First published in the Boston Globe
It’s a tailgate party unlike any other. But it’s an event unlike any other – the week-long Royal Ascot race meeting. Scheduled this year for June 17-20, Ascot gives its patrons one last chance for a proper garden party before they part ways for summer ‘hols.’
Formal attire is the standard at Ascot. The men in gray morning suits and top hats look like extras from the set of “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 starts in the afternoon, but the party begins much earlier. Those important enough to be admitted to the Royal Enclosure – the stands and lawns used by the Royal Family – arrive early to beat the traffic. But they don’t leave their Rolls and Bentleys in some vast parking lot. The Royal Enclosure Car Park is a section of the park-like infield. Here the gentry picnic while awaiting the day’s events.
This picnic does not feature Kentucky Fried Chicken and Budweiser, either. As passengers climb from their cars, the chauffeur-cum-butler uncorks the first bottle of champagne. That’s sipped while patio furniture is unpacked from the cars’ cavernous trunks and lunch is arranged. Lobsters do appear, but quiche, patés, and cheeses are far more common, all served on china with silver place settings, of course.
For ‘lesser’ tailgaters, department stores, such as Fortnum and Mason’s and Harrod’s, offer picnic baskets filled with delicacies never imagined at football games, with prices to match.
The Royal Family arrives at the track in a traditional procession. Their horse-drawn carriages pass the grandstand to applause and a doffing of hats as the Queen passes each section of the grandstand – a ‘veddy British’ version of The Wave. From then on, the Royals wander about the grounds, no doubt eyeing fashions and gauging the chances of horses like the rest of the crowd. But for many, the real point is going to see and be seen.
After the last race, the grandstand empties, and the second giant traffic jam of the day begins.
In the Royal Enclosure Car Park, however, the party continues. While passengers did the races, chauffeurs did the dishes, and dinner is now waiting. More patés, this time accompanied by proper tea-time sandwiches. By the time that’s eaten, the traffic has cleared. The chauffeur packs up and drive his charges home in the June twilight, so his employers can rest up for the next day’s party.