There are few sporting venues that can match the rich heritage and history of Ascot Racecourse. Over the past 300 years Royal Ascot has established itself as a national institution and the centrepiece of the British social calendar as well as being the ultimate stage for the best racehorses in the world.
It was Queen Anne who first saw the potential for a racecourse at Ascot, which in those days was called East Cote. Whilst out riding in 1711, she came upon an area of open heath, not far from Windsor Castle, that looked an ideal place for “horses to gallop at full stretch”.
The first race meeting ever held at Ascot took place on Saturday 11 August 1711. Her Majesty’s Plate, worth 100 guineas and open to any horse, mare or gelding over the age of six, was the inaugural event. Each horse was required to carry a weight of 12st and seven runners took part.This contest bore little resemblance to racing seen at Ascot today. The seven horses were all English Hunters, quite different to the speedy thoroughbreds that race on the flat now. The race consisted of three separate heats which were four miles long (each heat was about the length of the Grand National course), so the winner would have been a horse with tremendous stamina. Sadly, there is no record of the winner of the first Plate.
Today the tradition does not change – the Queen Anne Stakes continues to be run in memory of the monarch who founded the course nearly three centuries ago.
The racecourse was laid out by William Lowen, who was assisted by a team of helpers, William Erlybrown, a carpenter, Benjamin Cluchett, a painter, and John Grape, who prepared the paper work for racing. The first permanent building was erected in about 1794 by George Slingsby, a Windsor builder. It held 1,650 people and was used until 1838.
In 1813, Parliament passed an Act of Enclosure. This Act ensured that Ascot Heath, although the property of the Crown, would be kept and used as a racecourse for the public in the future. Racing at Ascot was now secure.
The precise origin of the Royal Meeting is unclear, it was an event that evolved perhaps, rather than was introduced at a specific time but the first four day meeting took place in 1768. Arguably, the meeting as we know it today 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.
Gold Cup day remains the feature race of the third day of Royal Ascot and is traditionally the busiest day of the week. It is colloquially known as “Ladies’ Day” as, in the formative years, it was the dominant day in terms of the racing, attracting the largest crowds and, it must be assumed from the emergence of the term “Ladies’ Day,” more ladies!
Although founded by a Queen and located on Crown property, the administration of Ascot has always been handled on behalf of the Crown by a representative appointed by the Monarch. The racecourse was run on behalf of the Sovereign by the Master of the Royal Buckhounds up until 1901 when Lord Churchill was appointed as His Majesty’s Representative. He was responsible for running the course and determining entrance to the Royal Enclosure.
In 1913, the Ascot Authority was established by an Act of Parliament. His Majesty’s Representative became Chairman of the Authority with the Clerk of the Course acting as Secretary. Today, as Ascot Authority (Holdings) Limited, Ascot retains both these positions, but with the additional appointment of trustees and non-executive directors, a Chief Executive and departmental directors, of which the Clerk of the Course, who is also Racing Director, is one.
Until 2001 Ascot Racecourse was a private company – no accounts published. In January 2002, as part of our preparation for the redevelopment of the Racecourse, Ascot incorporated. Ascot Racecourse Ltd. is now established as the organisation responsible for running the Racecourse.Her Majesty The Queen, as an owner and breeder of racehorses takes a keen interest in the races. Over the years The Queen has had great success with her own horses. The Jockeys riding Her Majesty's horses can be distinguished because they wear The Queen's racing colours. These are the same as those of King Edward VII and George IV as Prince Regent - purple body with gold braid, scarlet sleeves and black velvet cap with gold fringe.
The Queen traditionally presents the Gold Cup, which, along with the Royal Hunt Cup and The Queen's Vase. These three trophies are made every year and presented to winners to keep. Challenge Trophies, many of which are antique, are presented to the winners of the remaining 27 races, and are returned after the year to be presented to the next winners.