Ascot Anecdotes – Part 4

A scandal on the cards

It is hard to imagine today that the major political parties would have any use for the Royal Ascot racecard as a means of propaganda, but in the politics-obsessed world of the 1840s, that is exactly what they did.

In 1843, the Tory-supporting Master of the Buckhounds transferred the printing of the racecards from Mr Oxley, a Whig newspaper owner, to a printer employed by the Tory party. The affair caused such excitement and scandal that letters and leading articles appeared in all the main newspapers of the day. This meant that Ascot racegoers now had the confusing choice of two different racecards – the official and the unofficial versions.

The following year, to dissuade them from buying Oxley’s “unofficial” version, the Master of the Buckhounds had leaflets distributed around the course denouncing the Oxley card, and the Great Western Railway refused to sell them at their stations.

But the public, either showing political allegiance or just fair play towards Mr Oxley, demanded only his card or nothing, and he was eventually reinstated by overwhelming popular demand.

Ascot trains take the strain

The scale of the rail logistics involved in transporting passengers to Ascot in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw a week of unparalleled demand on the railway companies.

Special trains would run one after another, one being made ready as another was filled up and departed. Over the four days of Royal Ascot, an incredible 150 additional special trains were laid on from Waterloo and Paddington. The railway companies didn’t even own enough rolling stock to accommodate the Ascot passengers, so had to borrow entire trains and extra carriages from three other railway companies.

Racecards keep the spectator in the dark

The 21st century race enthusiast would be lost without their racecard and its detailed information on form, so we should spare a thought for the race audiences of days gone by. It wasn’t until 1888 that it was printed in the booklet format that we would recognise today.

Until then the general racegoer had to make do with a large and awkward single card, which contained sparse and incomplete information. The colours were stated as far as possible, but you could not rely on what was printed as there were no penalties for not declaring, or even changing your colours before a race.

There were about a dozen larger-format cards printed for the occupants of the Royal Stand, which at least had spaces left for the colours and any other information to be written in by hand by the Secretary after the jockeys had been weighed.

Not another two-horse race…

Most racegoers of modern times would feel slightly confused by the type of races on show in the late 18th century, which were very different from those run today, not just in their length, but in terms of who took part. Even by the meeting of 1794, when Ascot racing had been established for the best part of a century, there were only six races with three or more runners. There were three two-horse races, and in addition ten “private matches” between individuals on their own terms.

A game gets out of hand

Most modern racegoers are content with placing a bet, large or small, on the thrilling outcomes of the day’s racing. But our late 18th century counterparts were so obsessed with gambling that as well as boxing and cock-fighting and other entertainments, spectators could wager on cards, thimbles, and especially on the most popular game of the time – EO, a forerunner of roulette. It was so popular that ten marquees existed in the 1790s  solely for EO gaming, and the results were rarely in the racegoers’ favour, which of course led to fights.

One of the worst was in 1799 when a scuffle over alleged fixing turned into a fully-fledged riot, pitching owners of other betting booths against aggrieved customers. It became so serious that the Light Brigade had to be summoned from Windsor to quell the spreading mayhem and there were many arrests, some leading to lengthy prison terms.

DID YOU KNOW? Ascot Racecourse is perhaps most famous for its Royal meeting in June each year, but in fact it hosts racing throughout the year with both Flat and Jump racing fixtures. Jump racing first took place at Ascot in 1965 following the closure of the local Hurst Park. It was deemed a huge success but the Sunday Times found a “Flat racing swell” who believed that having jump racing at Ascot was “like going to the Ritz and ordering fish and chips”.

 

 

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