You can’t find a corn dog at Royal Ascot. England’s preeminent thoroughbred event is nothing like the horse races I grew up around in Georgia. Order a Diet Coke and get lectured on social graces by a guy who is visibly inebriated at 10 a.m. Ask if they have chicken tenders instead of Peking duck salad and it’s as if you picked up after your dog with a Union Jack.
Pomp and circumstance fuel the whole affair. For a country that delights in comparing itself to us gauche Americans, there sure are a lot of Rolls-Royces and Range Rovers queued out front. Inside the gates, it’s all top hats and tails, fascinators and frills. The dress code was last updated, I suspect, when your day could still be ruined by scurvy.
What, exactly, is Royal Ascot? For more than 300 years, dolled-up Brits have gathered outside of London for what’s evolved into five days of horse racing, gambling, and general ostentation. Graced by the queen, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Harry and Meghan, and other Tatler fixtures with several middle names, Ascot is a premier social to-do for those concerned about such things. Were you there? Where did you sit? To some, these answers are a declaration of who you are and why others should care. Why was I there? Mainly for the free scones. Little else about the day, from what I read online at least, failed to horrify me. The outfits, the idea that attending Ascot speaks to one’s social standing, and the presumption of who that might attract filled me with a disdain at direct odds with my love of free snacks. In the end, clotted cream won out.
Strangely, it’s easier to describe Ascot to someone who’s never been. To England, I mean. If you say, “Downton Abbey gets drunk at the races,” an American might get the gist. However, to anyone who’s actually glimpsed modern life in our closest political and cultural ally, it’s almost impossible to imagine such a step back in time. Is this what a fallen empire does for amusement? Tighten the screws on traditions that survived its demise? Your guess is as good as mine, though I expect that old world and our new one might soon collide when #AscotSoWhite trends on Twitter. This place makes Wimbledon—Royal Ascot’s only true rival for the title of Britain’s Pimmsiest Day Out—look like the U.N.