Psst! Snoop backstage at the royal racecourse
Horses, hats and high society, but Ascot Racecourse is so much more. We skulked behind the scenes to find out all the goss and fun facts
It was Queen Anne who spotted the potential for a racecourse at Ascot whilst out riding in the summer of 1711. She came across an area of open heath not far from Windsor Castle, which looked like an ideal place for “horses to gallop at full stretch”. Her wish was their command and the first race meeting at Ascot took place on 11 August of the same year.
The Queen and Royal Family attend Royal Ascot in a private capacity. Liz’s love of horses and horse racing is well documented, and the procession, pomp and ceremony is really just sticking to traditions set out by the 11 monarchs who came before her.
No one can enter the Royal Box on Level Two, which hovers over the stands like the bridge of an ocean liner, unless you’re a crown or tiara wearing member of Her Majesty’s party, or a member of her staff. Even the racecourse team don’t go in there. One can easily see the comings and goings through its set of double doors, with riding crop handles, from several vantage points within the clubhouse, which feels exactly like a shopping mall, although it has bars and betting stations instead of boutiques.
One thing you can be sure of, this box will command the best views of the track and finish line and it’s a short stroll across to the Parade Ring Restaurant if anyone wants a change of scene.
TALKING OF VIEWS…
You can see London from here. OK, so you need a relatively clear day but look to the East (or right in this case) and there on the horizon on the unmistakable silhouettes of the London’s skyscrapers.
Slap bang in the middle of racecourse is a cricket ground (Royal Ascot Cricket Club) and sweet children’s playground. There’s also a massive reservoir that provides all the H2O the racecourse needs to keep the track in tip top condition and to turn the grounds from scorched earth to verdant landscape. No hosepipe bans here. Locals can still access Ascot Heath to walk, run and play with their kids via a tunnel and gate. There is extra security on race days.
LOCKER ROOM POLITICS
The jockeys share two changing rooms. The fellas get a large, airy space while the women’s facilities are tiny by comparison. The sport has since a surge in female jockey numbers, and plans are afoot at Ascot to refurb their facilities. Locker room hierarchy is also a thing and the most successful/ longest serving riders will get the prime spots – usually in the corners.
Each jockey employs a valet who gets ensure their silks, bearing the owners’ colours, and saddles are ready (carrying the correct weight) are ready for each race. The women’s changing rooms also feature the biggest set of scales I have ever seen. Old school in design, but just as accurate as more modern digital version.
If you fear the scales, this is not the job for you. Jockeys have to be weighed before and after each ride before an official panel to ensure there’s no skulduggery. Each jockey carries weights in their saddle to ensure
POP THE CORKS IN PEACE
Once the race is finished, horses come backstage where they can be hosed down in front of the fans. The top three are lead through to the Parade Ring where they will be presented with their trophy. Owners and trainers can then retreat to their own private room to watch the race back, pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne and plan how they’ll spend their winnings. Winning can be overwhelming so this offers a moment to decompress away from camera crews and the public.
It’s safe the say Ascot’s bottle bin are overflowing on races days. During Royal Ascot alone, over the course of five days, 300,000 attendees will have consumed 56,000 bottles of champagne, 44,000 bottles of wine, 21,000 jugs of Pimm’s and 60,000 finger sandwiches. For those who do not imbibe, fear not. Also consumed are 80,000 cups of tea and 128,500 bottles of mineral water.
BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE
For the best vantage point of the race, finish line and the people, you need to go up. The King Edward VII Enclosure (the name changes depending on the race) on level four has bars, trackside seating and betting stands on tap. The private boxes can be hired for the day from £132pp or make yourself at home and book it for the year and nail your colours and logo to the chairs. Moet & Chandon’s looks like a fun place to hangout. Is Ascot ready for the Muddy Stilettos box? Oh, what a party that would be. Make sure you book into Ascot’s fine dining restaurant, On 5 – 360° of elegance from the food to the views.
SEEKING THE SCOOP
Each TV station has their own space – not huge but big enough for all their kit and commentators. ITV is the main racing channel and they get a prime spot. Print and online journos are in for treat, with the nicest press room I have ever seen. It’s been refurbished and looks better than some news rooms I’ve worked in.
ART OF ASCOT
There are many bronze statues at the racecourse and it’s quite the honour. Jockeys Lester Pigott and a leaping Frankie Dettori have been immortalised alongside special horses like four time Gold Cup winner Yeats, Frankel, Motivator galloping “at full stretch”, Canford Cliffs and Makfi. Personally, I love the Uniting Two Societies on the Gredley Lawn where a group of life-sized statues gather inside iron gates before the Queen and Prince Philip.
The gates were made by Harland and Wolff Company prior to the Second World War. Shortly after Her Maj’ ascended to the throne in 1952, they were commissioned to make the Royal Ascot Entrance Gates, welcoming all to the racecourse regardless of the size of their bank account, stature or house.
PARKING PECKING ORDER
Finally, only at Ascot could a car park have an air of exclusivity and social class. But during Royal Ascot No.1 Car Park is probably the smartest spot to pull up your motor, proving that you’re never too posh to picnic in a car park. Spaces here are handed down through the generations and are important family heirlooms. While Champagne and smoked salmon blinis are standard, according to Debrett’s butlers and waiting staff are vulgar and gazebos are not encouraged – unless it rains. How much? A closely guarded secret. Probably falls under the category of “If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it”. Ffff.
MUDDY TOP TIPS
- Be organised – not essential but makes life easier. Book your parking/ train tickets
- Treat yourself to a posh lunch. The Parade Ring and On 5 are Ascot’s fine dining restaurants commanding the best views.
- Wear the most comfortable shoes you own. Ascot Racecourse is huge and you’ll power through those steps.
- Also carry blister plasters. You will get them, so be prepared.
- It can be very hot in the summer. A sun hat looks stylish and gives you shade.
Fancy trotting along to the next race day? Gold standard racing at the Qipco King George Diamond Day on 23 July and foodies and barbie girls and boys will love the epic Smoke & Fire Festival on 30-31 July.
Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup on 6 Aug – the world’s top jockeys compete in an eight-race team format, with Clean Bandit and The Hoosiers performing at the after party.
Hop over for one of the UK’s biggest beer festivals taking places during the Peroni Italia Autumn Racing Weekend on 30 Sep – 1 Oct. A whopping 160 craft beers and ciders to sample and racing too.