Royal Ascot

Royal Ascot

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: Four days in mid-June
Where Celebrated: Ascot, England
Symbols and Customs: Ascot Racecourse, Gold Cup, Grand Stand, Hats, Royal Enclosure, Royal Procession, Tailgate Picnics


It was Queen Anne, the second daughter of the English King James II and an enthusiastic horsewoman herself, who first spotted a broad, flat field near the village of East Cote (later called Ascot), just a few miles south of Windsor Castle in Berkshire, and thought it would be a good location for a racecourse. The first races were held there on August 11, 1711, with Queen Anne presiding over the festivities.

When George II came to the throne in 1760, the Royal Meeting at Ascot (or Royal Ascot) rose from its humble beginnings to become the second most celebrated race in all of England-after the race at Epsom, which had been held since the early seventeenth century. A grandstand was built in 1822 and, after that, a permanent stand for the king and the royal family that included reception rooms and a suite from which they could view the races. The buildings surrounding the racecourse were added to and enlarged several times during the nineteenth century, and soon there were private boxes, hundreds of open and closed stalls, a paddock for saddling the horses, accommodation for carriages, and a large dining hall with a verandah.

The social festivities and balls surrounding the races at Ascot have always played an important role, and today Royal Ascot is widely regarded as the high point of the English social season. Members of the royal family traditionally attend the races, and the English upper classes can be seen flaunting their finest fashions before the cameras of the international press (see HATS ). The broad neck scarf worn by well-dressed English gentlemen took its name from the event, and Ascot is also the setting for Cecil Beaton's famous "black and white" scene in My Fair Lady. Many of the social events for which Royal Ascot is famous take place in the private luncheon rooms of the GRAND STAND or in the large dining halls on the lawn behind it. Various private clubs also set up tents for refreshments.

Despite its identification with the wealthy, the Royal Meeting at Ascot has also attracted more than its share of thieves, gamblers, and con artists. The erection of gambling booths was eventually prohibited, but this didn't put a stop to the gambling, which frequently led to arguments, brawls, and riots. New rules and regulations adopted in the mid-nineteenth century curtailed such behavior, but it has never been stopped altogether.

The races last for four days, but the principal event is the Ascot GOLD CUP , established in 1807 and run over an almost two-mile course by horses more than three years old.


Ascot Racecourse

The course at Ascot is built on a geological formation known as the Bagshot Sands. The sandy soil is unusually dry for England and makes growing grass difficult. Many attempts to bring about a permanent change in the nature of the ground at Ascot have been made over the years: large quantities of manure have been spread, the hardiest possible grass seed has been sown, and the course has been irrigated. At one point it was decided that allowing sheep to graze over the course would be a good idea, but in fact, they nearly ruined it.

The course is more or less circular and measures sixty-six yards short of two miles. The first half is on a gradual descent and the second half, known as the Old Mile Course, is for the most part uphill. The New Course (also known as the New Mile) measures a little over one mile, and it is both straight and uphill.

Gold Cup

The first time that a cup was raced for at Ascot was in 1772, when the Duke of Cumberland instituted a race for five-year-old horses over a four-mile course. This

Food & Beverages Consumed During Royal Ascot 2006

185,000 bottles of champagne

176,000 pints of beer

15,000 bottles of wine

11,000 lobsters

4.5 British tonnes (almost 10,000 pounds) of beef

100,000 scones was the beginning of the competition for what, in 1807, was first called The Gold Cup, which by that time had become the most highly prized trophy in horse racing. Although it is not the only race run at Ascot, it is certainly the most important. Other popular races include the Gold Vase and the Royal Hunt Cup.

The Cup itself was originally made by Garrard's of London, the same company that made the original AMERICA'S CUP. It is shaped like a wide urn, with two ornately decorated handles on either side.

Grand Stand

The rough wooden buildings that once served as a grandstand at Ascot, with tents for the royal family's reception rooms, were eventually replaced by a range of buildings whose facade extends for almost a quarter of a mile along the course. It is called, appropriately, the Grand Stand, and its most prominent feature is the clock tower, from which the spectator gets a panoramic view of the course and the surrounding neighborhood.

The ground floor is mostly waiting rooms and refreshment lounges, which include the Japanese Tea Room. The balcony of the first floor has private boxes, each of which has room for about six people. There is usually a waiting list for boxes, and many years may elapse before one becomes free. Immediately behind the uncovered stalls of the first floor is a large room known as the Drawing Room, which contains free seats for the public-as does the roof, which is fitted with benches arranged in tiers extending up to the clock tower.


Ladies' Day, which falls on the Thursday of Ascot week, is a long-standing tradition. It features a parade of women displaying their hats, which are often so elaborate that it can be difficult to recognize who is underneath them. Hats have always been in style in England, but tradition demands that women wear them at the Royal Meeting. In fact, women cannot enter the exclusive ROYAL ENCLOSURE without wearing "a hat covering the crown of the head." All during the week of the races, photographs of the more outrageous hats fill the pages of the British tabloid newspapers.

Many of the hats that can be seen at Ascot were made by Herbert Johnson Ltd. of London, which has been creating hats for more than 200 years and has made them for kings, czars, and Princess Diana. A custom-made hat costs from $500 to several thousand dollars.

Royal Enclosure

In 1822, King George IV commissioned architect John Nash to build a two-story Royal Box. Only guests with an invitation from the king could enter the lawn surrounding the box, which is now referred to as the Royal Enclosure. Those who are admitted to the enclosure wear a small badge on their lapel that bears their name and title; many are lords, dukes, marquesses, viscounts, earls, ambassadors, or Members of Parliament. Cameras are strictly forbidden except by the press in prescribed areas-lest an aristocrat be caught in a less-than-flattering pose.

Royal Procession

George IV instituted what is now known as the Royal Procession in 1825, and it has changed very little in the years since. At 2:00 p.m. each day during Ascot week, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip lead the procession in their elegant horse-drawn carriage, followed by other family members, friends, and race officials, who also ride in open carriages while tens of thousands of patrons stand and cheer.

Tailgate Picnics

Several hours before the races begin, cars fill up the vast fields that serve as Ascot's parking lots. People spread blankets, set up tables and chairs, and open bottles of champagne. Picnics are also held in the private tree-filled parking area adjacent to the ROYAL ENCLOSURE , but here the cars are mostly Rolls Royces and Bentleys, with butlers pouring vintage champagne and serving poached salmon or lobster. These tailgate picnics are an elaborate version of what takes place before football games in the United States.


Cawthorne, George J., and Richard S. Herod. Royal Ascot: Its History and Its Associa- tions. London: Longmans, Green, 1900. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.


Ascot Racecourse

Royal Ascot

The racecourse on Ascot Heath in Berkshire, England, is the site of a world-famous horse race also called the Royal Meeting, that was initiated in 1711 by Queen Anne. The Royal Ascot race meeting goes on for four days in June each year and culminates in the event known as the Ascot Gold Cup, a race that is nearly two miles long for horses more than three years old. Although the Gold Cup race was established in 1807, the original cup was stolen 100 years later.
A major social and fashion event as well as a sporting one, the Royal Ascot race is usually attended by the British sovereign and receives widespread media coverage. It has even given its name to a type of broad neck-scarf traditionally worn by well-dressed English gentlemen at the races.
Ascot Racecourse
Berkshire, SL5 7JX United Kingdom
44-87-0727-8765; fax: 44-87-0460-1248

Royal Ascot

annual horserace, occasion for great fashionable turnout. [Br. Cult.: Brewer Dictionary, 49]
See: Fashion

Royal Ascot

England’s fashionable annual event. [Br. Cult.: Brewer Dictionary, 49]
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