Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Date with Her Majesty the Queen at Royal Ascot

When we were in London in 2011, we happened to be at the train station one day during the week of Royal Ascot, sort of a British Kentucky Derby (though they'd be horrified to hear me refer to it that way).  After seeing all of the people in their race day finery, I declared then and there that the next time we were here for study abroad, we were going.
Here are photos of some of the people headed to Ascot that I saw at Waterloo Station in 2011.
They look smashing, don't you think?

Each June, Royal Ascot takes place near Windsor Palace, and, since the Queen just happens to love racing and even owns horses, Her Majesty is always in attendance.  In fact, she hasn't missed since 1955.  Other races are run throughout the season at the Ascot racecourse, but only one series is known as Royal Ascot.

Before securing our tickets online, I went to the Ascot website to check things out.  Unlike the Kentucky Derby, they have a strict dress code and videos that they make each year detailing what's OK and what's not.  I also consulted a Trip Advisor forum and related blog post written in 2014 by an American first-time Ascot-goer to try to get the real scoop about what to expect.  (Some of the respondents to the forum wrote things that made me want to punch them in the throat, but I digress.)

Josh and I attended the Kentucky Derby with Daddy in 2014, and we had a wonderful experience.  The only drawback was that tickets were $800 each.  That included two days of racing, food, and drinks, but it was still a hefty price tag.  And we certainly weren't going to shell out that kind of cash to take our kids.  So when we started researching Ascot, we assumed it would be a similarly priced.
I'm so glad I have the fond memory of our day at the Kentucky Derby with Daddy in 2014.

But after considerable digging to find out about tickets, we learned that kids under 18 are free!!!!!  And even better, there was a discounted rate if you bought your tickets before March 31.  For £116 (about $183) , we could all go together!  These tickets would allow us access to the Grandstand area which is not as posh as the Ascot-members-and guests-only Royal Enclosure but better than the pack-a-picnic-and-sit-on-the-ground Silver Ring or Heath Enclosure.  (For more about the seating areas, click here.)

Now, the Grandstand is, quite literally, a Grandstand.  There are tiered levels with railings but no seats.  I had read that there would be some benches scattered around but not nearly enough for the throngs of stiletto-shod ladies vying for a spot to rest their aching feet.  We knew that the Queen was due to arrive at 2:00 and that racing began at 2:30 but that the gates opened at 10:30.  We thought that if we got there early enough, maybe we could stake out a bench to use for the whole day. But did we really want to get there four hours early?  In our dressy clothes and heels?  (Well, not the guys, of course.)  In the end, we decided to take the 10:40 train from our neighborhood which would get us to Ascot at about noon.  We'd hope for the best.  

Now for the what-to-wear question.  I decided that I wanted to get another use out of my awesome, one-of-a-kind Derby hat made by Luminata, so we shipped it over ahead of time.  I bought a new dress and shoes to go with it, and Josh and the kids packed dress-code-appropriate options as well.  If we had petitioned the American Embassy for the right to buy tickets in the Royal Enclosure, Josh would have had to have rented a morning suit (grey or black) and top hat.  As it was, Ascot protocol insisted that his coat and trousers had to be the same color and of the same fabric.  I'm not kidding.  It's serious stuff.

                            Here we are in our Ascot finery!

We took the London Overground train to Ascot station which involved changing trains once.  We assumed that the trains would be really crowded with race goers, so I was relieved that some gentleman gave up his seat to spare my high-heeled feet.   ( I did feel a little bit guilty as he was a senior citizen - or a pensioner as they call them here - but he insisted.  Don't judge.  Gotta love British chivalry.)

                                           Kinley doesn't look too upset about having to stand the entire journey.

The racecourse is a festive seven-minute walk from the station with loads of other people dressed to the nines.  

                                              I could decorate my entire life with Union Jack banners.  I truly could.

When we arrived at the Grandstand, we were shocked to see that there were still unclaimed benches right beside the rail of the track! We snagged one (and spent the rest of the day shamelessly guarding it like pitbulls). 

Kinley and Knox stake our claim.  Notice how few people have arrived at noon compared to later pictures below.

Since we had two hours to kill before the Queen arrived, we decided to grab something to eat.  Many people come to Ascot and eat at one of the completely-out-of-our-price-range dining rooms, but I had read that there were less expensive options (notice I didn't say cheap) near the bandstand.  We found a place I had read about that sells what is basically a designer open-faced grilled cheese sandwich and got some fish and chips to share.

Like at sporting events in the US, the food is pricey.

As the day progressed, I managed to embarrass my daughter over and over by stopping people to ask if I could take their pictures using my best British syntax and vocabulary.  "Oooh!  You look just smashing!  Could I take your picture for my blog?!"   Once I even threw Kinley under the bus and told the lady, "My daughter thinks you look simply lovely.  Could I take your picture for her?!"  Kinley was appalled, but she deep down inside she really did want me to take the picture.  I promise.

Some of the lovely fashions at Royal Ascot.  The girl in red, lower center is the one Kinley admired.

After looking around and having a snack, we decided to try to figure out the betting process since it differs from the process at US tracks we've been to such as Keeneland and Churchill Downs.  At Ascot, you place your bets with an actual bookie, and there are many different bookies trying to get your attention.  We decided to make a practice run before the races by betting on the color of hat the a Queen would be wearing when she arrived.  She had worn pink the day before, so I bet on yellow while Kinley had me place her money on peach/apricot and Knox had me place his on turquoise.

Knox makes his choice at one of the many bookies' stands.  The odds are shown in the white boxes beside each option.
Finally, it was time for the arrival of the Queen.  People showed up out of nowhere, and suddenly our lovely view from our track-side bench was obstructed.  So now we had a dilemma.  Do we give up our bench to get closer to the rail to see the Queen or resign ourselves to a view only of heads and fascinators but keep the bench?  Once again, I decided to throw a kid under the bus.  Knox stood on the bench to guard it (he couldn't see standing on the ground anyway since the rail was right at his eye level), while the rest of us got as close as we could.  This, my friends, is why we humans procreate.

Knox took this picture from the bench.

Josh took this one of Her Majesty who rode by right in front of us!  Her blue hat meant that we all lost money, but it made her easy to spot for the rest of the day.

We only got a glimpse of  her as she rode by, but we were thrilled to learn that this hale and hearty octogenarian spryly trotted back and forth from the royal box to the parade ring between each race so we got to see her repeatedly all day!

The Queen consults her race card in the parade ring before the first race.

Queen Elizabeth II speaks with the jockeys who will be riding her horses just before the last race of the day.

There were six races in all, and we bet on horses who placed each time!  If we hadn't bet on the Queen's hat, we would have come out ahead for the day.  Mind you, a big bet for us would be £5 and normally we just put down £2.50, so our losses weren't very big.

Free Eagle for the win!
Josh had put money on The Grey Gatsby (how could he not with an awesome name like that?) and on Western Hymn, so it was a great way to end the day!

After the last race, there is a long-standing tradition of singing 'round the bandstand, so we joined in.  They passed out Union Jacks and little song books, so we waved the flags with vigor and enthusiastically sang (oddly American) songs like "Sweet Caroline," "New York, New York," and "Take Me Home Country Roads" with 50,000 drunken Brits.  It was probably exactly what you're picturing.

And, of course, there had to be a round of "Rule, Britannia."  Even the locals with their songbooks in hand didn't try to sing along with the verse.  But when they got to the chorus, it was English patriotism (is that an oxymoron?) all the way.  If you can't begin to picture it, here's a look.

Before the last song ended, we wearily began our walk back to the train station since we were worried that waiting until the bitter end would mean standing all the way back to London.  We had purchased our return tickets online in advance which turned out to be a good idea since we avoided a long queue and meant we got on early enough to get seats.

We returned to our flat exhausted but it was a perfectly wonderful day and one I hope to repeat in the future.  But next time, I am totally writing the Embassy and Josh is so going to have to wear a top hat.


  1. I hope you yelled "c'mon dover move your bloomin' arse!" just for funzies! :)

    1. 1). I LOVE that you were the person who left this comment.
      2). It was more like a shyly mumbled, "C'mon Free Eagle! Move yer bloomin' arse," and though only heard by Josh, it was quite effective!

  2. Fabulous description of it all! My favorite comment is as to why humans procreate. I've been guilty of similar uses of my progeny.

  3. Kids are GREAT place-holders! Glad you liked my comment. I was quite pleased with it myself! I have felt that my recent posts have been a little too informative and not quite entertaining enough. Hopefully I'm getting my groove back.

  4. I'm cracking up at the media guys (in the pic of the queen with the jockeys) having to wear top hats while wrangling the huge cameras & mics!

    1. I know! And don't forget that they had to remove their hats and bow each time they approached the Queen (the females curtsied, of course). I can't decide if those media people drew the long or short straws to get this assignment....

  5. You and your family looked smashing!😉 How fun! Kinley is looking so grown up and just beautiful! Thoroughly enjoying your informative AND entertaining posts!!

    1. Thank you! I thought she looked great, too. Thanks for taking the time to read about my summer!