Horses have raced at Ascot for over three centuries, during which time many of racing’s most iconic moments have played out on the evocative Berkshire turf to the delight of royalty and racegoers alike – and in recent times, an audience across the globe.
The racecourse’s history may be traced back to 1711, when Queen Anne realised the potential of a stretch of flat heathland near where the royal hounds were kenneled on Ascot Common. It was while exploring in her chaise that she lit upon the land she saw as being “ideal for horses to gallop at full stretch”. The Queen, long an advocate of horse racing, was anxious to establish a new course conveniently close to Windsor Castle, one which she must have hoped would soon rival Newmarket in terms of popularity and prestige.
No time was lost in realising the monarch’s dream. An announcement appeared in the London Gazette on July 12th, stating that the Queen would present a challenge plate worth 100 guineas - almost £20,000 in today’s money - at ‘East Cote’ the following month.
Sir William Wyndham, Master of the Royal Buckhounds, was instructed by Charles, Duke of Somerset to clear the heath of gorse and scrub so that William Lowen, commissioned by the crown, could lay out a round course. Lowen was assisted by a small team of labourers including a carpenter and a painter, while John Grape was responsible for planning the logistics for racing.
Ascot’s inaugural fixture took place on Saturday August 11th 1711. It attracted considerable interest; on the eve of racing, the author Jonathan Swift wrote that “much company is come to town this evening to see tomorrow’s race”. Her Majesty’s Plate was open to any horse over the age of six. Each of the seven runners was allotted 12st and the contest comprised three individual heats, each a gruelling four miles. Unfortunately, there is no record of the winner, although there is no doubt that the horse in question would have borne little similarity to the modern thoroughbred and would instead have been an altogether heavier hunter type, undoubtedly more suited to stamina than speed.
In light of the meeting’s success, another followed just a month later and the popularity of racing at Ascot soon soared, becoming one of the court’s principal social events throughout the eighteenth century.
More than 300 years later, the patronage of twelve monarchs has helped ensure that the royal racecourse remains a universally admired pillar of British heritage. Ascot is synonymous with the very finest racing and from Nijinsky to Enable, Desert Orchid to Altior, some of the most legendary names of both the Flat and Jumps codes have enjoyed success here. The jewel in its crown is of course the Royal Meeting; every June, the eyes of the world descend on Ascot as the most elite horses in training compete for millions of pounds in prize money at what is not only the pinnacle of international Flat racing but also an incomparable whirlwind of spectacular pageantry, style and Fine Dining.
Ascot’s founder herself is commemorated by Royal Ascot’s traditional curtain-raiser, the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes. Of its illustrious list of winners, none was more supreme than the incomparable Frankel, who won by an astonishing 11 lengths in 2012. Queen Anne would surely have approved.