Royal Remembrances

By Terese Karmel
When Shakespeare's King Richard III cried out, "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," how could the playwright have known what would occur at York Racecourse more than five centuries later?

Although York, England, the original home of the evil hunchback king, has long had a tradition of fine horse racing, dating to 1731 (the course is in the community once known as Knavesmire--for its swampy land of lowly cattle farmers), this June, there will be more horses on that site than King Richard and the entire royal army could have dreamt of when the Royal Ascot meet moves 220 miles north to the land of sheep farmers while the Queen's track undergoes a £185 million renovation.

For nearly 10 years, I have spent some of my summer holiday at the Ascot meet, starting each day by soaking in the ambience of London's Waterloo Station, where hundreds of English fans in top hats and flowered, feathered millinery, looking for all the world like a crowd painted by Renoir, pour onto the trains for the trip to the tiny village of Ascot.

One of the highlights of my trips was witnessing Sheikh Mohammed's Dubai Millennium tear up the hill to the wire in the 2000 Prince of Wales's Stakes. Jerry Bailey was aboard that day because regular jockey Frankie Dettori was recovering from a near-fatal plane crash. The Yank had had a rough week, but to mount that fine son of Seeking the Gold was to sprout wings and with his fist pumped in the air, won by daylight over a first-class field. I was on the rail snapping pictures from the moment the horses went down to the start to the final second when Bailey crossed the wire. Later that summer, I showed Bailey the pictures. JB: "You were there?" Me: "I'll never forget it...How good was he?" JB: A smile, a thumbs up, a head-on stare into my eyes and then "one of the best." This from the rider of Cigar.

Other memories will remain as permanent slide shows in my mind: a pair of broad-bummed English matrons in flowery dresses, hoisting plastic champagne glasses and shouting, "Let's have a wave and give a shout when she goes by," as the Queen, in so much lavender she looked like a bush, led the parade of carriages up the lush green. One afternoon, I spotted a New York Yankees cap peeking out from among the top hats in the Silver Ring (that's where commoners or "knaves" congregate for the races). A year later, I stood at the edge of a makeshift wood floor and listened as a Barry Manilow-like singer of an English dance hall band crooned World War II songs, while older folks enveloped each other in nostalgia.

And, of course, the horses: the Aussie sprinter Choisir winning two group races in five days; Johannesburg's last race; a wonderful stayer, Double Trigger, who won the 2 1/2-mile Gold Cup once and came in second twice; and the Breeders' Cup horses I laid eyes on for the first time, and then followed as they made their way west, such as Banks Hill, Fantastic Light, Giant's Causeway, and Swain.

This summer, what with the dollar taking a pounding, I'm not sure I want to mortgage the farm to return for the Royal Ascot at York meet. But something tells me that I shall be drawn back to that ancient gated city of York. One morning, as I did during an earlier visit there, I shall witness a street theater troupe trying to convince me Shakespeare, that crafty revisionist, was wrong about that wretched King. I shall drink Black Sheep ale, eat pale, slightly sweet Wensleydale cheese, and peer up at the York Minster, the seventh century medieval church that hovers over the city like a protective god.

And, for yet one more summer, see the finest horses in the realm.

The opening lines of Shakespeare's history of Richard the III are among the most memorable he ever wrote:

"Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York," the then Duke of Gloucester says, relying on a cheap pun to plot his bloody ascension. It has certainly been a winter of discontent in New England (what else is new?): blizzards, endless days of sub-zero temperatures; but my own discontent melts away when I think of the sunny warmth of the green hills and dales of Yorkshire where the sheep outnumber even the horses.

TERESE KARMEL is a Connecticut journalist and college instructor.