A Royal Experience

By Vic Zast
By reading the British fashion press, one learns that gloves, like cars, should be black or white. In England, it is required that you get your gear on right.

The haberdasher Beau Brummel decreed in 1807 that gentlemen must wear pantaloons and waistcoats to Royal Ascot, and his mandate for formality, at least in the Royal Enclosure, has stuck ever since. The requirement for finery applies to any occasion at which commoners can mingle with royalty. But the standard serves another purpose, also.

Without top hats and tails, Royal Ascot wouldn't be as famous, and everyone with an affinity for making money understands this.

There have been 12 British monarchs to attend the races at Royal Ascot, but the current queen is especially involved in the sport. Since 1953, she's owned 19 Royal Ascot winners, the last of which, Blueprint, succeeded in 1999.

Her Majesty arrives in a procession of horse-drawn wagons, alights from her carriage unassisted, and plunks down in the Royal Box to bite into a watercress sandwich. Yet, all the while, she's into the action, studying the form and inspecting the runners in the Parade Ring.

Ever since the reign of Queen Anne in 1711, this blissful ritual has occupied the monarch's attention each June. Horse racing in the Windsor Forest, at least for five days, rises to the top of the "must-do" list for the crème de la crème--strawberries notwithstanding.

Royal Ascot leads into Wimbledon tennis, Wimbledon into golf at the Open, and thus begins and ends the short, albeit glorious, sporting season. There is also a rowing event called the Henley Royal Regatta, but the real passion in England is for horse racing.

It's not just The Queen who comes to Royal Ascot. The Gotsrocks and Doolittles are represented in the crowd. People from all walks of life, from throughout England, appear. Their devotion is exemplary, their participation compulsory.

Below, and to the right of where The Queen sits, is where the "un-favored" congregate, and here, in the grandstand and the Silver Ring and beyond the fences of the enclosures, there are carryings-on less in keeping with the racetrack as she knows it.

Most people merely preen and while away the day hand in arm, propping themselves up from the dizzying effects of their besotted behavior. There is "punting" with the bookies in the stalls taking place, and cheers go up on the heath when the horses run, but the pre-occupation lies elsewhere.

In the boxes, corporate hospitality reigns. On Ladies' Day, shopgirls from the outskirts of London arrange picnics. At the end of each card, people flock to a bandstand for singing. The purists ask, "What do any of these activities have to do with horses?"

Much is written about the 170,000 bottles of champagne that are drunk and the 10,000 lobsters eaten, but these tallies describe the commerce. Where the real accounting lies is in how successfully 300,000 people come together.

Nevertheless, controversy is in attendance at this year's Royal Ascot because HOK Sport Architecture has carved into the Windsor Forest a beastly efficient new building to replace the old chummy elegant one.

Built at a cost of $430 million, the racetrack, which is shiny with glass and a corridor with escalators that reach up to a spiked roof, will take getting used to. But as soon as its patrons discover it can provide them the same opportunity for excess as the old one, it, too, will be rendered irreplaceable.

Sadly, there are those who believe the single proper purpose of going to a racetrack is to bet. But these folks are in the minority at Royal Ascot, and therein lies a lesson.

The greatest numbers of fans go to the races for the fun of an incomparable occasion. Keeneland, Del Mar, Saratoga, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (both gr. I) in the United States provide Royal Ascot-like reasons for seducing the masses. The allure of these experiences drives attendance and handle, not the other way around.

It is wrong to believe that only devotees with a love of the Thoroughbred deserve a place in the Turf Club. Or that to be a genuine fan one must take racing seriously. Racing is best when it's democratic, not burdened by snobbery.

The Royal Ascot of today is proof that between black and white, there is gray.