ROYAL ASCOT 2021 - PART I
"Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there ......"
If Robert Browning had been a fan of sports, he would surely have substituted April with June. For, it is in June that we have the Derby, followed by the Royal Meeting at Ascot, then the Test Match at Lord's -- this year the final of the World Test Championship -- and finally Wimbledon. Anyone following racing, cricket and tennis could not be asking for more ! (Browning, it has to be said, was a nineteenth century poet; Test cricket and Wimbledon reached the zenith of its popularity only in the twentieth century.)
It is the Meeting at Ascot held in June and featuring The Gold Cup that is Royal Ascot. It was Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, who discovered Ascot as a suitable venue for racing. She was fond of hunting and the legend has it that it was while riding from the Windsor Castle, through the Windsor Forest, to see her hounds that she first came upon Ascot. She organised the first racing at Ascot in 1711 and donated the Her Majesty's Plate worth 100 guineas for a race contested by six year-olds and over. Queen Anne passed away two years later. Racing at Ascot continued and a four day meeting took place 1768 during the reign of George III. The Gold Cup, instituted in 1807, added a new dimension to the Meeting and other big races followed. Till the start of the World War II, Ascot raced only for four days in the whole year.
Today, Ascot has 26 days of racing, both flat and jumps and the Royal Meeting has been extended to five days during which eight Gr.1 contests are held. The Royal family drives down from Windsor Castle and up the straight course each day before the racing starts. The Queen presents the trophies for The Gold Cup and the Diamond Jubilee Stakes. The Queen Anne Stakes, Gr.1 is the first race of the Royal Meeting in honour of the founder of the course. The Gold Cup day is known as the Ladies Day, though it is not much different from any other day of the Meeting. Major renovation of the stands meant that the 2005 Royal Meeting had to be held at York. This year, only the Royal Enclosure and the Queen Anne Enclosure will be open and 4,000 spectators are permitted keeping in mind the pandemic restrictions.
Ascot is about 25 km. west of London and just six kms. south of Windsor. The main track is right handed and triangular, just under two miles and it joins the straight mile less than three furlongs from the winning post. There is also a mile chute, a bit like Mahalakshmi. Some of the mile races are run on the straight course and some on the round course. It is basically a flat track but there are ups and downs though the gradients are mild; especially in comparison to Epsom. All races upto seven furlongs are run on the straight course. If Newmarket has its landmark 'Bushes' and Epsom its Tattenham Corner, Ascot can boast of the Swinley Bottom, a slight hollow in the backstretch just before it joins the mile chute. Races on the straight course, especially when the fields are big, tend to get split, providing two -- sometimes even three -- races in one. In such cases, the winner normally comes from the 'race' that has the pace and the result is always not related to the going.
Eight Group 1 races are run over the five days of the Royal Meeting :-
Queen Anne Stakes, Gr.1. (4YO+) ( 1 mile, straight)
King's Stand Stakes, Gr.1. (3YO+) (5 furlongs)
St. James's Palace Stakes, Gr.1. (3YO) (1 mile, round)
Prince of Wales's Stakes, Gr.1. (4YO+) ( 1 mile 2 furlongs)
THURSDAY (Ladies Day)
The Gold Cup, Gr.1. (4YO+) (2 miles 4 furlongs)
Commonwealth Cup, Gr.1 (3YO) (6 furlongs)
Coronation Stakes, Gr.1. (3YO, fillies) (1 mile, round)
Diamond Jubilee Stakes, Gr.1 (4YO+) (6 furlongs)
That is a mouth watering bill of fare for any racing gourmet. All the eight races will be previewed in articles to follow.
Royal Ascot, though, is not just about racing. The pageantry of the Royal Procession, the decorum, the high fashion and the traditions are all a part of it. Dress code varies from Enclosure to Enclosure and is strictly enforced. For the Royal Enclosure, gentlemen have to wear a morning coat in black, grey or navy blue with a black or a grey top hat. They also have to wear a tie; cravats and bows are not permitted. For the Queen Anne Enclosure, the gentlemen have to be clad in a suit and a tie. For the Windsor Enclosure and the Village Enclosure the code is more relaxed but a tie is de rigueur. Dress etiquette for ladies is also laid down and a hat is mandatory. Royal Ascot probably draws the best dressed racing crowd anywhere. Anyone who has seen the classic scene in My Fair Lady where Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle is at Royal Ascot will get a good idea of what it is like. A gentleman may remove his hat when under a roof but to be bare headed elsewhere is just not acceptable.
Wimbledon is renowned for its strawberries and cream. There are some people who swear that Ascot does them better. A hint of Grand Marnier in its cream is something to savour.
The Going Is Tough
For a common punter attending all the five days of the Meeting is very taxing. The daily train fare, entrance and refreshments over five days add up to a pretty penny. A punter needs the stamina of a Gold Cup winner to get through the whole Meeting. The Sporting Life once carried an interesting article outlining some Ascot strategies. In a nutshell, it suggested that punters should limit -- and spread -- their bets over the five days. One major observation was that big stables and leading jockeys rarely have a blank Royal Meeting. In present times, Ballydoyle, Godolphin, Juddmonte and Shadwell would probably constitute the big four among the racing operations and to them you can add trainers Sir Michael Stoute, the Gosdens and Richard Hannon as most likely to lead in a winner. Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore are almost certain to have a winner over the five days and the likes of William Buick, Oisin Murphy and Adam Kirby -- to mention just three -- are very likely to be seen in the winner's circle.
If you go to Ascot by train, you have to be prepared for a steep climb from the railway station to the Enclosures. It is a beautiful walk through tall trees and along the way you come across some elderly people who have stopped to catch their breath. Forty years ago, I was young enough not to need such a halt but I was stopped by a gentleman having one. He requested me walk with him for the rest of the climb. I did and when we reached the top, he gave me, unasked, his Ascot Formula. "I have a flutter on the colour of The Queen's dress, a bet on the Champion Jockey of the Meeting and I follow all mounts of that jockey". "Do you win ?", I asked him. "Sometimes," he said. "When I have picked the right jockey. But I always have a great time."
PAST THE POST
There is one very charming and endearing tradition of the Royal Ascot. After the day's racing is over, the crowd joins the band in a spontaneous sing along. On the day Ardross won his first Gold Cup, it was Don't Cry for Me, Argentina from the West End musical Evita that was the standout performance. The music for Evita was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lord Webber's filly The Fugue won the Prince of Wales's Stakes in 2014. It would have been nice to have been present that day and hear the songs the crowd sang. A Webber composition would surely have been among them.