A Day at the Races: My Fair Lady Hits Royal Ascot, or Tailgating British Style
18.06.2004 - 18.06.2004 75 °F
A HORSE IS A HORSE, OF COURSE OF COURSE!
8:30am, June 18, 2004. When Naomi had invited us to their annual Ascot outing, I was very excited. Had I heard about Ascot? Did I know anything about horse racing? Of course! I was well-bred- I had seen ‘My Fair Lady’ dozens of times on TV and the play just about as many; the modern day version in the form of ’Pretty Woman’ had Julia Roberts, in her classic brown dress with white polka dots, shouting in a California race track in homage to Eliza Doolittle’s verbal blunder at Ascot. I had grown up watching horse racing, recalling fond memories of sitting as a kid with my dad by the TV, with race forms in hand (given away by the local grocery store chain), hearing the ‘Ding’ and the announcer, “And they’re off! Here they come…” Growing up, I lived not far from 2 race courses which I had been to about a few dozen times in my life: Arlington Park for thoroughbred racing, I had also worked nearby for a couple of years and enjoyed their Friday afternoon ‘Party in the Park’, which always included a Blues band. I had also been several times to Maywood Park for harness racing (mainly with friends; back when you would drop a business card in to be chosen for free entrance for you and 20 friends with 1 drink and a 1 hour buffet), and once to the Hawthorn racetrack (for Viva Chicago- that counts as a visit!). Okay, truth is I knew slightly more than diddly squat of horses or horse racing; I couldn’t tell you if the horseracing I watched with my dad was thoroughbred or harness, but I have always enjoyed the excitement. My race track bets consisted of the minimum ($2 USD, if I recall correctly-never one to bet more than I could afford), my picks to click were made not by the silly way of jockey choice, but intelligently, scrupulously studying race forms and choosing the horse with the funkiest name. Vidal’s trips with me to Chicago had always been too jam packed with visiting family & friends for me to take him to Arlington Park, so he was clueless when it came to horse racing. Friends of ours lent us their ‘Seabiscuit’ DVD, this was my sole tool for teaching Vidal the finer points of racing before our trip overseas. We were ready!
♪ FOUND MY COAT, GRABBED MY HAT; MADE THE BUS IN SECONDS FLAT…♪
Actually, Vidal had the coat (and tie), I would be wearing the hat-to-be-announced-later; the bus was really Mike’s car that would take us to Naomi’s at 9 AM, the meeting point for our Day at the Races. Tradition was that we leave early for a picnic before the races. Picnic? Cool! I can dig it; I love tailgating before the game! Vidal was handsomely decked out in his black suit, black shirt and olive tie; once he donned his black shades, he could have passed for Mafioso. I put on my ‘Julia Roberts polka dot dress’ (brown instead of black and minus the white gloves); and we were off to Naomi’s house to pack up for our Day at the Races: Ascot! I had expected to purchase Italian shoes during our jaunt to Venice ad Florence for the occasion, but unfortunately everything I had found was too uncomfortable… The comfort of my tootsies was much more important than looking chic, so when Naomi’s friend Ange said we wore the same size shoe and that she had a collection of shoes that rivaled that of Imelda Marcos and I was more than welcome to borrow a pair, I gladly took her up on the offer. We arrived at Naomi’s; Ange was there with a collection of black shoes (although she did have an Italian pair, I chose a more comfortable less sexy pair), black hats what the hey-I chose the Mad Hatter one)
-Just kidding! My Mad Hat wasn't quite THAT mad! (and black purses (no contest: I chose the furry one). We were introduced to Naomi’s friends Sue, Paz and Glenn the Paramedic who would be our designated driver of the rented van. They had already packed the van before we arrived; it was just a matter of putting a few coolers in Mike’s trunk. Gents in jackets and ladies in heels, this Mad Hatter got in the car with them; we were off to the races!
TAILGATING IN THE PARKING LOT, ENGLISH STYLE
Why a van and a car, as there would only be 8 of us and Mike could easily fit 5 comfortably in his own car? After all, it was just a picnic in the parking lot before the races; sounds a lot like our American tradition of tailgating before the game… Not even close; I had no clue what we were in for. My mouth dropped when we helped start unpacking; out came a gazebo tent. We were going to have a proper picnic before the races, and we had needed a large vehicle to help cart along the gazebo, tables, chairs, food (shrimp, etc), champagne, ice, silverware, crystal stemware, fine linen, serving platters, 2 sets of fine china and a partridge in a pear tree; let’s don’t forget the tea and cakes afterward. Besides these differences of English vs. American styles, there was the parking lot – excuse me- the Car Park-itself. We were about a half mile from the race track, parked on beautiful grass with lovely woods as a backdrop, like being in a forest preserve. There were a few other picnickers already parked, with plenty of space in between. This was no bumper-to-bumper pack ‘em in like sardines and who cares about nicking your neighbor’s car door parking lot; at no point did the lot get crammed with cars. There seemed to be an unwritten law that one must park no closer than 50 feet from the nearest picnickers.
We set up the finery; Mike’s bookie, Sharon, and another friend joined us. A limousine pulled up not far just in time for us to take group photos. We sat and enjoyed a leisurely picnic, starting with champagne and strawberries; the champagne was not the cheap Andre’s that I was used to spitting out on New Year’s Eve by my second sip- it was real champagne, and it was divine. We sat down to eat our meal; no burgers, no hot dogs or brats, no messy grill. Aside from the gorgeous shrimp there were cold cuts, several types cheese (always a delight for this gal), breads and salads. And no disposable anything! First class, all the way. Just like our tailgates at White Sox games, or day at the river outside of Zihua… I tried to sit gracefully in my pretty dress but my clumsy butt would have nothing to do with that, and I oh –so- gracefully broke a chair. Yep, you can dress me up, but… The food was absolutely incredible, the weather was a bit chilly, the sky was gray, but when the sun did manage to peek out for a bit, it was perfect.
YOUR CHARIOT AWAITS
After putting away the food and dishes, we headed towards the racetrack at 1:00pm. We wanted to be there for the Royal Procession, which was to take place at 2pm (first race at 2:30); the queen would surely be waiting for us to wave at. We started off with the crowd, having good conversations with Mike, Naomi and Paz, when a horse and carriage came by. We asked how much for kicks, it was 60 quid –that’s like $120 USD! No way Jose! All of us but Mike kept walking, but Mike stopped at the carriage, paid the driver and told Naomi and I and the guys to get in, his treat! Big hugs and thanks to Mike first, Naomi and I got in with Vidal and Paz and we rode in style…
As we were passing by Ange and the others (who had been walking about half a block ahead of us), they turned and waved as we called out, the look on their faces was priceless as it dawned on them they were waving to us as they yelled out “Hey! That’s not fair!” We smiled in return and gave them the Queen’s Wave… They did end up passing us up, as it took us 20 minutes in traffic. But we were, after all, the ones who arrived in style! We passed by a very crowded car park much closer to the racetrack; it was full to the gills with cars having picnics, which were more like the tailgating I was accustomed to. Funny, the whole carriage ride I swore I had heard people running behind us, a man yelling “I say, stop this nonsense, come back right now! Stop, I say, Stop!” and a woman’s voice screeching, “Off with their heads!” We arrived to the stares of the onlooking crowd and we smiled; we were about to enter the park when Naomi got a call from Ange: Naomi had Ange’s ticket in her purse and could not get in. Vidal and I did not want to go in without her; so we all went together to find Ange; 3 gates and 15 minutes later, we entered.
THE QUEEN WHO FOUND A RACETRACK
Ascot, founded by Queen Anne in 1711, is not England’s oldest racecourse (that would be the 16th century Chester Racecourse). The centerpiece of Ascot’s year, Royal Ascot, which started in 1711, is not England’s oldest horse race (that would be the The Kiplingcotes Derby of 1519), but it is the world’s most famous thoroughbred race. It is a public racecourse, although owned by the monarch, adding to its fame. The Royal Family attends each day at Royal Ascot, arriving in a horse drawn carriage… which Mike had hijacked for us and therefore they were forced to walk.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WEAR, IT MAY END YOU UP IN JAIL
Royal Ascot is a major social event with loads of press, a sort of place to see and be seen. The dress code is very strict, but mainly for the Royal Enclosure: Shirt, shoes, top hat and tails required for men complete, gals not allowed to show midriffs or shoulders and must have their headgear as well. See for yourself, straight from the horse’s mouth (or at least, the official Ascot website):
Royal Ascot Grandstand Admission Dress Code
Ladies are required to dress in a manner appropriate to a smart occasion. Many wear hats although this is not compulsory.
Gentlemen area must wear a shirt and tie, preferably with a suit or jacket. Sports attire, jeans and shorts are strictly forbidden.
Royal Enclosure Dress Code:
Her Majesty’s Representative wishes to point out that only formal day dress with a hat or substantial fascinator will be acceptable.
Ladies: Off the shoulder, halter neck, spaghetti straps and dresses with a strap of less than one inch and / or miniskirts are considered unsuitable. Midriffs must be covered and trouser suits must be full length and of matching material and colour. Gentlemen are required to wear either black or grey morning dress, including a waistcoat, with a top hat. A gentleman may remove his top hat within a restaurant, a private box, a private club or that facility’s terrace, balcony or garden. Hats may also be removed within any enclosed external seating area within the Royal Enclosure Garden. Overseas visitors are welcome to wear the formal national dress of their country or Service dress.
Ladies and Gentlemen not complying with the above dress regulations will be asked to leave the Royal Enclosure and relieved of their Royal Enclosure badge.
We were supposed to have been invited to the Royal Enclosure, but somehow, our invites got lost in the mail… That is a hard invite to be got, and nothing to sneeze at once gotten. To be admitted to the Royal Enclosure for the first time one must be a guest of a member or be sponsored for membership by a member who has attended at least 4 times. And that member must have a blood test which results must be personally delivered to the Queen for her Royal Stamp no later than 45.3 hours prior to Race Day. Oh, well. As it was, my dress was sleeveless, so good thing our invites never arrived… All the same, the loss was theirs, not ours; we were already in the company of the ones we considered Royal Family, whose company we had crossed the ocean to be with.
ALL THIS, AND A CHAMPAGNE BAR, TOO
The crowd was huge with over 60,000 people, most with hats, in attendance. I was a bit shocked at the appearance of the grandstands; I had expected something more, I don’t know- royal, old, maybe made of brick or stone- but it was all steel and glass, looking very much 20th century boring- no character. We took our time getting to the Champagne Bar (where we were to meet the others before the 1st race), enjoying the bands and other entertainment.
The girls had told me it used to be more of an event for the ladies to look their best, but now many younger women dressed in less than-the-required smart code, not taking the event seriously at all. Many knew nothing about racing, but were there to be gawked at, purely for the social side and to drink large quantities of champagne. I think that can be said about any major social event, sporting or other. We made a pact, all 10 of us (that includes Mike’s friends who met us there), to meet at the Champagne Bar at the end of the race, as it would be silly for us all to try to stick together.
We had a champagne toast, then Vidal and I went to place our first bets, before Naomi took us out to the grandstand. We missed by a few minutes the Royal Family parading by in our carriage, but since they had neglected to reissue us Royal Enclosure passes, it did not bother us. Besides, we had already had our own carriage driven parade!
STEP RIGHT UP AND PLACE YOUR BETS!
I had been used to the Chicagoland racecourses with the betting windows inside; I was pleasantly surprised that at Ascot, there were betting kiosks all around the racecourse, below the grandstand, on the concourse, everywhere. Vidal and I each bet the £5 minimum, and the 3 of us went up in the grandstand to watch the first race. Even when we later moved to the lawn, the track was always visible from the kiosks, as well as the massive screen for closer looks.
A DAY AT THE ROYAL ASCOT RACES
Our adrenaline was going, the first race was about to start; Naomi found us seats up in the grandstands not too far up. We breathed in the excitement from the crowd; some nervously clenching their programs, others like us just plain excited to be there. Ding! And they’re off! Naomi gave us commentary on the first race, we each cheered on with the crowd for our horses. Vidal had placed Jewel in the Sand to win; he won £50! My horse, Salsa Brava, came in 3rd; I had wanted my usual safe bet to ‘Place’, but when I had gone to make my bet, I had no idea English betting terms were different than American terms. When I was asked if I wanted my horse to Win or Return, I did not want to seem like a silly blonde, so I simply said, “To Win, of course!” Naturally I knew the horse would return to the gate, how silly was that? Naomi later explained to me that our American term, to Place, was the English term, to Return… Oh, well. Vidal’s win was my win, too, right? We went back down to the Champagne tent to celebrate Vidal’s win (and let him gloat), went to collect his winnings and place our next bets. The line was not long, and we saw an opening right at the fence ahead of us… with a view straight ahead of the giant screen! After his winnings were safely tucked away in my furry purse, Vidal and I quickly rushed up to grab our spots for the next race; within a few minutes there would be no open spots to be seen. We couldn’t believe our timing!
…AAAAAND THEY’RRRE OFF!
Our spot was perfect; even though we did not have a view of the finish line (the Royals had that privileged view), it was nonetheless perfect in our eyes. Such excitement! Ding! …And they’re off! The cheers of the crowd rose as the horses got closer; the sound of the horses hooves pounding the dirt resembled thunder to our ears as they whizzed by us in seconds flat; we were so close I swore we could feel the breath of the horses as they flew by us… -Neither of us won on the second race, but we were so excited about our luck in finding our spots, we did not care. We decided it was best if we staked our claim (we weren’t about to give up our spot for any of the remaining 5 races); I was flying high with so much adrenaline, I wanted my dear husband to savor every moment of his first horse race, so I volunteered to be the one to go up to place our bets and tell the others where to find us. So up I went in my heels, which at that point still felt comfortable; due to my adrenaline rush the fact that I had not had to walk from the parking lot, and had worn my more comfy shoes at the picnic before heading to the racetrack. I was waiting for the next race, the Coronation Stakes: The race Attraction had to win.
WHAT’S THE MANE ATTRACTION? THE SEABISCUIT OF 2004
Mike had done his best to prep us on horseracing from his side of the Atlantic. When we told him we had watched ‘Seabiscuit’ a couple of times to get ourselves properly excited (I had also read the book), he was more than happy to fill us in about Attraction, the British racehorse who was being compared to Seabiscuit. The ugly duckling-filly born with wonky legs that nobody had wanted to touch had already in her short life of 2 years seen setbacks which included 2 injuries, and who would be racing, just for us of course, at Ascot. Always one to root for an underdog, my heart was with her and I knew who I would be supporting. I was bouncing out of my heels in line to place our bets, but in the end, Safe-Bet Sandy took over and I only placed to return. A quick stop at the Champagne Bar to see who was there, but all had comfy spots and decided to stay put. So with bets in hand, I returned to Vidal and waited for the bell… Ding!.. And they’re off! Attraction took off and never looked back; I watched the screen with intensity before she came whipping by us, screaming my support the whole time! She finished the race 2.5 lengths ahead of the runner up! I screamed my excitement (and apologies for not betting to win), kissed my husband for being a good loser (next race is yours, honey), took his betting order down in my head and went to congratulate Mike, certain that he was a bigger winner than I. Turned out he lost, he did not bet on Attraction at all…
WHICH HORSE, MISS?
I did not stay to gloat, flying off to collect my winnings and place our new bets… and realized I had forgotten who Vidal said he wanted! I did the most intelligent thing I could think of, closed my eyes and pointed at the page, placing his bet on whatever name my finger landed on- horse #6. By the time I got back to Vidal, my feet were starting to really hurt. He was not sympathetic, as he wanted #3; I had chosen the wrong horse to win. Or so he thought, as #3 did nothing, #6 won! Before the 5th race, I hobbled up to collect money and place more bets. As my other motive was to search for souvenirs, I told Vidal he could stay and keep our spot. After winning again in the 5th race, we both left so Vidal could place the bets and I could go to the restroom (30 minute wait in line, felt like I was at a baseball game).
THE LAST RACE
For the last race our spot by the fence was already taken by someone else, which was a blessing, as even though the walk down was in grass, my feet were by then hurting so much I needed to sit. Naomi and Paz had wandered off and ended up in the Royal Enclosure (I said above that she was part of our Royal Family, did I not?), but Mike and a few others had staked out a picnic bench in the Champagne Bar, so I was able to sit with them and watch the last race on the TV screen above. By the end of the day, Vidal and I had won a collective £131; at £5 minimum per bet and 2 of us betting=£10 per race; x 5 races = only £50 spent- or £81/$162 Take Home - Better than Vegas… at least, for us!
As much as Naomi had tried to keep a plan, best intentions do not always work. Ange had realized an important soccer game was on, and grabbed Paz to go watch it. Glenn walked one of the other ladies to the train, as she was not feeling well. Meanwhile, Naomi had wanted us all to return to the cars together for thoughtfully prepared tea and cake, which ended up to be just half of us. While she was disappointed, feeling it was not the perfect plan she had meticulously drawn out, Vidal and I agreed with evryone - it was a perfect day; by far better that Vidal and I had ever dreamed of.
For more information:
Ascot website: http://www.ascot.co.uk/