There are few horseracing meets more famed and prestigious than Royal Ascot. Over the past 300 years, the event has firmly established itself as the centrepiece of Britain’s eclectic social calendar. On the third week of June every year, hundreds of thousands of equestrian enthusiasts, hopeful punters, celebrities and British royalty line the stands and perfectly manicured lawns of Ascot Racecourse to witness the world’s top racehorses compete for more than Kshs 853 million in prize money.
The pinnacle of the five-day meet is the Gold Cup, introduced to the event in 1807. The race for the cup is held on the third day, which is traditionally the busiest day of the week and is unofficially known as ‘Ladies’ Day’. The winner is presented with the cup by the Queen, whose annual attendance and personal interest in the running of Royal Ascot is indicative of its rich royal heritage. The racecourse is just a stone’s throw away from Windsor Castle, Her Majesty’s weekend residence, and the start of each day is heralded by a royal carriage procession from the castle. This year’s Gold Cup was overshadowed somewhat by the achievements of renowned jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore. The former secured his 50th Royal Ascot win, and the latter set a post-war record of nine wins in a single meeting at Ascot – which, apparently, is quite a big deal.
As impressive as these milestones are in the horsing world, much of the event’s media fervour tends to focus on its social side, which revolves mainly around its famous dress code. The guidelines are posted on the event’s website, which are particularly strict within the Royal Enclosure. Here ladies are ‘kindly reminded to wear dresses and skirts of a modest length… falling just above the knee or longer’, and gentlemen have to wear a suit with a top hat and tails, and polished black shoes. The dress code is relaxed slightly in the Grandstand and Silver Ring, though men still have to wear a suit, and ladies are required to wear a headpiece with a diameter no shorter than 4 inches.
Given this royal stature, and rigidly regal dress code, you’d expect Royal Ascot to be as dignified and proper as its website suggests. This may have been true of the private boxes in the sanctity of the Royal Enclosure, but what I witnessed in the Silver Ring was far from the stipulated sartorial elegance. As a member of staff behind one of 100 bars dotted around the racecourse I had a unique perspective, and watched the racegoers gradually deteriorate from the initial semblance of sophistication into the depths of drunken depravity over the course of the day.
The Guardian tells me that over the five days 51,000 bottles of champagne and 160,000 pints of Pimms had been drunk, which isn’t surprising considering the state of most racegoers by 7pm each day once the final race had been run. Each morning before the doors opened to the public we had to wipe our tables clean of the fake tan and blood from the previous day’s debauchery. Fights were a common occurrence, which is why at 2pm sharp we stopped serving drinks in glass bottles.
The women were by far the worst. When I worked at Ascot three years ago a woman in a drunken stupor attacked and bit one of our company’s security guards. This year another woman, probably (hopefully) at a similar level of intoxication picked up a deck chair in the Grandstand and smacked another woman round the head with it. So this depravity is by no means limited to the cheaper Silver Ring, a fact confirmed by a Royal Ascot policeman I spoke to who said: ‘there’s more money and cocaine in the Grandstand’.
Interestingly, Frankie Dettori himself was banned for six months for snorting the white stuff in 2012. While these antics were admittedly amusing, the entertainment value dropped sharply when our bar staff were threatened, which occurred most notably on the second day. A lot of counterfeit money exchanges hands at Ascot, so we were instructed to check every note handed to us. As one of my colleagues checked the £20 note of an outraged elderly woman ordering a drink, she reminded him that it was her hard-earned money and subsequently threatened to stab him. When my colleague quite rightly refused to serve her, her daughter hurled a pint of Pimms at the poor guy.
This, then, is a more accurate representation of Royal Ascot. But where did it all go wrong? According to veteran members ‘the rot set in’ in the summer of 1955, when the ban ended on divorcees in Ascot’s Royal Enclosure. The next blow came in 2007, when tickets for the same enclosure – previously issued only by an ancient process of recommendation – were put on sale to the public, allowing anyone with £500 in their pocket to rub shoulders with the Queen.
The official website of the British Monarchy describes Ascot as ‘woven into the very fabric of British culture’. If Her Majesty sat in the Silver Ring though, I doubt she’d agree.