If you've ever wondered why they call thoroughbred racing the sport of kings, a day at Royal Ascot in June will make everything clear.
The 5-day race meet, at Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire - just up the road from the Queen's weekend digs, Windsor Castle - attracts the finest and most well looked after horses in the world. They come to compete for the richest purses in Britain - in 2015 the prize money was estimated at £5.5 million - and their owners are among the richest and most celebrated people in the world, including sultans and sheiks, movie moguls, captains of industry and most of the crowned heads of Europe.
But Royal Ascot is much more than an important event in the international racing calendar. It's one of the key social events of England's very social spring and summer sporting season (that also includes The Wimbledon tennis championships and the Henley Royal Regatta). And, of course, if you've ever heard of Ascot at all, you probably already know that it's famous for its fashions, especially the extravagant, and sometimes outrageous Ascot hats.
Luckily, for the rest of us who don't own multi-million dollar stallions and haven't had crowns on our heads in recent memory, Royal Ascot is also a very democratic affair. Anyone who can raise the price of a ticket - as little as £27 for what is known as the Silver Ring (more about prices and track areas later) - and who can pull together an outfit that suits the dress code is welcome. Although the racecourse sits on land that belongs to the Crown Estate, it is protected as a public facility by an act of Parliament dating back to 1813.
Why Royal Ascot?
The event's royal connections are both historic and contemporary. They've been racing at Ascot for more than three hundred years. The course was established by Queen Anne in 1711 because she enjoyed a bit of betting on the horses and wanted the diversion near Windsor, her favorite palace.
The royals have maintained an interest in horses and horse racing ever since and the current Queen Elizabeth is no exception. Horses from her stables regularly compete and in 2013, her horse, Estimate, won the Gold Cup - the centerpiece race of Ladies Day. The arrival of the royal party, in their open carriages, at the start of each day of Royal Ascot is one of the highlights for spectators.
Ladies Day at Royal Ascot
The big race of Royal Ascot is the Gold Cup, a flat race for four-year-olds that has been run for more than 200 years. It's run on Ladies Day, the Thursday of the meet, when fashions and finery almost overshadow the big race.
If you happen to be at Waterloo Station that day, you'll see the place teeming with women in extravagant hats and colorful dresses. You might also see men in morning coats and top hats. Designers, celebrities and ordinary race goers compete to outdo each other.
By 2012, fashions became so outrageous that a dress code was imposed for guests in the Royal Enclosure and the Grandstand. It specified minimal bare flesh, modest skirt lengths and appropriate hats. Men in the Royal Enclosure were required to wear ties and either morning suits or suits with waistcoats were required. Now, if you visit the official Royal Ascot website (which is very entertaining by the way), you'll find fashion videos and a downloadable Royal Ascot style guide.
If You'd Like to Go
Tickets become available through the Ascot website in January and the popular days (Ladies Day Thursday as well as Saturday and Sunday of the event) are sold out very quickly. It is usually possible, though to get Silver Ring tickets at least to the end of May. These are the categories of tickets for Royal Ascot:
- The Royal Enclosure - Entrance is by invitation only and applicants must be sponsored by someone who has attended the Royal Enclosure for at least four years. This enclosure has the strictest dress code and men usually wear top hats or formal national dress.
- The Queen Anne Enclosure (formerly the Grandstand) - Anyone can buy tickets for the Ascot's state-of-the-art grandstand (rebuilt at a cost of £200million between 2004 and 2006). The dress code is a bit more relaxed but still relatively formal. Grandstand tickets in 2016 cost £75 to £85, depending upon the day.
- The Windsor Enclosure (Formerly the Silver Ring) - This is an outdoor area across the track from the grandstand. It offers the best view of Ascot's dramatic grandstand. There is no dress code but people usually dress up for the occasion. Tickets in 2016 ranged from £34 to £43. Picnics, blankets and folding chairs are allowed but it wouldn't be Royal Ascot without a few rules and there are even rules that apply to picnics. If you're going and planning to bring food, check the Picnic Policy (really) first.
- Tickets online through the Royal Ascot website.