Turn Out: Royal Ascot

Elite horse bloodlines collide with impeccably dressed humans for a fanfare of joie de vivre on the Crown Estate.

Turn Out: Royal Ascot

The racecourse betting ring, or ‘the jungle’ according to the late eccentric and exuberant television betting pundit John McCririck, has changed markedly over the decades. In 1913 Ladbrokes, ‘the most important firm of turf commission agents in the world’ moved their headquarters from Hanover Square to 6 Old Burlington Street, Mayfair, a rather sophisticated address that doesn’t align with today’s gambling conglomerate, Ladbrokes Coral. Upon moving to Mayfair, the chairman, Arthur Bendir, who was also the biological father of Babe Plunket Green, a key member of the hedonistic group known as ‘Bright Young Things’ who was involved in an affair with Evelyn Waugh, seated himself at a Gillows-style desk in the Mayfair office. 

It was a time when tote pool betting was not a feature of British racecourses, and ladies were forbidden to scour the betting rings to have a flutter. Well-connected, standing at 5'4" tall, with a striking combination of white hair and piercing blue eyes that contrasted beautifully with her youthful complexion, there was a highly numerate and alluring lady named Helen Vernet. Before 1913 this was to her detriment, but in the short and long run it would be to her advantage. She was attracting attention from both the authorities and Bendir for her illegal practice of cunningly roaming in the racecourse membership enclosures, where she began taking small bets from women. Under Bendir's chairmanship, the overriding reason for Ladbrokes to relocate to Old Burlington Street was to portray its exclusivity to the British aristocracy and bourgeois patriciate, many of whom were members of nearby gentleman’s clubs such as White’s, Boodle’s, the Carlton and the Athenaeum. And in order to leverage this geographical upgrade by drawing in wealthy clients to generate income, Bendir asked Vernet to join the company in a personal capacity, thus becoming the foil to elevate this scheme.

However, the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in July of the following year sparked the start of the First World War. This resulted in very little work for Vernet, and she became involved with the Volunteer Motor Mobilisation Corporation (VMMC), an organisation of which, before his death in 1910, King Edward VII had been a patron.  Edward VII commands a significant chunk of horseracing folklore – he was a stalwart supporter. In 1897, when he was Prince of Wales, his legendary bay horse Persimmon won the Ascot Cup. The year of his death, racegoers at Royal Ascot were dressed in black, with the edition famously known as Black Ascot. And in 1926 the Group 2 race for three-year-old colts was renamed the King Edward VII Stakes in memory of the late King. If you find yourself spectating at Royal Ascot next Thursday, you will be able to witness the 1 mile 4 furlong contest, where the Richard Hannon-trained colt Voyage is tipped to atone for his stall incident in the Derby last month. 

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) at Ascot in 1938. Getty Images.

But back to Vernet; post-armistice day, when racing had resumed, the glide with which she handled her unique post in a male-dominated sphere remarkably passed the 'fit and proper' character test for the officials, and she became the first woman to obtain a bookmaker's license, a poignant moment in the history of women's rights. Her pioneering endeavours certainly didn’t go unnoticed; it was reported in the bookmaker’s heyday that her salary was £20,000 a year, the equivalent of over £1.2 million today, and a sum that would make Cabinet ministers green with envy. And in a humorous take, one racing columnist joked that his betting record meant that he was turning Helen, rather than his wife, into the best-dressed woman in the country. Her elegance would rival the most glamorous attendees at the Royal Ascot, even without his anecdote. Vernet left an unparalleled legacy in horse racing betting, but if one were to refer to Royal Ascot as a whole, this tribute would go to the late Queen Elizabeth II, whose colour of hat on each of the five days would become the most popular bet for racegoers. 

Women have been integral to Royal Ascot, even before the turf grass track was officially put to the test by thoroughbreds and jockeys on August 11, 1711. While taking a carriage ride, a favourite pastime, on the Crown Estate, roughly 12 miles from Windsor Castle, Queen Anne identified some land and declared that it looked like an ideal place for "horses to gallop at full stretch." Naturally, the Queen Anne Stakes (Group 1) is the first moment the gleaming thoroughbreds plant their hoofs in the coveted parade ring for the first race on Tuesday, the first day of the meeting, but not before the Royal Procession, a fabled tradition in the realms of sport. It began in 1825, when King George IV led the first of four horse-drawn Ascot Landaus and the ceremonial event has continued ever since, where the order of proceedings includes members of the Royal Family or important guests, who arrive at the entrance of Ascot’s straight mile at precisely 2 p.m. Drawn by horses who live in the Royal Mews near Buckingham Palace, the landaus will then pass the Silver Ring, Grandstand, and Royal Enclosure before finishing with a circuit of the Parade Ring.

For the British public, the news that HRH King Charles III plans to spend “at least” one day at the festival next week is undoubtedly a heartwarming announcement. If you analyse the sartorial imprint of his forefathers, and King Charles himself, it will certainly trump any other troupe of attendees that you can think of. In time for the Queen Anne Stakes at 2:30 p.m., the regal members who arrive by carriage abscond to the Royal Box, which is identifiable only by the lineup of bronze medallions of past monarchs’ heads above the door and is dead centre of the Royal Enclosure.

1856-8; Baroness Rosencrantz and Mrs. Frank Mackey at Black Ascot, 1910, when racegoers mourned King Edward VII. Getty Images.
Guy de Rothschild and his wife, MarieHélène, lead their winning mare at Chantilly, 1957. Getty Images.
The Earl and Countess of Ilchester on the first day of Black Ascot, 1910. Getty Images.
Ronald Armstrong-Jones and his wife, Carol, circa 1945. Getty Images.
Prince Charles in a three-piece morning suit and top hat, 1979. Getty Images.
Prince Charles arrives in the royal carriage at Ascot for the second day of races June, 1977. Getty Images.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in a carriage procession, 1973. Getty Images.

The gaiety, elegance, and heritage of the Royal Enclosure epitomise “A World Like Nowhere Else”, the Royal Ascot poem written by Henry Birtles. According to the Royal Enclosure's noble patronage, the dress code mandates a regalia of morning dress consisting of a black, grey or navy single-breasted peak-lapel jacket, cashmere-striped, herringbone or simply matching coloured trousers, which preferably are high-waisted and accommodate braces, and a double-breasted waistcoat or shawl in either grey, buff or black. Rejecting overly ornate outfits, the Prince Regent's friend Beau Brummell would have marvelled at the matching three-piece morning dress suits that HRH King Charles frequently rocks with the utmost distinction. Demonstrated usually in a mid-grey or charcoal hue, his pocket clock with an Albert chain affixed to his DB waistcoat is a respectable touch. And in keeping with Brummell's idealism, the shirt should be a sombre colour with a white collar and cuffs. Boutonnières and pocket-handkerchiefs are de rigueur, while a discreetly patterned tie is advisable. And from top to bottom, a black or grey well-fitted top hat from Lock & Co. Hatters is a formality, while a black cap-toed Oxford shoe completes the crux of the outfit. But lastly, a hand-made wood-handled umbrella will stylishly protect the above from a sharp downpour.

As alluded to, for men you can’t really look past the royal contingent of George IV, the Duke of Windsor, "Bertie," the Duke of Edinburgh and HRH King Charles for bespeaking the most stylish versions of Royal Ascot dress. However, Royal Ascot, even for people with a minor horse racing interest, is often the jewel of the summer social calendar. In his downtime from performing as a leading man in esteemed Hollywood motion pictures, Gregory Peck would often be seen departing No. 11 Savile Row, where the iconoclastic tailor of Huntsman, Colin Hammick, had been cutting his suits, some of which found themselves parlaying in the jocularity at Royal Ascot, ofttimes with his debonair actor friend David Niven. A stroke of serendipity - Gregory, the rangy colt trained by John and Thady Gosden, was on song in the Queen’s Vase in 2023 to give the well-loved jockey Frankie Dettori a victory at his last Royal Ascot. Frankie, at the age of 52, perfected one of his trademark flying dismounts, eliciting a raucous echo from the crowd for one last time. Gregory has a tilt at the Gold Cup on Thursday, and could he indirectly salute one of Hollywood's greatest stars?

The Aga Khan and his son Prince Aly at the Doncaster races, 1932. Getty Images.
Prince Aly Khan in a morning suit and top hat at Chantilly, France, 1939. Getty Images.
Prince Aly Khan attending the Derby at Epsom Racecourse. Getty Images.
Rocco Ritchie photographed by Arnaldo Anaya-Lucca for Issue 77 of The Rake.
Rocco Ritchie photographed by Arnaldo Anaya-Lucca for Issue 77 of The Rake.

Aintree, Cheltenham, and Epsom are all racetracks where the stories that unfold evoke that extra gravitas of emotions. But if you’re to picture a British horse racing arena that can eclipse any other for spectators, it is Royal Ascot. Perhaps it is its unmatched royal heritage that heightens it, but 2012 was especially a year to remember. Frankel, arguably the most talented equine superstar to have lived in the realms of horse racing, opened the meeting by thundering home to victory by 11 lengths in the Queen’s Anne Stakes. In the Winners Enclosure, the late Sir Henry Cecil, unquestionably the most beloved figure in horse racing at that time and who consistently enchanted onlookers with his celestial dress, which complimented his empathy-inducing demeanour, tenderly stroked Frankel's chin. Flanked by a stand of worshippers, it would be the last time they would see the then-all-time leading Royal Ascot trainer, who had accumulated 75 wins, and the undefeated colt Frankel. That same year Peter Moody, the Australian horseman and trainer, flew over the celebrated filly Black Caviar, who had been undefeated in 21 starts before running in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes. An ethereal creature that connected with the audience like no other, she was ridden by Luke Nolen, and comfortably struck the front with a furlong left. Then, with 20-odd yards to go and looking for her 22nd victory, Nolen had a brain wave and dropped his hand to ease up. With the others catching, and only with a few yards left, he realised and managed to get the bobbing in arguably the most heart-racing victory of all time! 

It is true that Royal Ascot does manifest a type of pomp that you won’t experience anywhere else. The picnicking bazaar is actually where it’s most evident. The frivolity around you is undimmed by the sound of the corks of Bollinger Champagne, the smell of lobster, and perhaps a whiff of tobacco from a Partagas Lusitanias cigar, which has just been sparked by a black lacquer and palladium lighter from S.T. Dupont. If you were a keen gambler, you'd no doubt have witnessed McCririck presenting market movers in the betting ring in his deerstalker hat, mutton chop whiskers, gold jewellery, flamboyant suits and, of course, on occasion, his old Harrovian blazer and tie, which are seldom seen without him puffing on a cigar. It’s a memorable sight, and over the years, there have been plenty of tantalising outfits that won’t be erased easily from your mind. Not exactly rivalling McCririck for his eclectic image, but perhaps coming close, the late lothario and bon viveur Welsh aristocrat, Sir Dai Llewellyn, 4th Bt, arrived to Ascot wearing a single-breasted huntin’ waistcoat to ward off the inclement weather. 

Gregory Peck at Ascot in a scene from Arabesque, 1966. Getty Images.

In 1972, the Trinidad-born British actress Nina Baden-Semper unveiled arguably the most creative and beautiful outfit, a light beige full-length pleated dress with pleated sleeves, floral pom-poms, and a floral-trimmed floppy hat. At this event, ladies are bedecked with high-end cranium embellishment, some crafted by the late royal warrant holder, milliner Philip Somerville. Over the years, two other outstanding outfits that capture the core of glamour and elegance come from the late James Bond actress Eunice Grayson in a fur stole and hat, and perhaps the most exquisite and timeless ladies costume of all time was donned by Fiona Campbell Walter (later Baroness von Thyssen), who wore a black straw hat, white corded suit, and pearl necklace while carrying a fur stole.

On Tuesday morning, Waterloo station will be awash with a selection of racegoers dressed to the nines in morning dress and elegant dresses. Some arrive by carriage, and for the jolly picnic, smart vehicles will park with hampers full of culinary delights. The jovial atmosphere will last for five days, and there's no doubt that should Gregory triumph in the Gold Cup on Thursday, hats and newspapers will be flung high into the air for a horse that carries the legacy of some great names.

The Royal Enclosure and stands at Ascot, 1908. Getty Images.