There is nothing quite like a day at the races. The thundering sound of horses at full pelt, the hubbub created around the stands of the bookies as cash changes hands, and the synchronised cheers and groans at the finishing post. These are familiar noises at all race meetings, but to visit Royal Ascot is a unique experience.
Glorious Goodwood and the Epsom Derby provide us with some of the greatest horse-racing spectacles in the country, but Royal Ascot promises something the others cannot, by its regal association. Ascot racecourse was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne. The first race, Her Majesty’s Plate, was held on 11 August, when seven horses competed for a purse of 100 guineas. Royal Ascot is now the most valuable race meeting in Europe, with nearly £4m in prize money on offer in 2011.
It is its rich heritage and history that make it so special. Over the past 300 years, Royal Ascot has established itself as a national institution. Rooted in the summer’s calendar, each June the prestigious event is attended by the Queen and other members of the Royal Family. The Queen’s arrival at the racecourse in a horse-drawn carriage marks the start of each day’s racing and sets a precedent for the grandeur that is to follow.
By royal appointment
Royal Ascot week attracts around 300,000 race goers annually, comfortably making it one of Europe’s best-attended race meetings. I was one of them last year, with the family in tow. Sadly, I don’t share the gestation period of a Virginia opossum (11-13 days), so, at eight months pregnant, I wasn’t able to soak up the champagne (58,727 bottles were consumed last year), but I could certainly soak up the ambience.
Royal Ascot is full of fantastic stories. Earlier in the week the Queen had unveiled a life-sized bronze statue of the legendary Yeats, by sculptor Charlie Langton. Yeats is the only horse to win four Ascot Gold Cups, a Group One flat horse race, open to thoroughbreds aged four years or older. Manchester United footballer and horse breeder and owner, Michael Owen, had tears of joy rolling down his cheeks on Ladies’ Day. He was celebrating the win of his colt, Brown Panther, in the King George V Stakes.
Stepping out in style
The media coverage of the attendees and what they are wearing is worldwide and often exceeds the reporting of the actual racing. At the turnstiles on day four, hundreds of colourful outfits rushed by. I called Baker Boy (Matt Baker) to check where he was and then I spotted ‘Shirl’ – Dame Shirley Bassey. I was not alone. You couldn’t really miss her. Imogen Fox from The Guardian described her hat as “genuinely bonkers”. It was a red number with side-swirl cones, a crazed crimson Princess Leia look.
Being the size of a small bungalow, I opted for something a little safer, a muted silk dress with an understated hat. Food, not form, was more my priority. Therefore, I spent the first few hours enjoying the vibrant atmosphere, catching up with friends, enviously watching racegoers guzzle flutes of pink champagne, and stuffing my face instead.
I decided to tear myself away from the food to concentrate on placing a bet on the Coronation Stakes. My expertise and judgement was used to put £10 each way on Barefoot Lady – the horse was Irish (I was born in Dublin, my son is Irish and I liked the name). The majority of my party took their chances on Immortal Verse – another Irish horse ridden by a French jockey, Gerald Mosse, and trained by Robert Collet.
The gates of the stalls opened and the horses were off. Barefoot Lady was looking strong throughout the race and I honestly thought I had won. Immortal Verse was at the back of the field but then there was a sudden turn of events. Mosse flipped the turbo switch and his horse swept up the outside to take an incredible win. I jammed another cake in my mouth and turned my attention to wondering what head-turning attire Shirley Bassey would wear this year.