18th century health and safety regulations
Crowds were not separated from races by strong posts and rails and by strict access rules as they are today. We know that in the late 18th century there were only rough posts and rails on the inside of the track and nothing on the outside.
Racegoers were not forbidden from walking on the course, so in hot summers it became more like a dust-track, and when it rained, like a quagmire. The spectators even crowded onto the track to get a better view of the race, but Ascot at least didn’t share Newmarket’s tradition for those on horseback to ride in with the runners.
In 1823 the Duke of York arrived so late that he had to gallop up the course whilst the first race was being run and only just arrived at the Royal Stand before the winner passed the finish post.
During the 1827 Oatlands Stakes the crowd pushed onto the entire width of the track after they thought the whole field had passed, but one poor straggler coming up behind couldn’t stop in time – the jockey was thrown and seriously injured.
In 1887 crowd control seemed almost as chaotic. About 300 yards from the finish in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, a mounted police inspector decided to cross the course as the race went past, causing one horse to throw its rider and three others to be pulled up to one side.
Unique to Ascot, a bell is still rung as the horses swing into the straight for races run on the Round Course, a tradition which has held the test of time. Clearly in the past this was an effort to avoid dangerous incidents, by warning people still on the track.
Not just human traffic on the course…
Today the Ascot track is seen as almost sacred turf but incredibly, even as late as 1920, a large flock of sheep – three to four hundred strong – was kept on the course between meetings. One of their number was sent to the butcher every Monday; the meat was then hung in the subway leading under the road to the Royal Enclosure and sold to Ascot employees at a shilling a pound.
Everyone who was anyone had gone to Ascot
By the mid-18th century Ascot Racecourse had become so fashionable with the aristocracy and gentry that the more well-to-do areas of the capital were nearly deserted of both people and horses during Royal Ascot. A friend of the Duke of Bedford wrote to him in 1760 that when he turned up in London “everyone was at Ascot heath races and I could find no soul to dine or sup with.”
By the turn of the century the demand for coach horses had become so high in the week of Royal Ascot that it was almost impossible to find them available for transport anywhere in London. Carriages, coaches and wagons of all types, sizes and states of repair were commissioned to transport racegoers, and the towns and villages along the way came out specially to watch the enormous motley caravan pass through.
More courses than horses as Ascot takes a long lunch
At least as far back as the 19th century, racegoers only watched one race before having to stop for luncheon – an hour-long affair including (for those who could afford it) cold meats, hock and Champagne. As a result, timekeeping lapsed year after year and although the races were supposed to take place every 30 minutes, it was usual for the last race to conclude at 6.30 or 7pm!
Winning owner goes home empty-handed
Today it is hard to imagine just how dangerous the roads to and from Ascot could be in the 18th and early 19th centuries – robberies and murders were frequent along the route. Wealthy owners and patrons were obvious high-profile targets and it was always widely known who had just had a successful meeting and would be travelling home with the winning purse in their carriage.
Most of the criminals who stalked the Ascot roads were far from our romantic image of the dandy highwayman, although some did try to maintain standards. In 1774 a young highwayman held up a carriage on its way to Ascot and relieved two gentlemen of £10. Gallantly, however, he handed back a lady’s purse containing 20 shillings to its owner. He was caught on the course the following day and sent to jail – but it is unlikely that the judge would have shown any leniency on account of his moment of chivalry.