“They’re off!” Gorgeously arrayed, the spectators stand motionless, frozen in time on the steps of the grandstand at the racecourse, extravagantly dressed by Cecil Beaton in black and white or shades of grey. It is of course a wonderful scene in the film “My Fair Lady” starring Audrey Hepburn.
I often wonder if Beaton was inspired by the Royal Ascot of 1910 where, following the death of King Edward VII all those attending Ascot dressed in black with the ladies highlighting their gowns with pearls and white roses.
In the film, the race begins and, in unison, the actors slowly turn in a controlled staccato fashion to sing the “Ascot Gavotte”. Immaculately dressed but with no outward emotion they recite “Every duke and earl and peer is here, Everyone who should be here is here. What a smashing, positively dashing Spectacle: The Ascot opening day”.
The more the words of the song relate that “pulses are flashing” or heartbeats are speeding up, the less there is any emotion from those singing. In contrast, of course, the heroine Eliza Doolittle is caught up in the moment and very much alive to it. She shouts in excitement for her chosen horse: “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse”.
Fortunately, it was far from grey and restrained last week and instead five days of colour and sport. Royal Ascot combines the best horses with pageantry, royalty, glamourous hats and bright outfits, the whole scene lit by the very sunny warm weather.
Everyone was so happy to be there, (Covid having enforced abscence for two years) and everywhere there was the buzz of chatter and laughter as old and new friends were greeted once more. With all the charm of a classic English summer, the large trees offered welcome dappled shade across the well-groomed lawns.
Some of the guests were simply happy to have a wonderful excuse to lunch and converse whilst others were drawn to the gleaming horses walking around the paddock, long supple strides, the hopeful owners and perhaps slightly more realistic trainers. It would all be decided in just a few minutes on the racecourse.
Both Geordie and I spent part of our three days there just quietly leaning against the white surrounds of the pre-parade ring watching and enjoying the scene before deciding on which vantage point to watch the race from. The jockeys appear in time in the main paddock in their colourful silks, fearless and balanced on the horses, everyone on their toes.
The orgins of Ascot or “East Cote” date back to the reign of Queen Anne, who in 1711 saw the potential for a racecourse at East Cote, declaring that was flat and an ideal place for “horses to gallop at full stretch” while out riding. “Her Majesty’s Plate”, worth 100 guineas and open to any horse, mare or gelding over the age of six, was thus inaugurated. The race was over four miles so stamina was needed, the jockeys wore what they chose, there were no rules and it was therefore hard to agree the winner.
The Gold Cup dating from 1807 is Ascot’s oldest surviving race. Again is a longer race reflecting the origins of the racecourse and the winning owners still receive a gold trophy which becomes their property. The Queen Anne Stakes was established in 1840 in honour of the founder of the racecourse and echoes the three-hundred-year-old heritage: it is for older horses, over one mile.
The pageantry of the dress code owes much to the friendship between King George IV and Beau Brummell. The latter was born in Downing Street, where his rather successful father worked as private secretary to Lord North (Prime Minister). In 1783, the Brummells bought an estate, Donnington Grove in Berkshire just six miles from Highclere.
Although Brummell’s family was far from grand, the young man was determined to become the best dressed gentleman in London. He succeeded to the point where it was only his opinion that mattered: it was he who influenced who should be given vouchers for the social club Almacks and he could bring someone into fashion by showing them favour or put someone out of fashion by cutting them.
This famous dandy who became a close friend of the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), pronounced that ‘men of elegance’ should wear ‘waisted black coats and white cravats with pantaloons’. George IV commissioned a two-storey stand to be built with a surrounding lawn and access to it was by invitation of the King. In 1825 when the King led four other coaches with members of the Royal party up the Straight Mile a diarist commented that the ‘whole thing looked very splendid.’
It still does look rather splendid and to return to The Ascot Gavotte:
“What a frenzied moment that was!
Didn’t they maintain an exhausting pace?
‘Twas a thrilling, absolutely chilling Running of the
Ascot op’ning race”