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Royal Ascot: 300 years of horses, hats and high society

By Alysen Miller, CNN
  • Britain's most glamorous horse-racing event celebrates its tri-centenary this week
  • Royal Ascot is the jewel in the crown of the English summer "season"
  • Queen Elizabeth II has been attending Royal Ascot since before her reign began
  • The real spectacle of Royal Ascot is arguably the fashion -- in particular the hats

London (CNN) -- Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, the Kentucky Derby, the Melbourne Cup ... the leading horse-racing nations of the world all have a showpiece event that makes aficionados and casual observers alike stop in their tracks for 10 short minutes as a nation collectively bates its breath over the winner.

But few sporting venues can match the rich history and heritage of Britain's Royal Ascot. The English racecourse celebrates its tri-centenary this year -- it was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne -- with its 300 years of pageantry, fashion and traditions firmly intact.

As well as being one of the most important elite race meetings in the world, this week's Royal Ascot is the jewel in the crown of the English "summer season" -- a whirl of society events in the warmest months of the year that includes the likes of rowing's Henley Royal Regatta and the Wimbledon Tennis Championships.

"To our mind, since the middle of the 19th century Royal Ascot has always been the pinnacle of the whole season," explains Charles Barnett, chief executive of Ascot Racecourse. "People like to come out, see their friends, dress up and enjoy a great day at the races."

Royal Ascot celebrates 300 years

King Edward VI famously described the races as "a garden party with racing tacked on." In fact, many of the classical social occasions that make up the English season are, first and foremost, world-class sporting events.

The English season traces its origins back to the 17th century, although its heyday arguably came in the Victorian era. Originally devised to keep everyone entertained while Parliament was still sitting, the season has not only survived into the 21st century, but the events that make up the season are, for the most part, more popular than ever.

Purists cite the duration of the season as running from Easter to August 12, when grouse shooting begins. But it is with Royal Ascot, a perennial favorite of the current Queen Elizabeth II, that the season seems properly to get underway each year.

Ascot occupies a distinctive place in British popular culture: it's no coincidence that Audrey Hepburn's character in the film "My Fair Lady" was unveiled as a fully paid-up member of the upper classes at Royal Ascot.

It's this fantastic pageant ... To me, it is just the best race meeting in the world
--Ascot chief executive Charles Barnett

The mystique lies in its long association with Britain's royal family. Nestled in the English countryside just six miles from Windsor Castle, on land still owned by the Crown Estate, successive generations of royal patronage have endowed Ascot with many of its unique traditions. Not least of which is the Queen's arrival each day by horse-drawn carriage.

"Because it's effectively an event which is royal, the royal family arrives by carriage," Barnett says. "The Queen says 'hello' to a few people then she goes up into her private box, where she watches racing all day.

"Sometimes she'll come down and see horses in the parade ring, some days she'll present prizes, and if she's got a runner she'll go down to the pre-parade ring to see them saddled."

Queen Elizabeth has a well-documented interest in all things equestrian, and has been attending Royal Ascot since before her reign began in 1952.

"The industry's tremendously pleased that we have a monarch who's so keen," Barnett says. "She's probably been coming to Royal Ascot more than anybody else!"

Known for her love of racing, the Queen has enjoyed more than 20 winners at the Berkshire course's blue riband event -- a streak that began with her first victory in the Royal Hunt Cup with Choir Boy in 1952.

The industry's tremendously pleased that we have a monarch who's so keen
--Charles Barnett

The real spectacle of Royal Ascot, however, is arguably the fashion -- in particular the hats.

The wearing of hats is another tradition that traces its origins to the royals: it was not considered respectful to have one's head uncovered in the presence of the monarch.

The Queen is often at the center of feverish speculation as to what color and style of hat she will wear on a given day.

On Ladies' Day, the hats often range from the exquisite to the eccentric. As one of the few remaining social occasions that requires ladies to wear hats, in recent years fashionistas have raised the bar with sculptural designs that are works of art in their own right.

As the celebrated course celebrates the busiest week of its 300-year history, Barnett knows the eyes of the world will be on Ascot from June 14-18.

"It's this fantastic pageant: amazing carriages, wonderful colors, the best thoroughbred horses flashing past, an opportunity for people to dress up in top hat and tails and lovely hats. To me, it is just the best race meeting in the world."