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Britain's most prestigious race meeting, Royal Ascot, is held over five days every June
It was made famous in Audrey Hepburn's 1964 film, My Fair Lady
The Royal Enclosure is the most exclusive viewing area for the racing
Guests include Queen Elizabeth and the creme de la creme of high society
“C’mon Dover! Move yer bloomin’ arse!”
And with that, the exquisitely dressed Audrey Hepburn – playing common Cockney girl Eliza Doolittle – smashes her genteel demeanor to smithereens, horrifying the lords and ladies gathered at Britain’s most prestigious race meeting.
So scandalous is Hepburn’s legendary outburst in the Oscar-winning 1964 film, My Fair Lady, one nearby aristocrat actually faints in shock.
It may seem like an overblown reaction – by today’s standards, Hepburn isn’t even swearing – but the famous scene at Royal Ascot, which kicked off on Tuesday, points to the strict protocol still permeating the historic 300-year-old horse race.
This, after all, is the same five-day racing festival which opens with Queen Elizabeth II parading around the track in an elegant horse-drawn carriage.
And where does Her Majesty watch the famous competition? None other than the very same stand where Hepburn bellowed her outrageous obscenities – the Royal Enclosure.
A class above
As the name suggests, the Royal Enclosure isn’t just for any old riff-raff. This is the exclusive viewing area for royals, lords, and of course, fair ladies.
Of the 280,000 people who attend Ascot each year, just 12,000 can be found hobnobbing in the plush Royal Enclosure each day.
To enter the luxury area, you must be sponsored by someone who has attended at least four times.
Once inside, expect to rub shoulders with British high society’s crème de le crème – everyone from the royal family to business magnates and film stars.
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“It’s a private club,” Nick Smith, Royal Ascot head of communications, told CNN.
“But getting into the Royal Enclosure is not a class divide,” Smith insisted. “In fact, we’re trying to encourage more people, especially young people, to join.”
Others, however, see Ascot as the very embodiment of the British class system – from the cheapest tickets in the Silver Ring Enclosure, to the standard Grandstand, and finally the best seats in the house, the Royal Enclosure.
“Arriving at Royal Ascot is a very much like boarding an aeroplane,” wrote British journalist Andrew Baker.
Royal Ascot: In numbers
Royal Ascot: In numbers245 private viewing boxes400 VIP helicopters 1,000 visitors’ limousines 51,000 bottles of champagne 174,000 pints of beer 5,000 kilograms of salmon 2,050 lobsters 8,000 Angus steaks
“You turn left for the expensive end of things – the Royal Enclosure and the grandstands’ snootier reaches – or right for economy class, which is epitomized by the Silver Ring.”
Behind the velvet rope
So what exactly does a $560 five-day ticket to the Royal Enclosure get you? Apart from obvious bragging rights, the exclusive area features seating on the Grandstand’s fourth floor, offering the best views of the course.
Then there are the glamorous garden marquees adorned with chandeliers and paintings as well as five-course lunches including such delicacies as peeled quail eggs in pink salt and lobster vinaigrette.
However, calling them “marquees” is a bit of an understatement – these sleek white structures are so huge they even include escalators and industrial kitchens.
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For the first time this year, Royal Enclosure ticket-holders can also lounge in one of 25 trackside gazebos, with room for 12 people and offering waiter service plus prized car parking spaces immediately next door – all for the princely sum of $780.
Dressed to impress
All eyes will be on the Queen’s horse Estimate on Thursday. The filly won a Group Three race at last year’s royal meeting but her outing in the Gold Cup represents a big step up in class.
The Queen has not tasted Group One success in Britain since Dunfermline captured the St. Leger Stakes in 1977 – her Silver Jubilee year.
Gold Cup Day is synonymous with “Ladies’ Day” – when the designer dresses and millinery masterpieces are just as much a focus as the horse racing.
And much like Hepburn’s iconic white lace dress and swooping feathered hat, Royal Enclosure guests must follow strict fashion protocol or risk being turned away.
The plush enclosure has the strictest dress rules on the race course: women must wear hats, or failing that, a headpiece with a 10-centimeter base.
Fascinators – small ornaments attached to a headband – are a no-no.
As are strapless, off-the-shoulder and halter neck tops. All straps must also be at least one inch thick.
Read: Royal regulations for Ascot’s fashionistas
Likewise, men are required to wear waistcoats, ties and top hats.
In comparison, the Silver Ring Enclosure, which offers $45 daily tickets, simply requires its racegoers to wear smart clothes, with a reminder that “bare chests are not permitted at any time.”
Dating back to the 1820s, the Royal Enclosure was originally a two-story stand commissioned by King George IV, with only those receiving a personal invitation from His Highness getting a look-in.
Such was the exclusivity of the enclosure, it was only in 1955 that divorcees were allowed to enter.
“Its charm is that it’s so steeped in history,” said Smith. “It started as a very private affair for the royal family – basically an individual stand with a viewing garden.”
“Today it’s much more than a single entity – there are the grandstands, marquees, private boxes. You will probably see the Queen there – Her Majesty has her own official guest pen (enclosure).”
So what would the Queen have made of Hepburn’s outburst? One can only guess Her Highness would not have been amused.