On the one hand, it is billed as a social occasion, and so it is. Every duke and earl and peer is here, as the old song says. Now they are joined by many other princes and lords, from Dubai and Qatar. Oceans of champagne are drunk; there are strawberries everywhere. Certain ladies really do start contemplating their Ascot hats in the month of March. There are illicit meetings in Car Park Number One and flirtations in the Silver Ring.
At the same time, it is a place of some of the fiercest and most professional work you will ever see under the British sun. The trainers might be dressed as if they are going to a wedding, but they are at the office, with millions of pounds in prize money and potential breeding fees riding on their immaculately timed decisions. Like the ladies with the hats, they will have been thinking of Ascot since the first crop of two-year-olds came back from their winter rest. Out in the biting Siberian winds of Newmarket Heath, where headgear is composed of hard helmets and worn flat caps, they will have been plotting and planning and hoping and dreaming.
The jockeys too are at the office. No foie gras and bubbly for them; the taller ones will have been surviving on a morsel of broccoli and chicken with the skin off. Making the weight is such a crucial thing that even a mouthful of water before a race will have to be spat out in case it should tip the scales in the wrong direction.
It is a place of shining modernity. The new stand, the facilities for the horses, even the computerised bookies’ pitches are all state of the art. Yet it is amazingly old-fashioned. The Queen is still driven up the straight mile in a carriage drawn by match greys, whilst the Welsh Guards play the National Anthem on shining trumpets, and gentlemen wave their top hats genteelly at their monarch. It is not so very long ago that the Royal Enclosure refused to admit the divorced. In a quiet corner of the pre-parade ring, the farrier surveys the scene whilst wearing the most traditional tweeds. All the old gentlemen’s clubs have their pitches – White’s, the Turf, the Garrick, the Jockey Club itself, which you cannot join but only be invited to.
Typical Ascot conversation: ‘Let’s go to the Turf Club.’ ‘Yes, let’s.’ The group arrives at the door. Everyone looks at each other. ‘Do you know a member?’ ‘No, I thought you did.’ Pause. ‘Let’s go to the Weatherby’s box instead.’
Some people do treat it as a cocktail party, and will hardly take in the fact that the world’s best horseflesh is assembled for their delectation. Women who cannot tell a hock from a pastern totter about on impossible heels; titans on a corporate jolly are far too busy networking and making billion pound deals to attend to whether John Gosden is in form or not.
But for those who love the thoroughbred, it is the festival to end all festivals. It is the Olympics and the World Cup rolled into one. The real beauty is the equine version. Those glorious brave athletes, with their bloodlines running back to Eclipse and Hyperion and St Simon, fill the eye with an excess of aesthetic pleasure. All of them are brought to their crest and peak for this short, antic week. They are a gallimaufry of shining coats, dancing hooves, intelligent heads, bright eyes. They cast even the most cunningly contrived hat into the shadiest of shades.
I watch it in a mazy haze of delight, like a child at Christmas. Along with Cheltenham, it is my favourite week of the year. From my first glimpse of the Racing Post at 8.30am to the farewell singalong around the bandstand after the last race, it is all holiday with me.