Royal Ascot is a five-day Flat racing meeting staged annually in June at Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire, South East England. Situated approximately six miles from Windsor Castle, Ascot Racecourse has long been associated with the British Royal Family. Every day of the Royal Meeting, from Tuesday to Saturday, at two o’clock sharp, the Royal Procession, headed by Her Majesty The Queen, arrives at the Royal Gates and makes its way up the straight mile course to the Royal Enclosure.
In 2020, Royal Ascot took place behind closed doors and, for the first time in her 68-year reign, the Queen did not attend. The schedule was expanded to include 36 races, six more than a ‘normal’ year, but still included eight of the 32 Group One races staged annually in Britain. The highlight was, as usual, the historic Gold Cup, first run in 1807 in the presence of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Under normal circumstances, Royal Ascot offers in excess of £8 million in total prize money, making it the most valuable race meeting in the country. Indeed, while only around 500 jockeys, trainers and support were allowed entry to the racecourse in 2020, the usual attendance is around 300,000 over the five days, making Royal Ascot one of the highlights of the British sporting and social calendar.
Jump racing, also known as National Hunt racing, is the discipline of horse racing in which, at least in the majority of cases, participants are required to negotiate a series of obstacles, in the form of hurdles or fences. However, in a so-called ‘National Hunt Flat Race’, colloquially known as a ‘bumper’, which is confined to younger horses with little or no racing experience, no obstacles are involved.
National Hunt races are staged over distances between two miles and four-and-a-quarter miles. Hurdles consist of a series of lightweight, brushwood panels driven into the ground at an angle, to create an obstacle at least 3’1″ high and 30′ wide. Fences are more substantial obstacles, consisting of a rigid frame filled with birch switches, natural or artificial, to a height of at least 4’6″. National Hunt horses often begin their careers over hurdles before graduating to fences, but can alternate between disciplines without restriction, subject to individual race conditions.
Traditionally, the National Hunt racing season ran from the Charlie Hall Meeting at Wetherby in late October or early November to the Jump Finale at Sandown Park in late April, but the introduction of so-called ‘Summer Jumping’ at certain racecourses means that, nowadays, National Hunt racing takes place pretty much all year ’round. Highlights of the National Hunt season include the Cheltenham Festival, staged annually in March and, of course, the Grand National Festival at Aintree, staged annually in April.
In simple terms, a maiden race is a horse race in which none of the participants have won in that specific discipline at any recognised race meeting anywhere in the world. Maiden races come in various ‘flavours’, including handicaps, conditions and weight-for-age races, and are run on the Flat and under National Hunt Rules. However, horses often progress from one discipline to another – for example, from Flat racing to hurdling, or from hurdling to steeplechasing – during their careers, so specific rules apply to each discipline.
On the Flat, horses that have won a National Hunt Flat race are still eligible for maiden races, but horses that have previously run on the Flat are ineligible for National Hunt Flat races, maiden or otherwise, regardless of whether or not they have previously won a race. Over hurdles and fences, horses that have won a National Hunt race are ineligible for maiden races, as are those that have won a steeplechase at a point-to-point meeting.
Granted that less than half of racehorses ever win a race, it is not unusual to read in the racing press that so-and-so is a ‘long-standing’ maiden. Eligibility for some maiden races is based on age or sex, but so-called ‘all-aged’ maiden races are typically open to any horse aged four years and upwards provided, of course, that is has yet to shed its maiden tag. Some horses never do, and develop a cult following as they continue, year-after-year, without winning a race. Steeplechaser Quixall Crossett, for example, went to post 103 times in his career, but the best he ever managed was two second-place finishes.