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Book Review

Ascot: The History
by Sean Magee with Sally Aird
Methuen Publishing Ltd.
420 pages with 250 photographs

Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire, England, is undoubtedly one of the world's most important racing facilities. Founded in 1711 by racing enthusiast Queen Anne, it has grown to prominence over almost 300 years, hosting some of Europe's most important races featuring many of history's equine luminaries such as St. Simon, Hyperion, Nijinsky II, Arkle, and Dubai Millennium. The highlight of the British flat racing season is the Royal Ascot meeting in June, where the royal family is in attendance to witness Europe's best horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners compete over their racecourse.

Published to coincide with The Queen's Golden Jubilee, Sean Magee (with a foreword by Sir Peter O'Sullevan) walks the reader through the three centuries of Ascot. Starting with the story of how Queen Anne decided on conducting races on Ascot Heath, he explains how the first races were run in multiple heats over the two mile course, race conditions unheard of today. Also, cockfights and boxing matches were once held on Ascot race mornings and evenings!

As was the case elsewhere, Tote (pari-mutuel) betting was introduced in 1929, which had the unexpected effect of an increase in women attending the races. Apparently it was an unwritten rule of the Royal Enclosure that women were forbidden to talk to the bookmakers, so with the availability of the Tote women were suddenly able to place their own wagers without having to ask a man to do it for them. After World War I, a woman named Helen Vernet tried to set up shop as an under-the-table bookmaker for women to use, but when she was discovered, the legal bookies lodged a complaint and had her expelled from Ascot. Ironically she was later hired by Ladbrokes and stayed with the company until just before her death.

Ascot fashion is an ongoing theme in this book, with frequent mention of the styles popular over the years. Hats in particular have been a tradition for its entire history. Plenty of photographs of Royal Ascot racegoers in some very interesting outfits appear throughout.

Although the Royal Meeting is the highlight of Ascot's (if not England's) racing calendar, Ascot also hosts the prestigious King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. Magee dedicates an entire chapter to this race's most star-studded period, the 1970s. Starting with the great Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II, the reader learns about this race's storied alumni. These include champions Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, the great filly Dahlia (twice), and The Minstrel. This great decade was also highlighted by the addition of De Beers as title sponsor in 1975, a sponsorship that continues to today.

Recent history is also well covered. The chapter "The Late Twentieth Century" brings back to life the performances of Shadeed, Shergar, Lammtarra, Dancing Brave, and Desert Orchid over the famed Heath. A separate chapter "Magnificent Seven" recalls the day jockey Frankie Dettori swept the entire seven-race Festival of British Racing card. Five years to the day after the feat, a bronze statue of Dettori was unveiled by the entrance to Ascot's Members' Enclosure. Dettori later purchased Fujiyama Crest, the horse aboard whom he won the seventh race, after the horse was retired in July 2000. The horse lives in a paddock beside Dettori's home in Newmarket. He said "This horse made me famous, so giving him a home for the rest of his life is the least I can do."

Closing out the book, Magee outlines the planned reconstruction of the course in time for its 300th anniversary. A useful appendix lists the results of principal Ascot races since 1945, monarchs and officials in its history, and diagrams demonstrating how the shape of the racing surface has changed over the years.

Ascot's importance in the sport is without question and readers get a thorough review of this great facility, with many photographs included to bring the story alive. The many superstars both equine and human through its history make Ascot what it is today. This book with its encyclopedic information, copious illustrations, and entertaining delivery make it a necessity for any racing fan's library.

Ascot: The History has a list price of $49.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $27.97. If you are in the UK, you can order it from Amazon.co.uk for 17.50. If you are in Canada, you can order it from Amazon.ca for CDN$55.97.

Rating:     5/5

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