The 2011 Race to the Royal Ascot
<em>(Ed. Note: Last week, EscapeHatch contributor (and veteran journalist) Marcy MacDonald attended the Race to the Royal Ascot, one of the world’s premier horse racing events. She filed this story before the race, but I was too preoccupied playing golf in Hawaii to notice. Nevertheless, Marcy is always a good read. She resides in NYC but spends most of her life on the road.)
Guests included Lord Northbrook, Sir Benjamin Slade Bt and his partner Kirsten Hughes, Henry & Lucy Reid (now with homes in Teluride, Gstaad, Gloucestershire, London and Verbier) The charming new Ambassador of Ukrain H.E. Mr Volodymyr Khandogiy and his wife, Brigitte Nielson, Lady Henrietta Rous in her signature shocking pink stockings and red hat, H.E. The Lithuanian Ambassadors daughter, Aiste Anusaite-Daubaras, Mililnner Deida Acero brandishing hats for Winnie Forsyth, Karen Phillipps etc,
Where does the creme of the Britain’s haute society meet anually to celebrate themselves? At a racetrack. Not just any old hippodrome, but Royal Ascot. And they’ve done it this way for 300 years.
Invented by Queen Ann as a good bet to appease the upper classes, Ascot has become big fun — and big business.
This year, the Royal Enclosure will admit a select few socially prominent gamblers (at 90 pounds sterling-per-day before you pay for a single glass of Pimms, not to mention a betting form or a even a Bookie) to join the Queen and her family for a close look at the ponies and the newest Royal, Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, who made a dazzlingly brief appearance.
But hold your horses! A pony named ‘Big Willie’ was being touted by Ascot Bookies at 20-1, but despite the fact that he had better legs than any of the fillies with only two, lost anyway. Have another drink!
Incidently, the Royal Ascot Race Meeting is open to all (including members of the press who aren’t allowed to swill champagne in the Enclosure), and some of the most glamorous Boxes of all time line the perimiter of the Course; the Orient Express rolls its clients all the way to the center of the inside track for a view of the horses and the Stands, literally from the inside out. But admission to the Royal Enclosure is at the Queen’s pleasure, and your social creds — or lack of same — could determine your place on the list. If not, try the American Ambassador whose allotment is up to 1500 fellow bloody foreigners, many of whom rely on greenback connections for admission.
Caution: If you took the Rolls to drive between London (or, worse, the airport) and Ascot, all of the friends you left behind at the train station were swilling bubbly on the Great Lawn while you were still parked on the M4. And, yes, cops are everywhere — just to make sure that you’re not doing anything illegal in the back seat. British Rail has a remarkable ‘on time’ record during the Races, and drinks can be had on board.
In a country where Noel Coward wrote that “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out n the Midday sun,” liquid sunshine (aka rain) is always the uninvited guest at Ascot. Don’t forget a brolly, and not one with any four-letter or sales-related insignia on it, or you will be asked to depart before the first race. Cheating is frowned upon: should you be tempted to wear someone else’s badge (as did Joan Collins a few years ago) for entry to the Royal Enclosure, you’ll be banned from Ascot for life. Or longer. Read up on how not to be an Ugly American by reviewing the daily tabloid columns (they make the ‘National Enquirer’ look like child’s play), and grab a copy of ‘Private Eye’, Britain’s literate, irreverent weekly that makes ‘The Onion’ look like a snarky high school rag. Both ‘OK’ and ‘Hello!’ will run photos of the most outrageous hats — and hatters — at week’s end, so don’t be caught doing anything horizontal under the Stands or in the Car Parks that you don’t want your Old Aunt Fanny to see in glittering color: Now, there’s a toxic video that exhibitionists can really enjoy!.
Some wags are so busy partying at the upper crust luncheons on the grass (some of which is smokeable) in Car Park #1, they never actually make it to the Races (and yes, Bookies and gypsies cruise the car parks giving advice and taking bets). But trying to crash one of these salmon-packed parties is a little like breaking into Fort Knox without an exit plan. After all, being thrown out of a parking lot isn’t pretty.
If your name falls a little short of the Social Register, contact London’s Queen of the Night, Liz Brewer (turn on the telly and you’ll see her as the artiber of taste and refinement on a show called “From Laddettes to Ladies”), who cohosts her annual Ascot luncheon with George and Tanya Piskov: Part with a huge donation to one of her favorite charities and you may get an invite to her much photographed event on the first day. Which could make for a well-deserved tax deduction.
Unlike most Tailgaiting parties, Bentley, Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce and Daimler — some of which can be rented from Jack Barclay on Berceley Square) — outrank the common Lexus which is probably hidden somewhere in Car Park #25.
Before the opening gambit, your own personal race from shop-to-shop begins. Cash knows no enemies.
Hats: Aye, and here’s the rub: real hats — not the fascinators you can get away with in the Stands — are worn in the Royal Enclosure and ladies must cover their shoulders, and gentlemen wear Morning — or Military — drag. Don’t ask. However, outside on the Ascot grounds, anything goes. The tall, gorgeous Countess Kristina von Merveldt was overheard to say “They dress like prostitutes!” Not a bad thing if you’re a working girl who just wants to have fun and make money.
Hat hair: New York’s British stylist, Clifford Stafford, may be taking his scissors from the John Freida salon across the pond (aka the Atlantic) to cut away at some of the famous faces he frames for Ascot. Phillip Treacy, famous for the hats he invented for the late Alexander McQueen (and because of the amazing retro-exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he’s swamped) is very expensive. Royals sport the very best toppers for a small fortune of taxpayer’s money. Alt: Try Harrods and Harvey Nichols (start the poundage at 500 and count up) in Knightsbridge, or go to Oxford Street for a spin around Selfridges (the best living Museum in London), followed by John Lewis/Peter Jones further up Oxford Street with an outpost on Chelsea’s King’s Road. Remember: There’s always Oxfam — a charity to which many an ancient Etonian boy donates his Morning coat and topper.
And yes, you can still get hatpins for 50p in the Ladies Rooms at Ascot.
Feet of clay: Experienced race addicts don’t wear slut shoes: stilletoes pierce the grass like needles, and when it rains, Wellington Boots are the order of the day. So buy something sensible and outrageously expensive from Loewe in St. James’s.
Although it’s much, much less expensive to buy anything before you fly (the batteries you buy at the 99 Cent Shops cost a couple of pounds in England), well, there’s always lost luggage. And whether you bought a first (or sardine) class seat on, say, American, British or Virgin you could be one of those unlucky few who never see their favorite suitcase again. In which case: Call American — apparently they’re fabulous at finding lost luggage, no matter which airline lost it.
Those with cash allergies need not apply.
Fashon slaves are running to what was once one of the most dangerous parts of town, the Seven Dials: Monmouth Street is two city blocks of cutting-edge swag from young British designers like Dar&Dar and seasoned creators like Dolce and Gabbana, across the street. Cenci is a destination in itself. Naturally Mayfair tailor Oswald Boetieng goes there to wear plaid loud enough to warm your hands.
It’s almost SALE time at Liberty on Regent Street, so stand in line with every shopaholic in London with a coffee from the little garbage truck vendor in Golden Square. Taste tea or bubbly at Sketches in Mayfair before you take your Aunt Minnie for tea at the Ritz, across Piccadilly, at the or the Grosvenor in Mayfair, site of the family’s original castle that abuts Hyde Park.
There are new and newer places all over this vast town, and while Jackson’s is gone, Fortnam and Mason — the most famous shop on Piccadilly — that specializes in everything from ancient teas to bait-and-tackle.
St. James is generally the spot to slip back in time, guzzle chocolates, have a real shave, buy your monogrammed cigarettes and recharge for the Races.
English food was largely inedible (with awful names like Spotted Dick and Faggots and Peas) until a little lady called Pru Leath opened a cooking school in North London, and later the restaurant that would make Hampstead a not-so-far-away-after-all foodie mecca. Until then: Greek, French, Italian, Chinese, Indian cuisine prevailed, and an honorable mention is due for one Greek, three-table place in Mayfair, The Chanteclear, run by Spaniards. The best roast potatoes in town are still at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair; the most wondrous Roast Beef at the Savoy (Muhammad Ali once ordered three entire trolleys when he was there promoting his autobiography — or one of them — in London with Jarvis Astaire) before making a night of it at Annabelle’s, still the best reason to go into a basement in Berkeley Square: The food there is superb, as it is at Mark Birley’s other place, around the corner (Mark’s for the best loup in town). Or go to the other side of Mayfair for Gaucho’s the ultimate Argentinian beef joint off Regent Street. Don’s leave the neighborhood: You can probably find Hugh Grant sipping champagne through an extra long straw from a treasure chest, surrounded by women at Mayfair’s Mahiki Club. If there’s a line: leave and find yourself in another hot box. Cameron Diaz still goes to the Bougis nightclub, but now brings Alex Rodriguez instead of Jude Law who is re-snogging with Sienna Miller.
Don’t depart St. James’ without visiting the original discotheque, Tramp, the club that has survived Everything — as have a number of ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs like White’s which also has an outpost at Ascot you can’t enter, either, without a member, a chaperone or a gun.
Fashion still goes to the Cafe de Paris on Regent Street, haunted by Oscar Wilde (and the site for Friday American football game lunch on television, complete with beer and hot dogs). When in doubt, choose between The White Elephant and the local pub, Nags Head, near Nelson’s the Chemist on Duke Street, the perfect place for homopaethic hangover remedies.
Some of the newest restaurants are also the best. If you’re really in heat for pulled pork Jamaican style – interpreted by Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry-Lang — go directly to Barbercoa, in the shadow of St. Pauls Cathedral.
You’ll see paintings by Olympic Artist Jeremy Houghton all over London (go to his atelier and youll see paintings of his favorite subjects: flamingoes), but he lives in the village where John Singer Sargeant painted. Being called “one of The Queen’s favourite young artists” makes him a very good artistic investment, aka: an expensive souvenir that just keeps getting more expensive. And music? All around you at a variety of venues, but if you’re not in London long enough to hear rocker Tallulah Rendall perform at Cafe Nero (her father’s first child was Christian the Lion), follow her north to the Manchester Festival. But that’s another story.
Bacon and Beans at the St. John’s Hotel was re-invented by chef Tom Harris. Inside the Mandarin Oriental’s Restaurant, and ‘Dinner’ is booming: chef Heston Blumenthal has done it, again, this time right near Buckingham Palace (and 51 Buckingham Gate, a Taj hotel situated in an old Victorian Hospital). A personal best above Oxford Street is the beautiful home that is now a hotel, the Langham: The bar is fabulous, and of the elevator doors were carved by Veterans after World War II as rehab — only one remains. Treat yourself to a glass of Taittinger and mourn until you see sunrise through the bottom of the bottle. It was here that Oscar Wilde inked the deal for ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’. Ghosts abound.
Almost all of London’s famous Hotels are doing something special for Ascot, from Harrods Hampers and Roller rides to the Course: Even the London Hilton Park Lane is laying on a very special Ascot cream tea. Around the corner, the InterContinental Park Lane is running another quirky afternoon tea, especially for those in hats — or fascinators — and it’s ten quid cheaper! A weekend stay in the Wellington Suite is, suddenly, affordable. Opposite Green Park, along Piccadilly is one of Patric Blanche’s vertical gardens, planted on the exterior of the Aethenaeum Hotel.
Your lady can fluff-up for Ascot with hats from celebrated milliner Stephen Jones (of Covent Garden, formerly a vegetable market): Both of you can enjoy the Royal Ascot Experience package at The Milestone Hotel, a five-star effort in Kensington, which offers last-minute hat consultations at his Covent Garden boutique, and also includes two grandstand tickets to Royal Ascot, private Jaguar transfers to the Racecourse, a three-course dinner for two at The Milestone’s fine dining restaurant ‘Cheneston’s’ and a bottle of Champagne waiting on arrival. It also includes pre-dinner cocktails at the ‘Stables Bar’, which boasts numerous works of art from the racing world including “The Famous Silks Chantilly” (1996) by Elie Lambert — after all, art and alchoholism go so well together. The Wyndham Grand in Chelsea Harbour offers a mid-week Champagne party at the ‘Chelsea Riverside Bar and Terrace’, and for every Champagne cocktail, glass or bottle of Taittinger that you order, you will receive one complimentary — a perfect two-fer for Ascot Week.
But since you’re Racing, have your own party at one of those rare, Old World, beautiful English hotels near the Ascot Course.
Guests can now book their stay at the Runnymeade-on-Thames for as little as £287 per night, double occupancy with breakfast just 20 minutes from the Course. Bonus: a world class spa. So after a day of Pimms and tea sandwiches, escape back to the calm of the riverside within gated landscaped grounds. The elegant Macdonald Berystede Hotel and Spa has played host to Ascot guests for over 100 years and continues to cater to top jockeys, owners and trainers and you during Ascot week in special accommodations from £250 per night for two sharing a double or twin room. Start the day in style with a pre-race champagne breakfast served from 7:00 am to 11am at £22.50 per person or enjoy a ‘Royal’ luncheon on your way to the Races: Both are available for hotel guests and non-residents. The renowned ‘dressed’ buffet lunch with its amazing ice and vegetable carvings (created by the hotel’s AA rosette team of chefs, is served from 11.45am until 2.30pm when the Races begin) priced at £45. A private shuttle service is also available between the hotel and Racecourse for a small extra charge. Coworth Park, the Dorchester Collection’s country house hotel in Ascot is celebrating 300 years of Ascot Racecourse with a themed package and tea: Guests staying in the hotel’s suites are invited to borrow a hat from the Stephen Jones’ Coworth Park Couture Millinery Collection to wea to the RAces, and Suites are priced from £555 excluding VAT: Tickets to Ladies Day can be secured on request, subject to availability. Chef John Campbell has created millinery-inspired tea cakes to be served during a special Ascot Anniversary Afternoon Tea at the hotel (£26 per guest or £39 for Champagne afternoon tea) on Acot weekend.
Last minute racing:? The Karibumi Coach departs from Hammersmith on Ladies’ Day and Royal Saturday, and includes, transport to Car Park #6, bubbly and nibbles, a full luncheon buffet witn a selection of wines and entry to the Grandstand or Silver Ring with the full services offered by the Karibuni team for £85pp, daily.
Go ahead: put a golden guinea each way on a winner — as Eliza Doolittle did — and meet new friends at one of those prescious little English bars inside the Course: Each of them will be mobbed until the last day of Ascot, when the real punters come to break the bank.
Fly American, British Airways or Virgin to one of London’s three airports. Be clear: there is usually a three-hour wait
coming and going from LHR, but the new fast train into town is a bargain at a-pound-a-minute!; GTW is well located
on a 40 minute trainride to Victoria Station from Gatwick. Stanhope? Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out past East London, on
the edge of slums you’ve never dreamt could be in England.
* TIP SHEET: all numbers are 0207 in London unless otherwise stated — all are in every guide, except these:
Deida’s Hats 225-2611
Barbecoa: 44.20 3005-8555, www.barbecoa.com
St. John Hotel, Leicester Square: 44-20 3301-8020 www.stjohnshotelondon.com/restaurant
The Royal Ascot Racing Break is available from 13-17th June 2011 subject to availability
Bookings can be made by calling 01784 220 980 or online at www.therunnymede.co.uk
The runnymede-on-thames, Windsor Road, Egham, Surrey, TW20 0AG
Wyndham Grand London, Chelsea Harbour http://www.wyndhamgrandlondon.co.uk/
The Milestone on 020 7971 1000 or visit www.milestonehotel.com
Marcy MacDonald has written about travel since her first stint in jail when she was mistaken for a freedom rider, instead of a freedom writer.