Traveler's Tales

Royal Ascot: Big Day at the Races

by Stephanie March

We all know the real competition is who wears the best hat. Photo by Sean Dunphy / Flickr.

A few years ago, Fathom contributing editor Stephanie March attended Royal Ascot to watch horses compete in the world's grandest race.

ASCOT, England – Every day is part of your life, but some days are part of the movie of your life. Attending Royal Ascot was one of my movie days. We had a horse in the Coronation Stakes on the fourth day of the venerable Royal Ascot Meet. Eight of us (friends, family, co-workers) set off for London with hats, killer shoes, restaurant reservations, and dreams of winning it big. It was like a Muppet movie. We were going to meet the Queen!

Two days after we landed, on a very drizzly, chilly morning in June, our tense and excited party loaded up a car and made our way through the snaking traffic to Ascot. The last mile took an hour, and reminded me of trying to get from Bridgehampton to East Hampton at 5 p.m. on a summer Friday. We clomped through the damp grass, clutching hats and looking excitedly at the well heeled crowd, and made our way to a luncheon for press and owners (salmon, bread with butter, Champagne, and cold asparagus). After our quick repast, we darted to the Parade Ground, which is like a mini track in front of the main building, to watch the Queen and her party enter the meet.

We were near Her Majesty as she circled the ring in her open-air carriage, but that was as intimate as it got. Interesting side note: You can place a bet with a real bookie on what color hat she will wear each day. We won with yellow. But forget the Queen (and Prince Philip, and Beatrice, and Duke of Kent: yeah, they were there too). Let's talk about the Model U.N. that is international racing. Exotic Middle Eastern sheikhs mingle with dashing Frenchies and loudmouth yanks. There were characters from all over the United Kingdom and South Africa, and everyone was dressed to the nines.

Oh, the dress code! It is a very serious business, and one would do best to put no less than three months thought into it. As an owner and a guest in the Royal Enclosure, we were required to dress as if attending a garden party in Edwardian London. That means men in a proper morning suit with top hat and ladies in skirts to their knees and hats or fascinators of a noticeable dimension. No cutting corners. While it is not required, it is generally acceptable to consume several bottles of Champagne. We held up our end of the deal on all counts.

The box where were spent our afternoon was lovely. (Churchill Downs would do well to take note how well cared for we were.) In the States, a concrete slab with six crappy folding chairs and fast food qualifies as a first-class racing experience. Not so at Ascot. We had a server, indoor sitting room, mini kitchen, coat rack, and exterior balcony to watch the races. We were escorted to the paddock to watch the riders saddle up. We mingled with media and fancy international types in the enclosure before the race. I was interviewed by Hat Magazine (yes, there is one) and an extremely distinguished gentlemen gave me a long once-over and invited me to Greece on his yacht. Yep, very promising.

As the race went off, thousands of bobbing heads, topped in designer haberdashery, screamed like maniacs. The race caller bellowed and purred. The rain pelted the crowds; the wind whipped at our frocks. Thousands of pounds changed hands. Tears and smiles and hands shot into the air as the winner crossed the finish. The ecstatic owners raced to claim their victory and the tired ponies were rubbed to a sheen as their grooms escorted them back to the barn.

We just sat there. We came in second. To last.

You know what? That's what the Champagne is for. And the friends. And the photographs and the dizzying, delicious memory of dressing up for a day in the movie of your life. We didn't win, but, man, we had a good race.


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