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A Royal Affair

Mark Dye is a freelance journalist based in London.

Nowadays as famous for its hats as its horses, Royal Ascot, one of the world's premiere sporting events and a who's who of horse-racing, represents a thriving commercial success for a meeting that still retains its royal roots, says Mark Dye

Royal Ascot is a truly international phenomenon, a colourful extravaganza that has retained its place at the top of the British social and racing calendar for nearly 300 years. Few sporting events can claim such a rich history and even fewer such commercial prominence.

Over the course of a week some of the world's best horses and trainers will gather to fight it out in front of royalty for their share of a prize that had swelled to £3,665,000 in 2006.

A showcase for the sport, with what most consider the best racecourse in the world, the 30-race programme represents a who's who of horse-racing.

The event, held in the third week of June every year, is Europe's premier flat race meeting, one that encompasses a wonderful carnival atmosphere with attendees attired in an assortment of hats and outfits.

Before the glitz, it was Queen Anne who first saw the potential of a racecourse for Ascot. She was out riding when she came across heathland not far from Windsor Castle which seemed ideal for galloping horses on. This led to a racecourse being built in 1711 at her request and it was in August that year that Ascot staged its first meeting, Her Majesty's Plate: a race worth 100 guineas and open to any horse, mare or gelding over the age of six.
 
This first race was competed for by seven horses each carrying a weight of 76kg and comprised three separate four-mile heats; each heat being around the length of the Grand National course.
 
The area close to the village of East Cote where Ascot was built was originally bought at a cost of just £558 and in 1794 George Slingsby, a Windsor builder, erected the first public building holding up to 1650 people. It was used until 1838.

Today, Royal Ascot has a brand new £200 million, 80,000 capacity super grandstand, an 8,000 capacity parade ring, a newly refined course and some lucrative long-term deals with the likes of Sky and the BBC, the latter of which provides coverage accessible in over 200 countries for its global audience.

Even a move to York in 2005, while redevelopment work was taking place on its ancestral Berkshire home, failed to deter its passionate following as more than 220,000 flooded the meet during the five days, smashing all previous attendance records.
 
The new Ascot not only looks and feels very different to those gazing down from its imperious new grandstand, but also provides state of the art comfort for jockeys and horses alike. With more than 265 private boxes, various restaurants, suites and marquees, Royal Ascot is now the largest hospitality event in Europe employing 6,000 people.

Before the sweeping changes and its elegant makeover, Royal Ascot has always been about the racing and the quality of horses on display. But it hasn't always been plain sailing for those involved.

Before its reincarnation, the course was infamous among jockeys and trainers alike for its imperfections, most notably a road that crossed the racetrack on one of its main straights, something which it was feared could cause needless injuries.

According to Chris Stickels, clerk of the course, the new track has been built on a proper profile, leaving it balanced and more consistent, giving Ascot a winning formula for future success from the grassroots up.

"A lot of courses outside Europe have been built to profiles before, but this is the first time this type of track construction has been done in Europe," he explains. "In terms of how we've done it, everything points to it ranking as one of the top grass tracks in the world: on the world stage with racing purists."

These days racing is a full-time, money-making all weather pursuit for those involved and Ascot has worked hard to bring the turf up to scratch.

Ascot legend and fans favourite, Pat Eddery, says the changes offer something different to those racing. Eddery, who rode more than 73 Royal Ascot winners during a glittering career, says that the roads were always a worry with young horses – many of them being afflicted with back and leg problems after hitting the mats at speed.

So the changes mean good news for horses and racing purists alike, with Eddery admitting that in the past injury fears raised by trainers would often be pushed to one side by owners who would simply want their horses to race at the meeting, such is it's special place on the racing calendar.

These days, as a trainer, Eddery understands both sides of the coin, but it's clear that he has lost none of that old sparkle or passion as he recalls what drove him on in his heyday.

"When I was a young boy and you watched the television and saw the big meetings like Ascot, that was enough to inspire anybody that thought about a career in riding," he says.

Eddery also recalls his own arrival on the scene at Royal Ascot when he picked up the habit of winning and seemingly never looked back. "The first one was when I was an apprentice back in the seventies and I won The Wokingham on a horse called Skyrocket. He was 20/1, my first ride of the meeting and he won," he adds. "To get a ride at Ascot and win one was amazing, particularly as I was only 17."

This is in stark contrast to one dark day years later, when Eddery won The Queen Anne Stakes only to be disqualified along with the other three leading horses for interfering with each another. This left the fourth horse as the winner following the stewards enquiry and was a bitter pill for all to swallow.

For those jockeys who are in demand, the triumph or the heartache can last for five days with multiple rides.

"Every jockey who goes there is just itching to ride a winner," says Eddery. "Every single horse is doing his utmost to try and win and it's just so competitive."

The special atmosphere generated by Ladies day in particular only adds to the intoxication of the event, with Eddery admitting not to have been the only jockey mesmerised and given a lift by the collage of colourful hats and outfits that greet jockeys in the parade for races such as The Gold Cup.

"There's nothing like riding out under that track and looking up and seeing all that colour. It's just amazing to look at," he adds.

All this can lead to a pressure cooker atmosphere for those taking part. "If you were in demand in the days when I was racing and it was a four day meeting, you'd end up with 25 or 26 rides and every single one is important," he says. "So, if you go out on a horse and it is fancied, you have to remember that the owners have prepared it for that particular race alone. That's pressure, real pressure."

With such narrow margins for error, the fine line between tasting glory and the isolation felt by those trudging unsuccessfully back to the stables means that even Ascot legends have to admit that sometimes it's just not your day or week.

"Oh it's happened," laments Eddery. "I've been there and not ridden a winner the whole week. It's a long walk in on the last day. You just can't wait to go home and forget about it and hope the year goes by quickly so you can start afresh the next.

"Royal Ascot is just wonderful," he says. "You've got all the good horses, the best jockeys, the best trainers, people from all over the world are there and everyone dresses up beautifully. And not forgetting the Royal family, who always attend. It's a great spectacle. What more could you want?".

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