Ascot holds some of the UK’s biggest flat horse meetings, ranging from Royal Ascot in June to British Champions Day in October. In July, the focus for the Berkshire track is their QIPCO King George Diamond Weekend and the headline attraction, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
The action is held across two days, a Friday and a Saturday. Although Friday holds a bumper card of races including the Listed Valiant Stakes, the real focus is Saturday’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, one of valuable contests of the year. This one and a half mile Group 1 is open to horses of three years old and above and is arguably the most prestigious open-age race of the season.
There are seven supporting races on King George Diamond Day which include the Princess Margaret Stakes, the Pat Eddery Stakes, and the valuable International Stakes Heritage Handicap.
A Complete History of Ascot’s King George Diamond Weekend
This two-day July meeting is Ascot’s mid-summer showpiece thanks to the inclusion of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. As Europe’s leading mile and a half contest, it frequently welcomes some of the most supreme names from around the continent. The massive reputation of this contest alone makes this meeting a major one in the flat racing calendar.
Although the King George is by far and away the star of this weekend gathering, there is a decent supporting cast on hand. Racing takes place across Friday and Saturday with seven contests featuring on each day. Aside from the main event, there are three other Class 1 events to feast your eyes upon. We will now explore more about their respective histories as well as highlighting any major changes to the meeting itself.
1946 – Princess Margaret Stakes inaugurated
As Ascot resumed following the end of World War II, it kicked things off by introducing a brand-new race. The race was named after Princess Margaret, the younger daughter of King George VI, so it is fitting that it should feature during this meeting. Strictly for two year old fillies, the young Orum Blaze won the first-ever running of the contest. It stands as the oldest contest to featuring during the King George Diamond weekend, edging out the main attraction by five years.
1951 – King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes begins
Informally and commonly referred to as simply the ‘King George’, Ascot has been hosting this race since 1951. The reason for its lengthy official title is because it is actually the end product of two merged races. Prior to this, Ascot had held a two-mile King George VI in October and a one-and-a-half mile Queen Elizabeth in July. Both races were in their infancy before the merger, having only been set up after WWII.
The idea to merge the races and have a major international contest over the distance of 12 furlongs came courtesy of Ascot’s Clerk of the Course, Major John Crocket Bulteel. The year 1951 seemed a fitting time to have a race named after King and Queen too as it was the year of the Festival of Britain. When launched, it was the richest race in the nation, offering £25,322 in prize money to the winning horse, which in this case was Supreme Court.
1972 – King George sponsored
Despite the massive reputation of the King George, the powers that be at Ascot were reluctant, or unable, to sign a deal with a commercial sponsor. This finally changed in 1972 however when they negotiated a deal with diamond company De Beers. Three years later and ‘Diamond’ was added to the race’s title following the approval of Queen Elizabeth II. De Beers ended up backing the ‘King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes’ right through until 2006.
1976 – Race of the Century?
You will find that racing fans will squabble over what deserves to be known as the best race of the 20th century. There are several fine candidates, each with their own strong claim for the title. For many though, the 1975 running of the King George is the most deserving. The hotly anticipated event featured defending two-time champion Dahlia, Epsom Derby winner Grundy and St Leger title holder Bustino.
With Bustino having the superior stamina, Dick Hern set out two stablemates to launch a fast early pace in what was a very tactical battle. As they approached the latter stages, the plan appeared to be working with Bustino enjoying a four-length lead into the top of the straight. Grundy soon pulled level though and the two ended up battling it out side by side as they pulled clear of the rest of the field.
Despite the furious efforts from Bustino, Grundy ended up taking the race by half a length, with third place Dahlia five lengths back in third place. Such was the ferocity of the leading pair’s clash, Grundy smashed the race time record by nearly two and a half seconds. The record stood for 35 years until it was narrowly bettered by Harbinger in 2010.
1983 – Piggott does it again
Look at any major British flat race born no later than the 1960s and you will nearly always find Lester Piggott on the list of winning jockeys. He fared much better in some races than in others though, the Princess Margaret Stakes being one of the good ones. Having notched his first winner in this contest in 1958 on the back of Parrotia, he made it number 10 in 1983. He thus set a truly formidable record, and Piggott is in little danger of being displaced as the leading all-time jockey of this contest any time soon.
1986 – Princess Margaret upgraded
The Princess Margaret Stakes enjoyed a small boost in 1986 as it went from Listed classification to Group 3. It has remained a Group 3 contest since, allowing it to attract a higher level of young fillies.
2000 – International Stakes brought forward
The often well-attended International Stakes Heritage Handicap had originally taken place during August at Ascot, two weeks after the King George Diamond weekend. The situation changed at the start of the new millennium though with the competitive contest moved to late July. It has been a part of this weekend ever since, producing some fantastic renewals in this time. One particularly notable running came in 2017, when it was won by the 50/1 shot Stamp Hill with the four horses behind him all priced at odds of 22/1 or greater.
2002 – Valiant Stakes moved
First run in 1998, the Valiant Stakes had initially been part of Ascot’s August schedule. During its inaugural running, it appeared as the Bonusprint Fillies’ Conditions Stakes, open to fillies and mares aged three years and older. In 2002, Ascot organisers opted to bring the contest a few weeks forward in the calendar, featuring on the opening day of this formerly three-day meeting.
Just three years before, the Valiant Stakes was awarded Listed status, having previously run as a Class B Conditions race. Under the new format, the first winner of the contest was Pink Cristal, trained by Henry Candy.
2005 – Newbury obtains the Diamond meeting
Due to extensive redevelopment work, Ascot was not able to host any racing in 2005. While this was a blow, the £185m face-lift ensured that Ascot returned in 2006 better than ever. There would be no loss of major festivals either with all of them re-housed at various locations across the country.
In the case of the King George Diamond Weekend, Newbury Racecourse, around 30 miles to the west, became its temporary home. Although it perhaps did not carry quite the same magic, Newbury did a fine job filling in as hosts. This is the reason why most winning times across races for this year were faster than usual.
2006 – Winfield Stakes founded
The King George Diamond Weekend said hello to a new race this year, the Winkfield Stakes. For the unaware, Winkfield is a village located just north of Ascot. The seven furlong race was first won by the American-born Satulagi.
2009 – King George hits £1m worth
We mentioned before how for over three decades, De Beers sponsored the King George, a deal that ended in 2006. Well, in 2009, Betfair ended up being the new sponsors of the prestigious contest. In doing so, the prize fund increased from £750,000 to a huge £1m.
Two years later the contest enjoyed another boost as it became part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series. This meant that whoever ended up winning the King George would receive an automatic invite to the Breeders’ Cup Turf later in the year.
2012 – Meeting rescheduled
The 2012 King George Diamond Weekend took on a slightly unusual form in 2012. Instead of a three-day meeting, Ascot held a weekend-long fixture on the 21st and 22nd of July with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes being the star of the show. Five days after this, they held another two-day meeting which included main supporting acts such as the Princess Margaret Stakes and the Valiant Stakes.
What also made this year’s meeting rather different from the rest was the addition of German success. Although the King George is a race with international interest, Danedream became the first German-trained winner in the history of the contest. Trained by Peter Schiergen and ridden by Andreas Starke, the two Germans helped Danedream beat defending champion Nathaniel by a nose.
2015 – Diamond Weekend cut short
Previously, the Diamond Weekend meet used to be a long weekend affair, taking place between the last Friday and Sunday of July. With six or seven races per day, there was a combined total of 19 contests during earlier editions of this summer fixture.
The situation changed quite significantly in 2015 with the meeting cut down to just two days. As only seven races now featured per day, this meant reducing the total numbers of events by five. Some minor events ended up bidding their farewell as a result but no major events were lost.
2016 – Namroodah stripped of Valiant title
An enthralling battle occurred in this renewal of the Valiant Stakes which saw a fierce three-way battle down the home straight. Namhroodah had taken control of the entirety of the race but her lead began to appear in danger inside the final furlong. Facing a strong challenge from both Red Box and Irish Rookie, Namhroodah ended up squeezing the latter between the fence. Clearly frustrated by this block, Ryan Moore could be seen remonstrating with Namhroodah’s jockey Jamie Spencer after the finish.
Sympathising with Moore’s complaints, the race stewards opted to demote the original winner to third place. Additionally, Spencer was hit with a three-day ban for careless riding. There was no true justice for Irish Rookie though, as the initial second-place finisher, Red Box, was subsequently promoted to victory. The stewards acknowledged that Irish Rookie would have won had it not been for the interference but they were bound by the standard rules.
2016 – Pat Eddery honoured
In 2015, the racing world mourned the loss of Pat Eddery, an 11-time British Champion flat jockey and one of the all-time greats. Throughout an incredibly successful career, the Irish-born jockey won 4632 British flat races, a figure only bettered by Sir Gordon Richards. To honour his life, Ascot permanently renamed the Winkfield Stakes the Pat Eddery Stakes,
Under its new title, the race witnessed a hugely entertaining renewal with the first five of the nine runners involved all finishing within one length of each other. The nail-biting contest was narrowly won by Ed Dunlop’s Apex King with Moticello and Frankuus trailing by a neck and head respectively.
2020 – Bumper Diamond Weekend card
Rather than featuring seven races per day as it had done for the previous few years, the Diamond weekend appeared in a different form this time around. This was a direct result of the global health crisis which forced the entire card to be run in the absence of public spectators.
The revised format saw Ascot host nine races on Saturday and a further eight races on Sunday. The total number of Group contests went from two to three as the Valiant Stakes, enjoyed promotion to Group 3. One even more notable change was the huge cut in available prize money for the King George. Due to the financial impact of the lack of spectators, a reduction of £850,000 was applied to the overall purse. In an attempt not to discourage entries though, the entry fee for trainers remained at 1.25% of the total fund rather than the new 2% upper limit set for Group 1 races.
2020 – Enable makes King George history
Through a variety of reasons, one of which no doubt being the slashed £400,000 prize fund, the 2020 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes only welcomed three runners. This represented a significant drop from the fields of 11, seven and 10 witnessed in the three runnings prior. Although it consequently lacked the same levels of anticipation, it was still a significant renewal as one of the three horses involved was two-time champion Enable.
Before Enable, only two horses had successfully won this race on more than one occasion: Dahlia (1973, 1974) and Swain (1997, 1998). Dahlia did attempt to make it three but finished a valiant third as a five year old in an absolutely blistering race (see the 1975 entry). Swain on the other hand retired before being able to give it another attempt. Despite never being managed before, 4/9 favourite Enable secure a third King George triumph as she easily brushed aside Sovereign and Japan. In doing so the six year old mare also become the joint oldest winner of the contest, alongside Swain.