Pack the Hamper, James; It’s Ascot Time


It’s a tailgate party unlike any other. But it’s an event until any other: the week-long Royal Ascot racing meeting. Scheduled for June 14-17, Ascot gives Britons one last chance for a proper garden party before going separate ways for the summer “hols.”

Formality of fashion is the standard at Ascot. The men in gray morning suits and top hats look like extras from “My Fair Lady.” For women, Ascot means a hat – probably expensive—and an outfit to go with it. After all, the Royal Family is on hand each day, and it would be unseemly to wear less than one’s best.

The racing itself starts in the afternoon, but the party begins much earlier. Those important enough to be admitted to the Royal Enclosure – the grandstands and lawns used by the Royal Family – arrive early to beat the traffic jams. But they don’t leave their Rollses and Bentleys in a vast parking lot. The Royal Enclosure Car Park is a section of the parklike infield. Here the gentry picnic while awaiting the day’s events.

The picnic does not feature Kentucky Fried Chicken and Budweiser. As passengers climb from their cars, the chauffeur-cum-butler uncorks the first bottle of champagne. That’s sipped while patio furniture is unpacked and lunch arranged. Lobsters do appear, but quiche, patés, and cheeses are far more common, all served on china with silver settings.

For tailgaters with more casual tastes and no servants, the major stores, like Fortnum and Mason’s and Harrods, offer picnic baskets filled with the sorts of delicacies never imagines at football games, with prices to match.

The Royal Family arrives at the track in a traditional procession. A line of horse-drawn carriages passes the grandstand to the applause of the crowd and doffing of hats. From then until their getaway at the end of the day, the Royals wander about the grounds, no doubt eying fashions and gauging chances of horses like the rest of the crowd.

A lot of horseflesh races during the Royal Ascot meeting, all bet on by people who spend the rest of the year oblivious to the animals’ existence. The real point of going is to see and be seen. After the last race, the grandstand empties rapidly, and the second massive traffic jam of the day begins.

In the Royal Enclosure lot, however, the party continues. For while the passengers watched the races, the chauffeurs did the dishes, and dinner is now waiting. By the time that’s eaten, traffic has cleared. The chauffeur repacks the patio furniture and drives home in the twilight so his employers can rest up for the next day’s party.