About 400 miles from the football fans in Cologne – but rather further spiritually, they would like to think – a different kind of England gathered yesterday. They were making the annual pilgrimage to Royal Ascot (properly pronounced “Escot”, as in agency), a ritual briefly transferred north to York last year so the great racecourse could be rebuilt.
And my word, it has been rebuilt. The old Grandstand, a relic of British architecture’s darkest age, the 1960s, has mercifully been flattened to be replaced by a stunning 370- metre-long building, widely compared to either Stansted or Gatwick airports. But, as an airport, it is probably most like Dubai, with extra flourishes from some of the new German football stadiums and the stage sets at Radio City Music Hall.
Everything else has changed too: even the course has been shifted. The inside of the track is dominated by a strange set-up of pulleys and wires that apparently holds the race camera, but reminded me of the walkway used by the orang-utans at Washington Zoo.
The old paddock has been replaced with a mega-parade ring that can hold 8,000 spectators and could stage any number of sports come the London Olympics. And there was no mistaking the air of self-congratulation as
the Queen officially re-opened what she has always regarded as her personal gaff.
Despite widespread forebodings (and many bets) that this would join the new Wembley in failing to open on time, Ascot is back with us on schedule and almost within budget. This is extremely unBritish, and is certain to be rewarded with awards and knighthoods galore.
There is only one small snag. The place doesn’t actually work. I’m sure it does for Her Majesty, in the beautifully positioned Royal Box. The private boxes and viewing enclosures on the higher levels of the new stand must be magnificent too, though complaints of overcrowding filtered down even from there.
But among ordinary Tattersalls racegoers (if paying £54 a day counts as ordinary) there was an air of mutiny. Obliged to watch from Level 1, which in places actually seemed below ground level, they were more likely to see the back of a floral hat than any actual horses.
It is hard enough to back three winners with the bookmakers. But the treble of joining the 8,000 in the parade ring, having a bet and watching the race seemed impossible, never mind the optional extra of having a drink. As the first race got under way to loud cheers from somewhere, the mutterings in Tatts seemed unanimous. “Can’t see a damn thing.” “It’s a shambles.” “TOTAL shambles.”
Some of the troubles were doubtless teething ones. But one suspects more thought may have been given to sweeping design flourishes than boring details of ingress and egress. Bookmakers complained their comments had been ignored. Ascot spokesman Nick Smith admitted: “Viewing from the concourse level is an issue.”
But then Ascot has always been a microcosm of the British class system. The reconstruction was supposed to soften the old sharp edges, which involved the riff-raff being kept out of sight by making them pass the Royal Enclosure in a tunnel. “Islands of exclusivity in a sea of inclusivity,” was one phrase used to describe the new set-up. Sea, maybe. See, no.
This may have been fortunate in some respects. In the second race, there was a gasp of horror when the outsiders Tabaret and Orientor both had crashing falls, leaving Tabaret’s jockey Dean McKeown prostrate and immobile for a terrifyingly long time. The screens were brought round to the furlong pole at the far end of the stand, a process normally followed by a muffled shot, though that is generally not employed for human casualties. McKeown, it emerged later, only had “bumps and bruises”.
So the party was able to carry on. Anyway, there has always been an element in the Ascot crowd for whom the racing is an irrelevance.
“Lucy’s pregnant and Gemma’s up the duff,” said a girl in a pink hat as the race train passed through Bracknell. “No, silly,” said her companion. “It’s the other way round.” You could write an entire thesis on the nuances of British social structures based on that exchange. Or indeed on the difference between Bracknell and “Escot”.
But equality prevails in some respects. In the bowels of Terminal 1 there are two identical watering holes – the Winner’s Bar and the Losers’ Bar. Strangely, the price of a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee is the same in both: £62. Surely that’s taking egalitarianism too far.
Get alerts on Front page when a new story is published