All About Ascot

16th June 2015

Tony Lake answers some questions about the Royal meetings in the first half of the 19th century.

Did the meeting get Royal support throughout the 19th century?

Undoubtedly. George III was a keen supporter of the meeting and during his declining years his son, when he acted as Regent and as King George IV, was enthusiastic. William IV although not much of a racing man, became patron of the course and presented the Eclipse Foot, with £200, to be raced for annually by horses owned members of the Club. It was in his reign that a military band played for the first time at the races and he also introduced the future Queen Victoria to the sport. As a 14 year old princess in 1834, Victoria made a surprise visit on Gold Cup day and was welcomed by the crowd.

Four years later she was Queen and her attendance at Ascot in 1838 was a grand occasion. As the Royal procession of seven carriages drove up the New Mile, attended by a large party of outriders and yeomen prickers, crowds hailed the monarch. The Morning Chronicle recorded "Her Majesty was attired in a pink silk slip, over which was a lace dress; she wore a white gauze poke bonnet, trimmed with pink ribbons and ornamented with roses inside and out. The Queen was greatly interested in the races, and showed herself much pleased with the joyful acclamations of her people.?"

As Queen she usually attended the Tuesday and Thursday fixtures of the meeting and enjoyed the occasion. However, with the death of her husband Prince Albert, the Royal Stand was closed for the 1861 meeting. Although not withdrawing her patronage from Ascot the Queen did not attend another race meeting after the death of her Consort.

Wasn't George IV a bit of a rogue?

ascotCertainly during the Regency he led an extravagant lifestyle and ran up enormous gambling debts. His relationship with his wife received a poor press and he seemed to be easily influenced. He fell out with Sir Charles Bunbury and the Jockey Club over the running and riding of his Escape at Newmarket in 1791. Remaining loyal to his jockey, Sam Chifney, he never had another runner at Newmarket. Newmarket's lose was Ascot's gain. It was George IV who instituted the Royal procession, when he rode on the course up the New Mile in a coach and four with a splendid retinue.

Did he have any luck at the meeting?

He won plenty of races, but the big one, the Gold Cup, eluded him. As Charles Greville wrote, "The King has bought seven horses successively, for which he has given 11,300 guineas, principally to win the Cup at Ascot, which he has never accomplished."

A "nearly" horse for him was Zinganee. On the eve of the 1829 race, after giving the King first refusal, Lord Chesterfield bought the eventual winner from Sam Chifney for only 2,500 guineas.

The actual race was Ascot?s first great race of the 19th century. The value of the runners was in the region of £45,000; and included two Derby winners (Cadland and Mameluke), one winner of the Oaks (Green Mantle), one winner of the St. Leger (The Colonel), and the winner of the Cup in 1828 (Bobadilla). In front of a massive crowd, Zinganee came with a well-timed run under Chifney to win by a length from Mameluke.

Was the Gold Cup always the principal race?

The event was established in 1807 and it was originally open to horses aged three or older. The inaugural winner of the Cup and 100 guineas was Master Jackey and from then onwards the race became increasingly important and more valuable.

However, conditions changed following the Zinganee race. When Mameluke's owner, John Gully, failed to doff his hat sufficiently, the King felt snubbed and consequently enforced new conditions on the race i.e. it was open only to members of White's, Brooks's, or the Jockey Club. That resulted in very small fields and the rule was allowed to lapse after the King's death.

The race flourished again, but from 1845 to 1853 it was known as the Emperor's Plate. Czar Nicholas I was part the Royal procession in 1844 and immediately after the Gold Cup, Lord Albemarle re-named his winner, Emperor, in honour of the Czar. So grateful was the Czar that he asked to be allowed to present a plate, to be called the Emperor's Plate, to take the place of the Gold Cup. When Britain was at war with Russia in the Crimea the race became the Gold Cup again.

Would today's racegoer recognise any race other than the Gold Cup?

Not really as most of the races were matches or 4-milers that were run in heats. However, in 1813, a handicap run over the New Mile, the Wokingham Stakes, was introduced. Fifteen ran, with HRH the Duke of York's Pointers, a 4-year-old, carrying 8 st 7 lb running out the winner at 8/1. The beginning of the end of hunters' race came in 1818 when the King's Guineas was raced for by 'racers'. It was won by Belville with Chiffney up and they turned out again two days later to land the Gold Cup.

Has Royalty always been warmly welcomed?

Usually, but not always. Without question the most enthusiastic welcome came in 1814. Napoleon had been defeated and dispatched to Elba and the Ascot crowds wanted to celebrate. Amongst the Prince Regent's guests were King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia and Tsar Alexander I of Russia and they were all cheered as they arrived on the course. Then the crowds began to chant "Blucher! Platoff! - for Field Marshal Blucher & Hetman (Count) Platoff of the Cossacks. When those two heroes arrived on the course there were three resounding cheers. Indeed that day not only was the racing delayed but little interest was taken in it. Little did the crowd realise that almost a year to the day Blucher would be the man of the moment again; then coming to the Duke of Wellington's aid and defeating Napoleon once and for all at Waterloo.

When you said, "usually but not always" what did you mean by "not always"?

ascot2A sad incident took place in 1832. After the first race King William IV was standing at the window of the Royal Stand when he exclaimed "Oh my God! I am hit". He staggered back with his hand to his forehead and it became apparent that he had been struck by a stone that had been thrown by somebody in the crowd. As the King struggled to his feet another stone came crashing into the Royal Box. The King got to his feet fortunate that the rim of his hat had cushioned the blow. As he went to the window to wave and to reassure the crowd the perpetrator was being apprehended.

This was Dennis Collins "his appearance was wretched; he wore the tattered garb of a sailor, and was propped on a wooden leg of the most rude construction" reported the Morning Chronicle. He had served on HMS Kangaroo and had lost his leg in an accident on HMS Atlanta. Now a homeless invalid without a pension he had sought help from the King. Tried for treason and sentenced to be hanged, Collins was eventually shown clemency and transported to Australia.

Who was in charge of security like in those days?

Since 1792, John Townsend, a Bow Street Runner, had responsibility for the security of the Royal family during their public engagements. He continued to perform his duties until 1831 so was a regular at the races. For a number of years Sir Richard Birnie was responsible for general law and order which included seizing all illegal gambling tables and demolishing them. In 1822, he and other Bow Street officers, according to the Morning Chronicle, were extremely active in the "dispersion of pickpockets & nob-pinchers" ("men who cheat the unwary by pricking at the garter etc."). "The officers, whenever they met these fellows, sent them speedily off the course; and in several instances, took it upon themselves to give them a sound caning." They caught one notorious nob pincher named John Garne, alias Bill the Blacksmith, who they detected cheating a man out of £10. They took him before Lord Braybroke, Magistrate for Berkshire, and he was dispatched to Reading Gaol.

Apart from gambling was there much to do between races?

The promenade was already a popular feature at the turn of the century. By 1802, "Tuesday's races were called the Ladies' Races on account of the Queen and Princesses, and the numerous female nobility... attending them... making the view of the stands recall to mind the drawing room of St James's" according to the Morning Chronicle. Those who were peckish could grab a sandwich; and it was heard in a trial in 1802 that Lord Milsington made the way to the heart of Mrs Campbell by the means of parmesan cheese and prune sandwiches at Ascot Races. In 1819, a Birmingham man, John Earl Gallop, amused spectators by running around the two mile circuit in 11 minutes, and after the Ten Guineas Stakes (the second race), went around again, this time in 11mins 2 secs..

How did such big crowds travel to Ascot?

Before the advent of the railways racegoers had to go by coach. From five in the morning the Western Road out of London would get busy. The turnpike roads, such as the Staines to Egham one, became chock-a-block as queues formed to pay their tolls. "The roads through the Park and Virginia Water were in a scandalous state during the races. Mr Mac Adam is sadly wanted in that neighbourhood," lamented the Morning Chronicle in 1833. It was tough on the travellers but tougher on the horses with many teams completing the 60 mile round-journey in baking heat on dusty roads - no wonder they were referred to as "cruelty vans". The hire of horses was expensive and in 1829 it cost 30 guineas for 4; 10 guineas for a pair; 2 or 3 guineas for a saddle horse. Nevertheless coach proprietors like Newman, who had 50 sets of fours and whose staff were always neatly attired with blue jackets, white hats, waistcoats and breeches, claimed that demand exceeded supply.

With racing often finishing after 6.00 usually closer to 7.00 (the last race in 1831 was run after 7.00) many sought accommodation rather than return home. The Morning Chronicle reported that houses in the vicinity were let for the week at between £20 and £30 whilst beds for individuals for one night were half a guinea... "however questionable it might be".

A railway line between Ascot and Staines opened in 1856. Although easing the congestion on the roads, the railway carriages were jammed packed as five trains a day ran each way taking crowds to and from the races.

A famous duel took place following the races in the 18th century was there one in the 19th?

Oh yes, in 1809. A duel was fought on Hounslow Heath between "a gentleman of fortune", Mr Franks, and Captain Damar of the Regiment of Dragoons. The pair, who were distantly related, had an altercation in the betting ring and continued to argue at a post-racing ball at Egham. The captain suffered a slight wound, but Franks was shot through the body and the Morning Post reporter did not expect to him live.

We've spoken about policing the crowds, but what about policing the racing?

Indeed the stewards were kept busy. In 1801, there was consternation following the Handicap Plate. Captain Batson's Velvet Horn won (the first two heats) but was the subject of a protest claiming he was a six-year-old and not a five-year-old. In 1805, they had to deal with the confusion caused by Lord Sandwich. He claimed his Metiora had won a race whilst most spectators, including the Prince Of Wales, thought that Sir Francis Standish's filly had prevailed by a neck.

There was such confusion around the Wokingham Stakes in 1824 that eventually the whole matter had to be reported to the Jockey Club. After two false starts ten runners got off and the Duke of York's Orion ran out a comfortable winner. Then the starter, Mr Sharpe, declared another false start. Amid bewilderment it was decided to have a re-run. Only five went to post this time, but Orion won again.

The Stewards ordered another race to be re-run in 1839. Although the horses started fairly, and ran a true race, it was discovered that they had started from the wrong place. In the re-run Defendant, who came in first in the false race, finished second to Jeffy, who only managed third at the first attempt.

Who were the jockeys of note during this period?

In the early part of the century facts and figures tended to be hit and miss. In 1802, the Morning Post and Gazetteer were sniping at the coverage in The Times. Among the errors in The Times that were pointed out one concerned the Duke of Grafton's Tyrant. In fact, the Duke of Grafton did not have any runners at the meeting and Tyrant was in fact Julia! Nonetheless John Barham Day (1793-1860) was one of the best jockeys of his time, winning no fewer than 31 races at Ascot and his sons, Alfred and John, also made their mark. Frank Butler won 26 races at the meeting with 1849 being his most successful year when he won six races, including the Royal Hunt Cup on Collingwood. By the 1840s, Nat Flatman was recognised as the top rider of his generation. In 1845, he won 12 races at the meeting and 11 in 1847. In total he won 98 races at Ascot.