Today's slide show: Royal Ascot
ASCOT, England; June 19, 2004—I'm in England for a spree of sporting events, but at the moment my view of the first one is blocked by what appears to be a full English garden precariously balanced atop the head of a woman. Welcome to Royal Ascot, where handicapping acumen is strictly secondary to the ability to properly match an elegant dress with an oversized hat. It's a throwback to the days when only the posh actually went to the races. Now anyone can attend, but only if they dress up like dukes and baronesses. Horse racing may be the den of raffish rogues and insurance cheats Stateside, but in Britain, it's still the sport of kings, at least for a week.
Ascot is about 45 minutes by train from London, although this week, it feels far longer. I am forced to stand in a position even a Tibetan yogi would find uncomfortable the entire way. We may be en route to a horse race, but the experience calls to mind penned sheep. A beautiful woman with classic alabaster skin and a hat nearly three feet in diameter squeezes past, getting far closer than polite society would ordinarily permit. "Quite intimate, isn't it?" she says in what the locals would call a Sloane accent—strictly upper-crust, each syllable able to etch glass. I nod and think about baseball.
Tuxedos and kilts abound, but I have managed to slip into the grandstand in direct defiance of the "jacket and tie required" rule. This is to be the last day of racing at Ascot before a multi-million-pound rebuilding of the legendary course relocates the races to York until 2006, so I should be dressed to the nines, I suppose. But while I will do (and have done) many things in pursuit of sporting events around the world, schlepping a suit across the Atlantic for a few hours of looking sharp for the swells isn't among them.
Those who combine too much jewelry with not enough clothing are sneered at by the proper women and dismissed as "footballers' wives." The epithet may pre-date Posh Spice's marriage to England captain David Beckham, but it has come to be identified with her.
The racetrack was created nearly three centuries ago, when noted equestrienne Queen Anne came upon a clearing perfect for racing horses. The first winner was awarded Her Majesty's Plate, worth 100 guineas. It wasn't until the 1820s that the Royal Enclosure, a gated area—to keep the riffraff from mixing with the blue bloods—was erected. Judging from the folks slowly trudging past the pair of guards checking passes at the Royal Gate, many of them were around for that august moment.
A note in the sports page reveals that over 150,000 bottles of champagne are consumed over the five days of racing. The queen and the stuffy Ascot officials aren't likely to publicize stats on the teams of Foster's beer distributors, who wear giant backpack kegs and move about the Pavilion looking like Ghostbusters, shooting streams of Australian export into decidedly less snobbish mouths. Slightly more refined palates quaff Pimm's, while mostly ignoring the action on the track.
Most English racing takes place on a straightaway, rather than an oval, making it more like a four-legged hundred-meter dash. Also, like their tennis, the English prefer racing to take place on grass, which makes for a nice pastoral feel while flushing your paycheck down the toilet. I like the idea that after a tough race the horse can have a nice snack right there on the course.
But enough about the surroundings—people come to the track to gamble, or "have a punt" as the locals say. There is no shortage of outlets willing to take your money. In addition to the house, individual bookmakers line the grandstand, having paid roughly $450 for a spot to put up a sign and an odds board. The payouts differ slightly among the 50 or so stands, but not enough to really affect the wager, so the best name wins. I eschew the prosaic, like "Peter Sutton and Son,"and am pulled toward the odd ("Tom Fruit"), the coincidental ("Mike Brady"—I'm pretty sure he wouldn't want Bobby or Peter gambling, although Greg is something of a wild card), and the optimistic ("Winmore Racing"). Then I see it—"Stevie Stretch." If I'm to leave my cash behind, it will be with a specialist, thank you.
I drop a quick fiver when Darko Karim, the smallish 2-year-old I back in the card's opener, the Chesham Stakes, finishes with a nice view of the field. But I will make that back and then some in the next race, the Hardwicke Stakes. I'm thinking long shot, but watching the favorite, Doyen, practically sleepwalk around the paddock, lids heavy, total boredom on his face, convinces me that the horse knows something. Sure enough, Doyen runs a perfect mile and four furlongs to cruise to victory, setting a track record in the bargain. Two races in, I'm up 20 bucks.
The queen takes her position in the winner's circle, ready to award the cup for the big race of the day, the Golden Jubilee, which carries a $450,000 prize, which the winning owner will surely value more than the cup and the royal photo-op. I study the form sheet. Cape of Good Hope is a Hong Kong-based sprinter, and I'm partial to horses from the Fragrant Harbor, having lived there and haunted Sha Tin racetrack on many occasions. Great-looking filly Airwave is the favorite, and with good reason—she's won more recently than any horse in the field. I'm contemplating an exacta when I fall prey to an amateur mistake—a horse's name influences my wager. Monsieur Bond catches my eye, not enough to guarantee a bet, but enough to look closely at a stray note in the form guide—"Has enough class, but a little rain might help." Apparently, his père was a mudder, and his mère was a mudder. As if on cue, dark clouds roll in, and it starts to drizzle. Ah, a sign from M (or perhaps Q)! A tenner to win on Le 007 and spread bets on the other two.
If only I had a license to turn Monsieur Bond to glue. His jockey is suspended for reckless riding, otherwise it's an entirely forgettable race. Airwave is also left in the dust, but I have a chance to defray my losses slightly with Cape of Good Hope. Sadly, in England, "each-way" bets only pay out for win or place, and my horse shows.
My final chance to come out a winner is the Wokingham Stakes, a very British affair in that 29 horses are entered, twice as many as in most U.S. races. The field quickly divides in half, with one clump at the near rail, the other on the far side. This tactic doesn't make much sense from my perspective—why not go straight down the middle? Perhaps the animal will only run fast if there are other animals in immediate view, or maybe (in the case of the horses I back) misery loves company. I'm in to win or place, and although my horse, High Reach, has no shot at victory, he crosses the line in a clump of five, requiring a photo to determine placement. Sure enough, my luck (or lack of it) holds. High Reach is judged to come in third. In all, I drop 20 quid—about $35—or "the price of admittance" as a fellow loser calls it. Not even enough for a decent hat at the Ascot gift shop.