Ascot, a suburb of London, owes its name to England’s most prestigious racecourse, Ascot. The racetrack is considered to be the dress rehearsal for the Epsom Derby and is one of the five official horse racing venues in the United Kingdom. The site of the annual fixture is surrounded by tree-lined thoroughfares, historic gentlemen’s clubs, and well-known restaurants.
The racetrack is 1.7 miles long and features 17 flat, fenced-off turns. Notable statistics include:
- The track is wide enough to accommodate up to four-abreast racing.
- It is one of the few remaining horse tracks in England that are not electrified.
- The banking is sloped at 1 in 25, which is unusually steep for a British track.
- The distance from pole to wire is 475 yards, nearly twice that of a conventional UK track.
- The grandstand is one of the largest in Europe, capable of holding 15,000 spectators.
- Ascot is the only horse track in the UK to border two counties, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
If you’ve ever driven on any of the UK’s major motorways, you’ll be familiar with the roundabouts that dot the route. These traffic circles are a common sight in the United Kingdom and were first built in the 1950s to improve traffic flow and reduce journey times. The roads around Ascot are no exception, with this racetrack playing host to some unforgettable motorsport memories.
The Early Years
The original plan for the racetrack was first proposed in 1874 and involved the construction of a new suburb of London. At the time, the idea of having a horse racetrack in the city was quite novel and even considered ‘sporting’. While the plan seemed promising, residents of the area had little interest in horse racing and felt that constructing a new town to house people willing to bet on horses was quite unnecessary.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that racing took off in Britain, with Ascot being the most prominent example. This was in part thanks to a tax rebate on betting interests granted to individuals by HM Treasury in 1911. The incentive was designed to promote competitive sport and in particular, helped to establish the Ascot Racing Club, which was subsequently granted a royal charter in 1919. It continued to grow in popularity throughout the interwar years and was even included in the ‘Top 10 Sporting Events’ in a 1939 book by the British Press.
During the Second World War, the military took over the running of the racetrack and used it to train pilots, radar operators, and other staff for Winston Churchill’s war effort. The Air Ministry even went as far to build a special complex of huts for training purposes. While the track was closed to the general public, the army allowed members of the public to attend ‘war parties’, where they could wager on the outcome of various military exercises.
The Biggest Crowds And Greatest Ever Performances
Since the end of the war, the track was maintained by the military and then handed back to the Ministry of Transport in 1946. This decision was made to reduce the burden on the National Trust, which was responsible for looking after royal parks and other historic royal properties. For the following three years, it was used to host test matches for the newly-created London Cricket Club. After this, it was finally designated as a public park in October 1949 and a year later, the London County Council passed a resolution to accept the provision of a permanent home for the three major horse racing clubs of the city.
The racing season at Ascot usually begins in the spring and continues until the end of October. Weather conditions in central England are considered perfect for sport and it wasn’t long before the track became the regular base for training and then later, competition. The early 1950s were special due to the emergence of a new breed of British racing driver – known as the ‘pilgrim’ – who were dedicated to one thing and one thing only: beating the competition.
Thanks to the patronage of leading light racing drivers such as Peter O’Sweeney and John Surtees, the track saw a golden era in the 1950s. This was marked by some incredible racing memories, with the British Lions appearing at the track in 1954 and an upset victory by the Irish Derby winner, Dark Prince, in 1957. Most significantly, perhaps, was the emergence of a new superstar in the shape of 20-year-old Mickie Freeman. Nicknamed ‘The Maestro’, this young man was so taken with racing that he dedicated his life to it, becoming not just a competent but effective competitor at Ascot and elsewhere.
In 1959, a fire at the track left several people injured and prompted safety concerns. These were heightened in the aftermath of the Glorious GIFT winning season of that year, which was marred by arson attacks and other forms of criminal activity, including violence directed at officials, fans, and participants. When the fire service inspected the track, they found that measures such as the grandstand, which was built after the war and expanded during the 1970s, had not been maintained properly. As a result of this, they advised that it be closed for an hour or more after each use to allow time for the removal of debris.
The Post-War Era
While the safety concerns raised by the 1959 fire were addressed and a brand new stand was opened in 1960, this did not deter the authorities from closing the track for three seasons between 1960 and 1962. During this time, the Army sold off the land that the track occupies to a property developer. The new owner of the land, William Hill, did not have any experience of sport and was dubious about the future of having a track in his development. The threat of eviction loomed and the decision was made to sell the track to the government for development.
This was a pragmatic decision and had to do with finances. Public money was needed for a variety of key projects and the Minister of Works had to find a way to fund them. This led to the construction of the M4 motorway, which skirts the south-eastern periphery of Ascot to this day. Work began in 1965 and was completed four years later. While this was an unwelcome development for many, the new road was a necessary evil and has undeniably improved traffic flow in the area.
The government’s involvement in sport and the building of new roads did not end there, with the construction of the M40 in 1968 leading to a major expansion of the Ascot Racecourse. This was another response to the needs of an expanding population and addressed the issue of traffic congestion in the southeast. The project also included the provision of a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. The main contractor was Sir Robert McAlpine, who oversaw the construction of the M25/A250, an orbital motorway around London, which was initially completed in 1999. The M40 was officially opened in 1972 and the M25 and A250 followed in 1985 and 1994 respectively.
How Do I Bet On Sports?
You’ll undoubtedly be aware of the existence of bookmakers’ and betting exchanges, where sport fans can place bets on the outcomes of their favourite sporting events. The development of these sites and the subsequent expansion of the online betting market have made it possible for punters to place wagers from the comforts of home, with early morning starts and late nights being the preferable times for this.
There are also a number of betting organisations that operate solely within the horse racing industry, such as Betfair and Skybet. These sites often offer in-house bookmakers, which means that they have the technical advantage of being able to set the odds and market forces, which effectively make them the ultimate betting destinations. However, what is the advantage of being technically proficient if you can’t access the markets?
Ascot is a quintessential ‘summer’ track, as the temperatures often reach a blistering 40 degrees in the UK in the height of the season, which provides the ideal conditions for an afternoon of sport or an evening of partying.
This year is the 125th anniversary of the track and it will be marking this landmark by reviving a unique betting scheme, which rewards punters for turning up early in the season – before the track gets too hot – and sticking with it until the end, when the temperatures drop again. The scheme, called ‘The Ascot Grand Tour’, gives members of the public who register on the website ahead of the season start in March, the opportunity to win prizes by coming to the track on certain date ranges. These are as follows:
- Miners’ Monday – Before the season starts and for the first three weeks of the season
- Tipsters’ Thursday – For the rest of the season