I arrived at Waterloo Station on Tuesday morning eager to plunge into the promised travel chaos and bring you the full lurid tale of train strike horror, rail replacement buses via Aberdeen and furious fist-fights over the one remaining taxi. But you cannot rely on public transport for anything these days, not even unreliability, and the caper soon met a Waterloo of its own when this writer’s journey to Ascot turned out smoother than Nigel Havers, and more direct than a Sam Allardyce football team.
And thus a new challenge was laid down: could I spend a day at Royal Ascot without seeing a racehorse in the flesh? Horses are famously large, easy to spot, and well-represented at Royal Ascot, but a bet is a bet, and this is what happened.
The first part of the day was a trifle: avoid the pre-parade ring, and focus instead on the Royal Watching. Her Majesty The Queen was all in blue; the Duchess of Cambridge in what better qualified observers assessed to be a “stunning Elie Saab”. I am confident to identify that as “an item of clothing”, although less sure as to what type or species, and will encroach no further on the territory of the fashion pages.
There was cricketing royalty on show as well, Michael Holding still looking impossibly athletic and loose-limbed in topper and tails, working for Sky’s racing coverage: even if he were not a passionate student of the turf, anything has to beat commentating on West Indies of late.
With the first race incoming, it was over to the Stella Artois bar, where I was in good company: nothing with four legs was going to distract the lads in there from drinking Stella Artois. At £6 a pint, plus the entrance, that’s certainly a reassuringly expensive way to take Stella Artois onboard to the exclusion of all other activities, but each to his own.
Upmarket and up the course, the inhabitants of the world’s fanciest parking lot, Car Park One, had been in position early, as one would be if one had a parking permit that is literally handed down from generation to generation. Throughout the early afternoon, the boots of Range Rovers, Jags and the occasional Roller gave forth treasures of an effervescent or toothsome nature: no horses are invited.
Over by the pink Cadillac that Shepperton Studios gave to Diana Dors in 1959, the party hosted by Duncan Spence of Rickety Bridge wine estates in South Africa was in full swing, horse-racing not at the forefront of its thoughts. I gave the restaurants in the grandstand the swerve, on account of their peerless views of the track, having to take swift refugee between a lady’s giant hat at one point. For safety’s sake, over then to the shopping displays on the other side of the site, where Oliver Brown hats were doing better than Karen Millen dresses.
In Car Park One, as Bataash was being beaten in the King’s Stand, the rain tipped down, the heaviest of the day. Under one marquee no more than a few paces square, a crammed throng of well-bred colts and fillies were in roaring form. “It’s William’s 18th,” one announced, gesturing to the birthday boy, who was smoking a cigar not much smaller than he himself. One did not get the impression that the gang were going to have too much time to pore over the form in the tricky Ascot Stakes handicap, but then to be 18 and surrounded by your pals having a great time is a full-time occupation, and rightly so.
As the rain came down, I joined those taking refuge under umbrellas on the Royal Enclosure lawn, some stoically working their way through bottles of champagne whose ice bags were getting dangerously close to the plimsol line. From this position, and the Equiano Champagne and Seafood Bar – lobster platter, yours for £55 – avoiding the competitors in the last couple of races was a walk in the park, and a fair bit easier than backing one of them to win. And then singing on the bandstand, a horse-free day successfully completed and, just possibly, a suspicion that I was not alone in that.