Ascot Racecourse Guide
Ascot is without doubt one of the most famous and celebrated racecourses in the country. The Berkshire venue holds some top class races, with huge contests from both the Flat and NH world.
Royal Ascot is the jewel in the crown but Ascot hosts around 25 days of racing each and every year and so there is much more than the feted June meeting to savour. That said, if it’s the Royal Meeting you’re particularly interested in, head to our Royal Ascot betting page.
Alternatively read on for everything you need to know about the course itself. We’ve got practical and logistical info, history, information on how the track runs and much more on top.
For many fans of the sport, even more serious ones, the course and even the town of Ascot is synonymous with Royal Ascot. The Royal Meeting is one of those sporting occasions that makes the front and back pages of the newspapers. It’s also one of the race meetings that even only very occasional racing fans will have a bet on, a bit like the Grand National.
As said above, there is much more to Ascot than simply five glorious days of top class flat racing in June. However, Royal Ascot is such a big part of what makes the track to special and so we quite simply have to start by looking at this racing feast.
A Historical Occasion Like No Other
Perhaps more than any other festival in horse racing, the Royal Meeting is steeped in history. The exact beginnings of the showpiece are disputed, with Royal Ascot, in common with much of British and Royal history, something that evolved rather than had a clear start date.
Her Majesty’s Plate was first run all the way back in 1711 under Queen Anne and some sources mark this as the start of Royal Ascot. However, we would argue that the Royal Meeting is more accurately dated to 1807, with the first ever running of the Gold Cup. That said, the official Ascot website lists the first Royal Meeting as taking place in 1768 – and we suppose they would know.
None the less, the Ascot Gold Cup is the oldest extant race at the course and 1807 also marks the beginnings of the Royal Enclosure as well. The first Royal Procession didn’t occur until 1825 and there are various other landmarks over the years that gradually come together to create the Royal Meeting.
Anyway, a full history of such an occasion is not for us to take on here. Let’s look at the more practical side of Royal Ascot.
What is Royal Ascot?
As we look forward to the next Royal Meeting, here are some key facts to give you an idea of what this momentous occasion is really all about:
- Royal Ascot, also known as The Royal Meeting, runs for five days from Tuesday to Saturday each June
- It is a Flat meeting, with six races each day
- Each day begins with the Royal Procession at 2pm
- The Queen and other members of the Royal Family attend the Royal Meeting every year
- Royal Ascot is one of the biggest events of the “Season” for Britain’s elite
- In recent years it has become less formal, however, and in total is attended by around 300,000 fans, with more than 70,000 watching the action on Thursday, Gold Cup Day
- That said, Royal Ascot still sees around 400 helicopters and 1,000 limos. It’s alright for some…
- Whilst Cheltenham is all about pints of Guinness, at the Royal Meeting fans will get through around 56,000 bottles of champagne!
- With more than £7m in prize money this is easily the richest meeting in British and Irish racing
- There are 19 Group races, with eight of those being Group One
- It is watched in around 200 countries worldwide
- Races range in length from just five furlongs up to a testing 2 miles, five furlongs and 159 yards – not that we’re counting
- As well as all the amazing Group class action, Royal Ascot also features handicaps and conditions races with a number of filly/filly and mare only contests
- More than £300m is wagered by punters in the UK on Royal Ascot
Visiting Ascot Races
Royal Ascot is a bucket-list meeting for many racing fans. However, whether you come to this amazing course for one of its biggest five days or at any other time of the year, here’s what you need to know.
- Location – Ascot racecourse is just north of the Berkshire town of Ascot, between Reading and Twickenham to the south east of London
- Address – Ascot Racecourse, High Street, Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 7JX
- Contact details – firstname.lastname@example.org or 0344 346 3000
- Tickets – Royal Ascot prices vary significantly, with the best seats for the Royal Meeting a lot more expensive than the cheapest available tickets for the smallest meetings. Unsurprisingly, in general, entrance to Ascot races is more expensive than many other tracks around the country.
- Dress code – Ascot takes what you wear rather seriously, to the extent that it has a dedicated “What to Wear” page with more sub-pages than we could read in a day. In short, fancy dress is not permitted and you need to be at your smartest, and during Royal Ascot you need to make your smartest even smarter. Young children are excluded from all this but we strongly advise taking a look at the full details before you visit.
- Transport – as you would expect for such a major course there are excellent and varied transport options. As previously alluded to, those include helicopter and limo but for the rest of us there are great road links and a whopping 8,000 parking spaces – so why not give your driver the day off? Trains from London and Reading are also a good option, the former going from Waterloo.
- Accommodation – there are almost 1,000 rooms at hotels within the local area. As you would expect, for Royal Ascot these require booking a long way in advance, and even then prices are much higher than usual.
- Hospitality – Ascot has seemingly limitless hospitality options and whilst they don’t cater to all budgets, the cheapest options are quite reasonable. At the other end of the spectrum are superb boxes and suites with fine dining provided by chefs of the calibre of Raymond Blanc.
- Food and drink – as well as the options included within corporate and hospitality packages there are lots of more affordable eating and drinking facilities. You can also bring a picnic, including sparkling wines. Note no other form of alcohol is permitted from outside the racecourse.
As already mentioned, the history of Ascot is heavily intertwined with the British Royal Family. Queen Anne is said to have been riding in the area when she noted that the land looked perfect for “horses to gallop at full stretch”.
On the 11th August that same year seven horses contested Her Majesty’s Plate, the prize was 100 Guineas. The race was gruelling to say the least, consisting of three heats with each one being around 4 miles long.
Fun and Games in the 18th Century
During the 1700s racing became more and more popular. Ascot’s proximity to London meant that the city’s well to do would regularly visit to make the most of their leisure time. The action wasn’t confined to the track either, and Ascot hosted freak shows, singing, fighting and a range of other such entertainment to keep guests happy.
Racing around the country continued to grow and Ascot developed alongside that, introducing more facilities and more structured racing. There were also key developments in the dress code as the century came to a close. On the track, silks were introduced, whilst off it top hats, cravats and fine suits became the norm.
Birth of the Gold Cup
One of the biggest developments around this time came in 1807 when the Gold Cup was created. This race is the oldest of the Royal Meeting’s contests and is now more than 200 years old.
Often called “The Ascot Gold Cup” to differentiate from the Cheltenham Gold Cup and others, the contest is actually just called the Gold Cup. It’s a race steeped in history, with the first running being won by Master Jackey, earning connections a cool 100 Guineas.
King George III and Queen Charlotte were in attendance that day and thus the famous Royal Enclosure at Ascot was born. 18 years later in 1825 the Royal Procession would get its first outing.
Into the 20th and 21st Centuries
Racing continued to thrive at Ascot, with more meetings, near-constant improvements to the facilities and the growth of the Royal Meeting into a truly spectacular occasion.
1910 was a dark year for the course however and is known as Black Ascot. Shortly before Royal Ascot King Edward VII, a big fan and supporter of racing, died. In his honour the races were a sombre and subdued affair with guests in mourning and, by and large, wearing black.
Back to brighter history and in 1934 the legendary Brown Jack won his seventh straight Queen Alexandra Stakes. Making this feat even more astonishing is the fact that he had initially been a NH horse, even winning the 1928 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
NH Comes to Ascot
It wasn’t until 1965 that jumps racing came to Ascot and it was a huge controversy for many. The Duke of Norfolk had previously said that this would only happen “over my dead body”. Others at the time said that holding NH racing at Ascot was akin to “going to the Ritz and ordering fish and chips”.
None the less, jumps racing would ultimately prove a huge success at Ascot. Whilst there is nothing to truly compare to Royal Ascot, contests such as the Clarence House Chase and Long Walk Hurdle are hugely classy and popular affairs.
The Greatest Jockey of Them All?
In its long history Ascot has seen countless world class jockeys ply their trade. The best of the best from all over the world have ridden here but none can come close to Lester Piggott’s record.
He rode 116 winners at the Royal Meeting over a scarcely believable 41 year period between 1952 and 1993. His 11 wins in the Gold Cup is almost sure to remain unbeaten and whilst modern-day greats such as Frankie Dettori have their own piece of Ascot history, it has to be Piggott who sits atop the pile.
Talking of that man Dettori, it was in 1996 when he wrote his most famous chapter of Ascot history. On the 28th September 1996 the charismatic jockey defied the odds to win all seven races at Ascot. Making a mockery of odds of more than 25,000/1, the likeable Italian won seven in a row, making some punters very rich and almost destroying one or two bookies.
The longest odds winner was Diffident at 12/1 in the second but the most costly winner from the point of view of the men making the odds was Fujiyama Crest in the last. Starting the day at 12/1 the top weight was thought to have no real chance. However, due to Frankie’s heroics earlier in the day he was backed into 2/1. Some bookies thought they were getting the deal of the century and were happy to lay him for all they could at those odds. However, they hadn’t reckoned with the magic of sport and the brilliance of Frankie.
The Future Comes to Ascot, Ascot Goes to York
The great wealth that the course generates means that facilities at Ascot have always been top class and have always been improving. However, in 2006, things stepped up a gear when the lavish Queen Elizabeth II Grandstand opened. It cost £1m and was part of a massive £200m redevelopment between 2004 and 2006. Quick note for any James Bond fans out there: the grandstand doubled up as Shanghai’s airport in Skyfall.
Bond aside, these lengthy building works meant the course was out of action for 2005 and so the Royal Meeting upped sticks and headed north to York. Royal Ascot at York was a huge success but the return in 2006 was an even more brilliant occasion with the gleaming new facilities thrilling racegoers.
Ascot continues to be polished, improved and extended, with the Royal Meeting always creating new history and new stories – and long may it continue we say.
Biggest Meetings and Races at Ascot
Several of Ascot’s greatest races have already been discussed and we will list the pick of the bunch in due course. Naturally, much of the focus in this regard falls on Royal Ascot, however, as said, the course hosts many more race days than its famous five. With top class racing both with and without obstacles, Ascot really does feature a huge number of noteworthy meetings and here are the best of them.
This is the richest single day of racing on the UK calendar. In terms of the quality, it’s also quite possibly the most concentrated day of top class racing too. First held in 2011, Champions Day is a relatively recent phenomenon and was designed as a way to bring down the curtain on the Flat season.
It might only feature six races but this is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious days on the calendar. The opening five races are end-of-season championship races over various disciplines and distances.
Four of those are Group One contests, with the exception the Group 2 British Champions Long Distance Cup over two miles. Over one and half miles we have the British Champions Fillies and Mares Stakes (mares and fillies only would you believe?). Over six furlongs the sprinters bid for supremacy in the British Champions Sprint Stakes, whilst the milers battle it out in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. This race was won by Frankel in 2011 in its first year as part of Champions Day. Last of the big races there is the Champion Stakes, which dates back to 1877 when it was run at Newmarket. This high class race is another won by Frankel, in 2012, and is 1m2f.
In the build up to Christmas Ascot hosts a two day meeting with some excellent National Hunt racing on offer. On Friday, the opening day, potential stars of the future take to the track in a duo of brilliant Grade 2 races. The hurdlers stake a claim for the following year’s Cheltenham Festival in the SkyBet Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle. For chasers, the Noel Novices’ Chase is a potential stepping stone to bigger things.
Saturday, however, is when things step up a little. This is Ascot’s richest day of jumps racing and the feature contest is the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle. Won four times by Baracouda, Big Buck’s landed this three years in a row from 2009, whilst Thistlecrack won the 2015 renewal in his early days as a hurdler. Saturday’s card also sees the Ascot Silver Cup and another good Grade 3 hurdle.
Other Group 1 and Grade 1 Races
Other races of note that take place outside the Royal Meeting include the Clarence House Chase, which is run in January. The list of winners of this one is very much a who’s who of the jumps world. Desert Orchid, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Dodging Bullets are among the winners, whilst Un De Sceaux landed a hat-trick of victories between 2016 and 2018.
The following month sees Ascot host another top level steeplechase, the 2m5f Ascot Chase. Cue Card won this twice (in 2013 and 2017), whilst Cheltenham Gold Cup nearly-horse Silviniaco Conti landed it in 2016.
Moving to the flat, Britain’s biggest open-age contest is hosted by Ascot in July following the Royal Meeting. The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes offers more than £700,000 to the winner and often sees future Arc horses in action. Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Shergar and Galileo are just some of the genuine equine legends to have landed this one.
Biggest Races at Royal Ascot
It’s almost true to say that every single one of the Royal Meeting’s is a big race but we’ll stick to the eight Group 1 contests for now:
- Queen Anne Stakes –Group 1, 1 Mile
- King’s Stand Stakes – Group 1, 5 furlongs
- St James’s Palace Stakes – Group 1, 7 furlongs and 213 yards
- Prince of Wales’s Stakes – Group 1, 1 mile 1 furlong and 212 yards
- Ascot Gold Cup – Group 1, 2 miles 3 furlongs and 210 yards
- Commonwealth Cup – Group 1, 6 furlongs
- Coronation Stakes – Group 1, 7 furlongs 213 yards
- Diamond Jubilee Stakes – Group 1, 6 furlongs
Ascot has a straight course used for Flat sprints of between five furlongs and one mile. There is also a round course used for longer races, including over hurdles and fences. On the straight course, especially where there are large fields, horses will often favour one side of the track, although this varies. As such there is no real obvious draw bias for this type of contest, although prior to modifications made in 2006 higher draws tended to be favoured when the going went beyond soft. There is no clear bias on the round course.
Ascot is a right-handed track and tends to favour galloping sorts. The “round” course is more of a triangle really, which creates a very sharp turn going into the final home straight, although this is not quite as sharp since 2006. In terms of the Flat course, it is 14 furlongs in length, with a short run-in that means being well-placed is vital. Largely flat, there is an uphill finish but all in all this is rarely a huge factor.
The NH Circuit
Essentially NH racing uses the same track, and the characteristics of it are the same. Since the course was relaid prior to reopening in 2006, drainage has improved significantly. This means things tend not to get too trying, but the extent to which this improved drainage is somewhat variable, meaning the straight can be a little firmer than other areas.
In terms of the obstacles at Ascot, they are certainly more testing than those found at some racecourses and can be extremely difficult should the going be heavy. Novices will find the fences on the far side a real challenge but if a horse can handle them smoothly they will have a major advantage. By and large it’s a front-runners’ track and, especially in chases, horses ridden prominently tend to fare well.