Tuesday 18th - Saturday 22nd June 2013
The Aussies have dubbed theirs “the race that stops the nation”, and they’re right. The Melbourne Cup has been known to suspend even the federal parliament, and it’s a phenomenon all of its own.
Today heralds the start of a racing festival that stops the world, not for a day, but for a week. Our sport is fortunate in having a long and colourful history, much longer than cricket and rugby, and it is decorated by epic events in every country in which it’s celebrated. Yet nothing eclipses Royal Ascot, which dates to the summer of 1711, when Queen Anne first set land aside in the vicinity of the Windsor Forest, and called for a week of sports. While out riding, she came upon a vast space of open heath, not far from Windsor Castle, the ideal place for “horses to gallop at full stretch”. That June, Charles, Duke of Somerset instructed Sir William Wyndham, Master of the Royal Buckhounds, to have the heath cleared of scrub and gorse bush, in preparation for the first race meeting. Thus it was on the 11th August 1711, that the first meeting took place, with Her Majesty’s Plate, worth 100 guineas to the winner (open to any horse, mare or gelding over the age of 6) the central event. Each horse carried 12 stone and seven runners lined up.
The centrepiece of a growing festival was the Gold Cup (for three-year-olds and upwards), over 2½ miles. Introduced in 1807, it was won its in first year by a three-year-old, and while this was some achievement even by today’s standards, given that in those days horses were not bred to be precocious, it was all the more remarkable. In 1813, Ascot’s future was secured by the Act of Enclosure, ensuring Ascot Heath, while the property of the Crown, would be set aside for public use as a racecourse. Simultaneously, the future employment prospects of the Master of the Buck Hounds was entrenched, as his office was handed the permanent responsibility of managing and conducting the races. If all else fails, remember, there’s a future in dogs.
Things were moving quickly, and by 1822, King George IV commissioned a two-tier stand to be built on a surrounding lawn. Access was by invitation of the King only, and this was the beginning of the pomp for which Royal Ascot is now famous. The King’s greatest legacy was the Royal procession, introduced in 1825. The King’s coach led four others carrying members of the Royal party up the Straight Mile in front of the crowds. A diarist of the day commented “the whole thing looked very splendid”. In 1862, as an act of affection, Queen Victoria named the Prince Of Wales Stakes (still contested at Group One level over 2000 metres to this day) after her much-loved consort, Prince Albert.
Today kicks off with a helluva programme, with three Group Ones including the Queen Anne Stakes over a mile (featuring among many other quality horses, the Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup hero, Animal Kingdom in Barry Irwin’s Team Valor silks), the St James Palace Stakes (also known as the “Summer Guineas”, which generally attracts the English, the Irish and French Guineas winners,) and the King’s Stand Stakes, a 5 furlong dash including some of the best sprinters in the the world, and especially South Africa’s champion, Shea Shea. (Tune into Channel 239 - 14:30 our time onwards).