June 16, 2011 / 9:22 AM / 6 years ago

Ascot: 300 years of royalty and fashion

4 Min Read

<p>A band walks through the car park as people picnic on the second day of racing at Royal Ascot in southern England June 15, 2011.Suzanne Plunkett</p>

ASCOT, England (Reuters) - Royal Ascotis celebrating its 300th anniversary as High Society's perfect summer cocktail with a unique mix of royalty, fashion and racing thoroughbreds.

Ladies Day on Thursday is the highlight of the week at the world's most famous racecourse, opened in 1711 after Queen Anne first spottedits potential when riding in the forest near Windsor Castle.

Long gone are the days when the Royal enclosure at Ascot was so exclusive that divorcees were banned from its sacred lawns and women had to wear gloves.

Aristocrats once reigned supreme but now X-Factor supremo Simon Cowell has a box at Ascot. Singers Shirley Bassey and Bryan Ferry are handing outracing trophies this year although the honor of giving the prize to the winner of Thursday's Ascot Gold Cup always goes to Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

She parades up the Ascot straight every day in an open-topped landau, offering priceless cachet to the summer season when socialites head from Ascot to Wimbledon and then on to the Henley Royal Regatta and Glyndebourne opera.

Paparazzi on the hunt for the most outrageous hats on Ladies Day do not have to look far. Publicity seekers sashay about in over-the-top concoctions in the daily fashion parade that was immortalized by flower girl Eliza Dolittle in the musical "My Fair Lady."

"You cannot think of Ascot without thinking fashion in the same sentence," said designer Amanda Whateley who is showing her collection once more at Royal Ascot 2011.

The ever elegant Bryan Ferry, lead singer of Roxy Music, sported top hat and tails to present one of the trophies.

"Fashion has always been a great interest for me. It is nice to see people dressing up. The British do it very well. Just look at the royal wedding," he said.

Exuberant Italian jockey Frankie Dettori, known as "Mr Ascot" for his many triumphs on the great course, leapt from the saddle in his trademark flying dismount after landing the Prince of Wales's Stakes on Rewilding on Wednesday. He had no doubt about the thrill of riding here.

"I'm overwhelmed. It doesn't get better than this."

But a look into the Ascot archives shows that racing at the big meeting has been distinctly racey at times over the past three centuries.

In 1777, a boxing bout was held on the course with a giant prize presented to a winner who beat his opponent so badly that he lost an eye. Today, racegoers congregate for a communal sing-along around the bandstand after racing. It's a far cry from the days when cockfights were staged and 10 marquees set up for card games and EO, a forerunner of roulette.

In 1799, a full-scale riot erupted over accusations of fixing in a card game. The Light Brigade had to be summoned from Windsor Castle to quell the chaos. Highwaymen preying on wealthy racegoers also held up coaches on the way to Ascot.

Snobbishness abounded when the introduction of a rail line to Ascot meant that the masses could now enjoy a day at the races. Nineteenth century reporter Pierce Egan feared Ascot could no longer be protected from "the pollution of sheer cockneyism," a blunt dig at working-class racegoers from the East End of London.

Ascot racecourse manager Charles Barnett, who welcomes 300,000 fans to the course over the five-day racing extravaganza, clearly revels in the rich history of the picturesque track.

"It is as stylish and elegant as it has ever been. It is only our first 300 years and hopefully we will go on as long as that again," he said.

Edited by Paul Casciato

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