Royal Ascot is a bewildering cocktail of superb horses, a picturesque setting and a dressed-up crowd of the haughtiest and the naughtiest of society seeking their entertainment from the morning-suited elegance of the Royal Enclosure to the boisterous Silver Ring.
Dazzling and unique, for five days starting on Tuesday, it is the place to be seen. It is the most valuable race meeting in Europe, featuring seven Group One races and with prize money totalling £4 million (Dh24m), but, almost as importantly, it is one of the great social occasions. As The Times correspondent wrote in 1922: "Ascot is notoriously the best place in England to see beautiful women in beautiful clothes."
It now attracts spectators from the world over, drawn by the heady fusion of horses and haute couture. Many stay in London, travel down by car or take the train packed with racegoers with bulging pockets and equally weighty expectations. But many choose to stay in the area to shorten the journey and lengthen their day at the races.
For most of the year, Ascot is a quiet town. The high street is lined by several stylish shops, a few neat cafes and stores catering for the needs of a mainly well-heeled local population. Its proximity to London offers an easy escape to rural life in an area where visitors are spoilt for choice.
Just 10 minutes away is Windsor, with its royal castle dominating the town and overlooking the Thames. Across the bridge, beneath the castle walls, lie Eton and the historic school that has educated more British prime ministers than any other. At the far end of the castle grounds is the entrance to the Long Walk, a path that bisects the great Park, one of the most spectacular areas of parkland in England. To go along the walk with the castle as a backdrop is a stunning exercise, whatever the season. In spring, the greenery is blanketed by rhododendrons and in autumn the trees turn a sensational gold.
Follow the Thames and you come to Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, and on the way back there is Savill Garden, created in the 1930s as one of the great ornamental gardens. The area has other sporting offerings apart from racing: there are two championship golf courses at Wentworth and Sunningdale and polo is played on Smiths Lawn. Within an hour of London is a world of country pursuits. And it is this mix of convenience and lifestyle that has made the area such an alluring corner for the rich and famous to live and relax. The grand houses of Sunningdale and the Wentworth Estate are testimony to the attraction of this unique slice of England.
It is becoming increasingly popular as a holiday destination with the arrival of Coworth Park, part of the famous Dorchester group and its first venture outside London. Coworth has prompted other hotels in the area to spruce themselves up, which is never a bad thing for anyone looking to stay in the area.
The five-star Coworth Park is suitably packed with equestrian connections. It was the home of the 17th Earl of Derby, who owned three winners of the classic race that carries his family name and six of the St Leger. Here he entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales, the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, who stayed in 1879 and 1883 for the racing.
Royalty remains an integral part of Ascot: the course is leased from the Crown Estates, so is technically owned by the monarch, and Queen Elizabeth II is a lifelong racing fan and has a string of flat horses. She and her guests stay at Windsor Castle, less than 10km away, and every afternoon of the meeting begins with a horse-drawn carriage procession down the course. While the guest list is heavy with crowns and coronets, it is not limited to royalty and the peerage. Racing fans such as the England football star Michael Owen, an extensive owner, have taken their place in the coaches and received the crowd's enthusiastic applause.
The build-up to a day's racing begins early in the grandstand. It now has 255 five-star boxes and a range of fine-dining restaurants, where more than 21,500 people are fed during the week by some of the 330 chefs working at the race course. The boxes, perched high in the stand, offer spectacular views and are a reminder of the development of hospitality boxes pioneered by Ascot in its previous grandstand.
In the car parks, racegoers enjoy another Ascot tradition - picnics. But these are no ordinary, hastily prepared meals on a rug. Tables and chairs are put up, cloths spread and cutlery laid out, and in the past you naturally took your butler with you to look after the diners.
But it is the Royal Enclosure that sums up the traditions and style of Ascot. Once it was simply the grand area where the king or queen would entertain the great and the good. It still has a set of impressive rules about who can gain admission and what can be worn, but now figures from the worlds of sport, showbiz, the city and politics mix with the titled. Inside the discreetly guarded area are splendid marquee dining rooms, some set aside for the members of the Jockey Club, Turf Club or London clubs such as the Garrick, Bucks, Cavalry & Guards and Whites, which all run a satellite base for five days.
I first went to Ascot 40 years ago as a young reporter, very much the outsider at a rather intimidating event. Over the years, attending as a journalist, racegoer and, latterly, working there with the British Horseracing Authority, I have come to understand the event from all of its many facets. I have been from the Silver Ring to the Royal Enclosure and watched races with the whole range of society. The truth is that, from one end to the other, it is a wonderful place to enjoy sport. I was there watching a young Princess Diana making her first bow and receiving the plaudits of the crowd, and this year, no doubt, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will make their first appearance together there as husband and wife, to the general delight of onlookers. Yes, it is a posh old day out but does that really matter if everyone feels they are part of something special? This year, they are celebrating 300 years of racing at Ascot, and surely that speaks volumes for the continuing appeal of racing on the heath.
But Royal Ascot is also about some of the best flat racing anywhere in the world: the leading owners, the best trainers and the top jockeys all want to log an Ascot winner at the Royal meeting. Yes, many of the crowd are there for a social event but there is no doubting that it is also of racing's most knowledgeable gatherings - witness the extraordinary reception given to Yeats last year when he became the first horse to win the Gold Cup four times.
As Nick Smith, the head of communications and international racing at the course, says: "What we aim to achieve with Royal Ascot is an unchanging reflection of pageant and history on a modern stage. Ascot always modernises but we don't compromise. We have left alone what is successful but made the experience more successful, all those traditions are the same but the facilities have got better and better."
One of these was to extend the Royal meeting into Saturday in 2002. There was always racing on the Saturday, but it was known as Ascot Heath day and served the rather patronising purpose of letting the hoi polloi have their day in the sun at the course. It is now the best attended day of the week, with crowds of about 80,000 boosting the week's attendance to 300,000.
But not every change is immediately successful. The new, architecturally impressive £200-million (Dh1,183m) grandstand was greeted with a wave of complaints by racegoers when it opened in 2006 after the course had been closed for 20 months. But changes were quickly made and it is now rated as one of Britain's best sporting facilities, a long haul from Ascot's first permanent stand in 1794 which accommodated only 1,650 people. Indeed, the burgeoning worldwide appeal of the meeting can be measured in the soaring television audience across the globe: "People in Australia now stay up to watch the racing," Nick Smith says.
How to get into the Royal Enclosure
A sign of changing times is that so strict were the rules on entry that divorcées were barred from the enclosure until 1955. As the wonderfully worded application form points out: "The Royal Enclosure is a private enclosure for individuals who have been sponsored by a previous Royal Enclosure badgeholder, to enter with the permission of Her Majesty's Representative".
What to wear in the Enclosure
Anywhere that has staff wearing top hats is going to ensure a pretty precise dress code. In fact, let's make that rigorous: "A dress code applies to the Royal Enclosure and no badgeholder will be entitled to enter the Royal Enclosure unless he or she complies with this dress code: for ladies, formal day dress with a hat or substantial fascinator will be acceptable. Off the shoulder, halter neck, spaghetti straps and dresses with a strap of less than one inch and mini skirts are considered unsuitable. Midriffs must be covered and trouser suits must be full length and of matching material and colour. Gentlemen are required to wear either black or grey morning dress, including a waistcoat, with a top hat. A gentleman may remove his top hat within a restaurant, a private box, a private club or that facility's terrace, balcony or garden. Hats may also be removed within any enclosed external seating area within the Royal Enclosure Garden. Overseas visitors are welcome to wear the formal national dress of their country or service dress. Ladies and gentlemen not complying with the above dress regulations will be asked to leave the Royal Enclosure and relieved of their Royal Enclosure badge."
If you go
Return flights from Abu Dhabi to London on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh3,915, including taxes.
Double rooms at Coworth Park (www.coworthpark.com; 00 44 1344 876 600) cost from £282 (Dh1,703) including breakfast and taxes. During Royal Ascot, a deluxe room costs £576 (Dh3,477) per night.
Prices at Royal Ascot vary according to enclosures. The Silver Ring goes from £19 to £30 (Dh115 to Dh175) with the Saturday sold out well in advance. The Grandstand varies from £59 to £69 (Dh355 to Dh415) with the Thursday sold out in advance. Entry to the Royal Enclosure is by application only and costs £80 (Dh482) per day.