You can’t find a corn dog at Royal Ascot. England’s preeminent thoroughbred event is nothing like the horse races I grew up around in Georgia. Order a Diet Coke and get lectured on social graces by a guy who is visibly inebriated at 10 am Ask if they have chicken tenders instead of Peking duck salad and it’s as if you picked up after your dog with a Union Jack.
Pump and circumstance fuel the whole affair. For a country that delights in comparing itself to us left Americans, there sure are a lot of Rolls-Royces and Range Rovers queued out front. Inside the gates, it’s all top hats and tails, fascinators and frills. The dress code was last updated, I suspect, when your day could still be ruined by scurvy.
What exactly is Royal Ascot? For more than 300 years, dolled-up Brits have gathered outside of London for what’s evolved into five days of horse racing, gambling, and general ostentation. Graced by the queen, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Harry and Meghan, and others Tatler fixtures with several middle names, Ascot is a premier social to-do for those concerned about such things. Were you there? Where did you sit? To some, these answers are a declaration of who you are and why others should care. Why was I there? Mainly for the free scones. Little else about the day, from what I read online at least, failed to horrify me. The outfits, the idea that attending Ascot speaks to one’s social standing, and the presumption of who that might attract filled me with a disdain at direct odds with my love of free snacks. In the end, clotted cream won out.
Strangely, it’s easier to describe Ascot to someone who’s never been. To England, I mean. If you say, “Downton Abbey gets drunk at the races,” an American might get the gist. However, to anyone who’s actually glimpsed modern life in our closest political and cultural ally, it’s almost impossible to imagine such a step back in time. Is this what a fallen empire does for amusement? Tighten the screws on traditions that survived its demise? Your guess is as good as mine, though I expect that old world and our new one might soon collide when #AscotSoWhite trends on Twitter. This place makes Wimbledon—Royal Ascot’s only true rival for the title of Britain’s Pimmsiest Day Out—look like the UN
The Brits love a costume party, but the most shocking thing about Ascot is that it’s not one. We’re not asked to pick an outfit that transports us back to the time of Oscar Wilde and TS Eliot. Ascot, despite appearance, isn’t a nod to the Roaring Twenties of a century ago. A time before the Geneva Conventions outlawed things like willful torture, biological experimentation, and if I’m not mistaken, the garden pea and lentil parfait I spat back into this napkin. No, we may be at a horse race in formal morning dress, but no one’s even pretending it’s not the 2020s—the Reeling Twenties, a decade besieged by pandemic, war, and inflation.
Prince Charles, a guy who, at the age of 73, has yet to start the job he was born to do, kicks off the day’s festivities with a slow, clockwise trot around the track in his royal carriage. It’s a bit jarring to the American eye as, according to legend, our Founding Fathers decided we would race counterclockwise as a middle finger to our former sovereign. Now, the new guy—or at least the next in line—plods along gingerly as his predecessor surely did at the first Royal Ascot in 1711. Only now, instead of loyal subjects waving back to their divine ruler, Charles is greeted by thousands of cell phones recording the entire procession. What great repeat viewing that must be.
Had he noticed me outside the Furlong Club, I wonder if the Prince of Wales would swell with family pride at the Windsor knot I managed to tie all by myself this morning, despite a deeply held conviction that neckties should be reserved for when a close friend is getting married or buried. How many other royals are in these stands? I wonder. Just how royal is this Ascot? My gut tells me the boxes to my left are read with those needing anywhere from, say, 15 to 300 of their kin to perish before they can assume the throne. But, hey, that’s just a guess.