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A Day at the Races

by Jennifer Garner

August 8,2009

I remember the week in June that I moved to London there was a strange gaggle of women in floral print dresses and elaborate hats congregating under the departure board at 10:00am. I couldn’t figure out what these over-dressed women were doing at this hour of the morning in such attire at Waterloo Station. This year I am one of them – I am holding tickets to Royal Ascot. As the train to Ascot appears on the board for platform 14, there is a stampede of heels and top hats as we rush to find seats. When you think of Ascot, images of strawberries and champagne, morning suits and women in hats and all the very best of English refinement and decorum come to mind.

The race course at Ascot was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne with the running of only one race. Today, the grounds are still owned by the Crown Estate and there are 25 days of thoroughbred racing throughout the year. Each year 300,000 people visit the tiny town of Ascot in Berkshire for this major event in the summer social schedule. So that the upper classes can flee the heat of London for their country estates, there is a flurry of social events at the beginning of the London summer called The Season. In back to back weeks in May and June, you have the Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and the Henley boat race. Anyone who is anyone and the Royal Family attend these events and are photographed for the society pages of magazines around the world.

With images of Audrey Hepburn in her gorgeous Ascot confection of black and white in mind, we arrive at the tiny 19th century station of Ascot. Our £60 ticket is in the Silver Grandstand, the next best seat to the Royal Enclosure. Seats in the Royal Enclosure are by invitation only and there is a strict dress code. You will not be allowed admittance if men are not in full morning dress and top hat and women in hats with skirts below the knee and no bare shoulders. Extensive explanations are given to this dress code on the official Ascot pages of the web. Refinement and decorum seem to be necessary things to explain in detail to today’s Ascot goers.

Grandstand tickets allow us access to stadium seats and our early arrival ensures us a small plastic table by the track. As we settle in with our champagne, the sun is shining and a light breeze fluttered at the edges of our hats. It is a lovely day to be in England. At 2:00pm precisely, the Queen processes in her carriage from Windsor Castle to the racetrack. She is lovely in a lavender hat and gives us a royal wave of the wrist. It all seems quite posh and civilized. We enjoy another bottle of £60 Moet champagne.

There are 6 races a day on the half hour and as the day goes on the bets go higher and the crowds go down, literally down on the ground with short skirts a-kilter. While “smart” dress is encouraged in the Grandstand, there is no strict dress code. A less than Royal set has been growing in numbers at Ascot and there was a wide range of attire down by the track: slinky cocktail dresses, casual cotton skirts, no hats and some interesting lace up corsets with short skirts in neon colors. The Queen would not approve, I am sure. The men start hugging each other and singing slurred songs. There seems to be much more beer drinking than race watching from the majority of people. We decide not to face these partygoers on the last train out and leave after the fourth race.

When I tell my English colleagues about Ascot I am surprised to learn that very few of them have ever gone. It seems that this great English tradition is now over run by American tourists and those looking for overpriced beer and a day out with horses. My dreams of joining the posh set were a bit dashed, but I won on Irish Girl in the fourth, and had a great day at the races.

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