My Introduction to Royal Ascot

And so another magnificent Royal Ascot meet is in the books and boy did it have something for everyone. But one result, the historic Gold Cup, triggered a look back in time when yours truly attended his first two, and only two, Royal Ascot meets and got lots more than he expected. ~ Steve Haskin

My Introduction to Royal Ascot

By Steve Haskin


Ah, Royal Ascot. There is nothing like it. Where else can you see thousands of women’s hats all different and thousands of men’s hats all the same? Where else can you see a 150-1 maiden with virtually unknown connections win the group 2 Norfolk Stakes and then have the very next race won by The King and Queen? Where else can you place a bet on what color outfit the The Queen is going to wear each day? Where else can the aristocracy share the same grounds as the working class but kept as separated as first class and steerage on the Titanic?

Where else can you see 400 helicopters and 1,000 limousines deliver patrons to the track? Where else does the crowd gather after the races each day for a sing-along. Care for an afternoon tea cake, hand-crafted of course? Well, at Royal Ascot you are not alone, as 240,000 of them are consumed during the five-day meet, not to mention 56,000 bottles of champagne.

And for sheer excitement watching the races even Eliza Doolittle, trying to act like the cream of society, lost it. You remember: “Come on Dover! Come on Dover! Move yer bloomin’ arse!”

And then there is the Ascot Gold Cup, the centerpiece of the Royal Ascot meet that dates back to 1807. That’s only five years before England had the audacity to invade America again and 202 years before Wesley Ward had the audacity to invade Royal Ascot.

What better stage for England’s greatest showman Frankie Dettori to bid farewell to Royal Ascot with his ninth victory in the Gold Cup and having the honor of being the first jockey to receive the Gold Cup trophy from both Queen Elizabeth and King Charles. It was 31 years ago that the wild and carefree 22-year-old kid from Milan, Italy started making a name for himself in England by winning back-to-back Ascot Gold Cups with Drum Taps. That would be surpassed when he rode the great stayer Stradivarius to three consecutive Gold Cup victories from 2018 to 2020.

This year Dettori teamed up with Stradivarius’ trainer John Gosden again to win the Gold Cup in thrilling fashion with the lightly raced and undefeated Courage Mon Ami. Looking at the 4-year-old’s pedigree was like going through a time warp, taking me back to 1977 and ’78 and my only two visits to Royal Ascot, and two special years in my life. Courage Mon Ami’s maternal great-great grandsire is Ile de Bourbon, who I saw win the 1978 King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot. Also in Courage Mon Ami’s female family is Shirley Heights, who I saw win the Epsom Derby that same year during my three-week stay in England. I will never forget the son of Mill Reef darting to the rail in the final yards to just nail the pace-setting Hawaiian Sound, a 25-1 shot ridden by none other than Bill Shoemaker.

During the Royal Ascot meet that year I had a meeting with Peter Towers-Clark, the editor of Stud & Stable, the leading weekly magazine in England that was the equivalent of The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record in the United States. I had been writing features for the Thoroughbred Record, including one on England’s National Stud where I visited and photographed Derby winners Mill Reef, Grundy, and Blakeney, and several features for Stud & Stable, including one on Ribot and his groom. After meeting with Towers-Clark he hired me to be the magazine’s official American representative, writing stories and features, and lining up potential advertisers. My first major article under that title was covering that year’s highly anticipated Travers showdown between Affirmed and Alydar and the lead-up to the race and its controversial aftermath.

Two weeks after returning home from England, and feeling good about myself for the first time in my life, I finally built up the nerve to ask the young lady I had been talking to on the phone for many months, but was afraid meet in person, if she wanted to have lunch near her office in Manhattan. She agreed and, despite my nerves turning me into a babbling idiot, here we are 45 years later with a beautiful daughter and two wonderful grandchildren.

But let’s back up a bit. As I said, I made my first visit to Royal Ascot the previous year in 1977 and was privileged to witness the great French stayer Sagaro become the first horse to win three Ascot Gold Cups, as he romped to his third consecutive victory.

However, as memorable as that was, let me assure you that Royal Ascot back then was not the Royal Ascot you see now, and that has nothing to do with the new spectacular grandstand that was built between 2004 and 2006.

Now you see people everywhere photographing the Royal Procession with their cell phones as it makes its way around the grandstand and into the walking ring. The Queen and now The King waves and everyone is happy.

My introduction to Royal Ascot back in 1977 was quite different. I arrived at the track early, well before people started arriving. I decided to take some random photographs, starting with the walking ring and the grandstand in the background. Almost immediately I was approached by a bobby, or policeman if you prefer. Although we weren’t in London I like bobby better than policeman.

“I need to take your camera,” he said.

“Huh?” I replied in my typical articulate manner. “What for?”

“You’re not allowed to take pictures,” he informed me.

“But there’s no one here,” I tried to explain. “It’s an empty walking ring,” adding that I was just a poor naïve and uninformed American caught up the magnificence of this spectacular facility. Well, I didn’t really say that last part, but I did say the first part with a sorrowful, pitiful tone in my voice.

However, my seemingly rational explanation and pathetic demeanor went unheeded, as he proceeded to tell me I had to leave my camera behind and could pick it up when I left. I pleaded my case, telling him I was an American journalist with photographer’s credentials, which was true. And I showed it to him. That did the trick. He allowed me to keep my camera, but reminded me that I still could not take random photographs, whatever that meant. Did that mean I could only photograph nothing? What about a horse? Could I have gotten my walking ring shots later on with horses in it, but not without the horses? I was confused. But no big deal, I had already taken several empty walking ring shots before being confronted by the law.

I eventually made my way up to the enclosure we’ll call the press box. Having made my first visit to England for the Derby the year before, I knew a lot of the British media, thanks to my good friend Peter Scott, the well-respected racing writer for the Daily Telegraph who was the English correspondent for the Daily Racing Form.

So I hung out in the press box with the writers and photographers. Behind the press box there was a balcony overlooking the area where patrons entered the track. Directly below the balcony was a gate that the fancy-clad patrons passed through. I had nothing better to do so I began photographing some of the people, especially the glamorous ladies in their exquisite attire.

Just then, from below, another bobby yelled up at me to give him my camera. Not again. I was a credentialed photographer up on the press balcony merely taking photos of people entering the track. Or so I thought.

“You’re standing over the Royal Enclosure side of the gate,” he said. “No photos allowed inside the Royal Enclosure.”

Not only was I unaware of that, I wasn’t inside the Royal Enclosure, I was above it. You mean if I moved about 15 feet to my right and took the same photos I would be OK because I was now standing over the outside of the gate?  Amazingly, the answer was yes.

“I’m not giving you my camera,” I said. So he proceeded up the stairs to take it from me. Just then the other photographers and several other media members went on the stairs and blocked his way and wouldn’t let him up, explaining to him I wasn’t aware of such an insane rule (I added the word insane). Finally, feeling outnumbered and being admonished so vociferously, he retreated back down the stairs. My camera yet again had escaped the clutches of the law.

Afterward I was told  that photographs inside the Royal Enclosure were prohibited to protect whichever Duke or Earl or Lord or whatever member of the upper crust might be there with a female companion he did not wish to be seen accompanying. Of course I could have moved several feet to my right until I was above the other side of the gate and gotten the same shot and that was OK. Don’t ask me to explain that. I couldn’t care about the men in top hats. I just wanted to take photos of stunning looking women.

I also heard that you weren’t allowed to photograph the Royal Procession, but that is where I became a hardened criminal and took a number of photos anyway. At the previous year’s Derby I took numerous close-up shots of The Queen and Queen Mother arriving at the track and watching the races, as the Royal box was right next to the press section. Also, I got a great shot of The Queen Mother waving at me from inside her limo, so I felt I had a special connection with the Royal Family and they wouldn’t mind me taking pictures of them riding in a carriage. And I could always claim my camera was zoomed in on those gorgeous white horses pulling them. My mind was starting to act in strange and devious ways.

Fortunately I didn’t have to use my number one excuse in case another bobby popped out of nowhere. “Uh, I’m sorry, I’m just a dumb American who loves The Queen and your country and wasn’t aware of your most fitting and proper rule.”

OK, enough about the nonsensical cloak and dagger world of photography at Royal Ascot in 1977, except that once the action began I was able to become just another media photographer and even crossed over to the infield to get great shots of the grandstand. When we moved to Connecticut last year and downsized I finally after 46 years was forced to get rid of all my slides of Royal Ascot. I wonder how many blackmail opportunities were in those boxes.

You have to remember that back then a member of the American media was not a common sight at English racetracks, especially at Royal Ascot, so the British media took me under their wing and felt protective of me, as they demonstrated by standing up to that bobby. They also knew very little about American racing and loved listening to my stories and asking me questions. I will never forget when I returned to Royal Ascot the following year the Coventry Stakes for 2-year-olds was won by a horse named Lake City, who was a son of Annihilate Em. No one in the British media had a clue who Annihilate Em was so they approached me en masse to find out about him. I told them he won the Travers Stakes when Secretariat got sick and was unable to make the race. The next day I picked up one of the newspapers and read, “Lake City is by the American sire Annihilate Em, who upset Secretariat in the Travers Stakes.” Yikes.

To demonstrate the lack of interest in American racing at the time, when I returned to England in 1978 I stayed with another journalist buddy of mine George Ennor, who wrote for the Sporting Life, the equivalent of the Daily Racing Form. On the second Sunday I was there, a week after the Epsom Derby, I eagerly waited for the morning newspaper to arrive (I can’t remember if it was the Times or the Telegraph) to find out who won the Belmont Stakes. I hated missing the Affirmed—Alydar showdown and Affirmed’s attempt to sweep the Triple Crown, but my plans had been made months in advance.

The paper finally arrived and the only story I saw was some boring piece about the previous day’s nondescript feature at who knows what track. Then at the very bottom of that story was a single one-sentence paragraph that read: “In America, Affirmed defeated Alydar in the Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown,” That is how I found out who had won one of the greatest races ever run in America. That shows you how wide the chasm was back then between American and European racing. It was indeed two separate worlds.

So those were my only two visits to Royal Ascot. I would love to return with my wife and daughter one day just so they can go out and buy a new wardrobe and hat collection.  My only camera now is one of those tiny Canon Power Shots, the size of a pack of cigarettes. I promise to leave it home just in case I run into a couple of 80-year-old bobbies who still remember me.

Photos courtesy of Alan Crowhurst, Megan Ridgwell, Royal Ascot, and Keystone Archives.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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