colors and ornate embroidery of 18th century fashion for plain white waistcoats, and pantaloons, worn with a black cravats. The emphasis is on cleanliness, quality fabrics, and expert tailoring.

1807: This year the Gold Cup, Ascot’s oldest surviving racing event, is introduced. Winners of the Gold Cup today still receive – and get to keep – an engraved gold trophy.

1813: Ascot Heath becomes the new home of the races, thanks to an Act of Enclosure, passed by Parliament. Although the property actually belongs to the Crown, the act guarantees that the land will be used as a racecourse, open to the public.

1822: Prinny, now King George IV, orders the construction of a two-story seating stand at the racecourse. Access to the Royal Enclosure is granted only by the king’s invitation.

1823: The tradition of Ladies Day, also known as Gold Cup Day, starts. It gets its name from an anonymous poet, who describes this day, Thursday of the racing week, as Ladies Day, “when women, like angels, look sweetly divine.”

1825: King George IV inaugurates the first Royal Procession, a tradition which has endured to modern times. Each day of the five-day event begins with the king and queen, along with other members of their royal family, arriving at the racing grounds in horse-drawn landaus. They drive in a procession along the track before going into the Royal Enclosure to watch the races.

There was much excitement at this year’s Royal Ascot when King Charles’s horse, Desert Hero, won Thursday’s marquee race, the King George V Stakes. Desert Hero, ridden by jockey Tom Marquand, was bred by the late Queen Elizabeth II. The odds against the horse winning were long – 18 to 1 – making the victory all the sweeter.

This is King Charles’ first Royal Ascot win as a reigning monarch. It’s yet another first for the newly crowned king.

The finishing post at the Ascot racecourse, photo by John Armagh, 2007.


Sources for this post include:

The Royal Ascot Hub

“King visibly moved as horse bred by Queen Elizabeth wins at Royal Ascot,” by India McTaggart, Royal Correspondent and Tom Cary, Senior Sports Correspondent, The Telegraph, June 22, 2023

“King Charles III claims his 1st Royal Ascot winner; Dettori rides to victory in Gold Cup,” by The Associated Press, June 22, 2023

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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