Fun, but it simply isn’t Ascot

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The Queen wore blue and the regal smile at 2pm on Friday when she was driven down the straight at York racecourse past her cheering subjects.

By 4.30pm the smile might have faded and the mood gone bluer than the hat. Her Majesty’s own horse Promotion, favourite for the fourth race, the Wolferton Handicap, was beaten out of the place money. Racing can knock down even the mightiest in the land and the normal response to a bad day is to get in the car, go home and hope for a better day.

However, Royal Ascot is now a five-day meeting and the Queen is rather stuck here. Some other racing people feel the same. Royal Ascot at York (the very name conjures up one of those faux-classy American hotel names like Courtyard by Marriott) has drawn mixed reviews.

York is a much-admired racecourse which regularly and deservedly wins awards. But the feeling as the biggest week in its history nears its end is that it has done jolly well – considering. The first two days were miserably cold; the condition of the track itself has been problematic. And it, well, simply isn’t Ascot. And it is very much further from London than most Ascot-goers care to travel, in a northerly direction at any rate.

The idea is that the real Ascot, now being rebuilt, will be ready for the 2006 royal meeting. This timetable is thought to be touch-and-go but the overwhelming feeling is that even if the meeting has to go walkabout again, its officials will pat York on the head, say thank you and make it Royal Ascot at somewhere nice in the south-east.

Douglas Erskine-Crum, Ascot’s chief executive, is confident that won’t be necessary.

William Hill has a novelty bet offering only even money against both Ascot and the new Wembley being ready on schedule next year. Mr Erskine-Crum, who is in touch with Wembley, was heard to mutter that he wants to bet £185m (the cost of the scheme) on it.

Either way, this week is likely to be remembered in racing with something that will be not quite a shudder but something less than a nostalgic sigh. This is a consensus view; the Queen herself was not available for comment.

The mood definitely improved yesterday as the sun popped out from behind the watercolour Yorkshire clouds. But the first hint that the whole affair was just a little detrop came on Day One when James Sherwood, the BBC’s magnificent parodic fashion expert, made the startling discovery that Yorkshire women wear short skirts. He also reported that lemon and chocolate were this year’s colours. Or possibly that was the dessert menu.

Skin tones were certainly in on Friday, though this was mainly because a lot of women were displaying a lot of skin. One group of women appeared to be dressed to be bridesmaids at a stoned wedding on a Thai beach. It made my day, actually.

It hasn’t been quite the same, though. Royal Ascot is striding towards it tercentenary because it has remained a magnificent coalition between social cache and great sport. The racing, however, is now spread more thinly over five days rather than four and the pretence that admission to the Royal Enclosure constitutes social acceptance has been more untenable than ever this year – especially without Ascot’s bowler-hatted gatemen to keep out the riff-raff. Well, they wouldn’t do Wimbledon at Didsbury or Henley on the Humber, would they?

The enthusiasts remain very gung-ho. The York Evening Press yesterday ran the headline Yes! Yes! Yes! based on a favourable comment by the Duke of York, who hardly sounds like an unbiased observer. News of the appointment of the new Archbishop of York, not a figure to command much attention in race week, made the news in brief column.

And there was Alastair Down in the Racing Post, who was delighted so many southerners were missing: “Not a single one of them is missed. Here at last we have a royal meeting which is about fun and racing, with all the class and social twaddle confined to the bin in which it belongs.”

I’ve enjoyed the racing, too, and it might be nice to believe he was right. But there is a glass ceiling when it comes to the perception of the north of England.

Manchester is an OK place to stage a Commonwealth Games, but it will be the next millennium before it dares apply again for the Olympics. And they may have opened a Harvey Nicholls store in Leeds, but no one gets the train from London to shop there.

And even some locals are cynical. “What’s it been like?” I asked the taxi driver.

“Dead,” he said. “The hotels price themselves out of the market, so everyone has either kept away or stayed in places like Harrogate. There’s nobody around in the evenings at all. I’ve had a terrible week.

“And I don’t suppose I’ll be getting a reduction in my council tax to pay for the 600 extra policemen.”

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