Look who's in my box
Nigel's there, drinking champagne, and Ivana, her hat brim ricocheting off the other ladies'. There's lobster and quails' eggs for lunch and nobody's watching the races. The place is full of ravishing blonde leggy fillies. Hello! It's another day at Ascot with Robert Sangster
Monday 21 June 1999
I will wear a posh frock. I will wear a posh hat. I will impress everybody. They will assume I am one of them. They will say: "Darling, is that Chanel?" And: "Do come to stay with us in Barbados for the winter." I will talk knowledgeably about form and bloodstock and whether the going is good, not so good, pretty crap or total rubbish. I will not confess that, to date, my only equestrian experience has been falling off a donkey at Margate when I was seven. Except that I do. "Of course, I understand all the thrills and spills of this business because I once fell rather sensationally at Margate, when I was seven," I find myself blurting out to Mr Sangster just as we are first introduced. He is not, needless to say, initially taken with me. He is 63, and quite handsome in his stubby, round-faced way. He is beautifully dressed in morning suit and Hermes tie. ("I always wear a Hermes tie.") He says: "I'm just going over to say hello to Nigel Dempster."
Anyway, on to the Ascot train at Waterloo, in a frock that would have been posh and possibly even Chanel, were it not for the fact it is neither, and has actually been designed, according to the label, by that up-and- coming fashion house "100% Viscose". And the hat? Well, I turned down my young son's kind offer to borrow this black knitted thing with a bobble on and "Manchester United" stitched across the front, in favour of a sweet little jade-green confection lent to me by my friend Helga who, unlike me, is popular and gets invited to quite a lot of weddings, and so actually owns a hat. I think it's very fine until I'm on the train, and look about me at the other Ascot-going women, and think I might just as well have worn the Man U job after all.
A little jade thing just does not cut it. We are talking big hats. We are talking spectacular hats. We are talking creamy walnut whips and glittering vertical spirals and bouncing, fuchsia feathers and perpendicular ostrich plumes. We are talking women who've been thinking hats since November. I am already beginning to think I might have trouble pulling this off. I am already beginning to think it's going to be yet another winter in bed socks in N4.
I make my way to Mr Sangster's box. This is The Queen Elizabeth Stand, box number 7, overlooking the Paddock. Lunch is already over, alas. (He entertains some 30 guests to lunch here daily during Royal Ascot week.) I say "alas" because I later get a look at the menu, and see I could have had "baby lobsters served in the shell", and "bowls of quails eggs with celery salt" and "layered summer pudding with raspberry puree and quenelles of clotted cream". This is a very great shame, because I do like a quenelle when they are in season. Still, all is not lost. Mr Sangster obligingly decides to overlook my pathetic Margate anecdote. There may even be an amused twinkle in his eye. "Champagne?" he even offers. "Rather!" I reply happily. He then says: "Sorry, but what is your name again?" I say: "You can introduce me as the next Mrs Sangster, if you like." He says: "Oh." There might be quite a frightened look in his eye. I'm not sure something squat in viscose is quite what he had in mind.
Yes, everyone is drinking champagne. This is what happens, it seems, in boxes once lunch is over. You hang about and drink champagne. Brian Lara is in here, drinking champagne. Nigel Dempster is in here, drinking champagne.
Robert: "Are you behaving yourself Nigel?"
Nigel: "The fact I haven't fallen over the balcony yet is enough!"
Robert: "Ha! Yes!"
Mrs Susan Sangster is even here, drinking champagne. Obviously, the separation has proved amicable enough for her to carry on acting as hostess. She is looking brilliantly elegant in something very pink and almost certainly Chanel. Ivana Trump drops in for a glass of champagne. "'Allo, 'allo..." She is in tight-fitting orange with matching, strappy, high-heeled shoes so pointy the nerves on the topside of her feet bulge quite frighteningly. Her hat is massive and black and feathery. She and Mrs Sangster go for an air-kiss - mwah! mwah! - but end up spectacularly ricocheting off each other's brims. "You look gorgeous, darlink..." Ivana spots Robert. "Robert, darlink! I bet on your 'orse yesterday (Shining Hour, which won the Queen Mary Stakes). I put on one hun-der-ed pounds and I vin two sousand six hun-der-ed pounds!"
She about-turns to do a bit of brim-ricocheting around the room. There are lots of women to brim-ricochet with. The older ones were possibly beautiful once, but are now so face-lifted it looks rather as if gravity is working upside down today. The younger ones, though, are still stunning. Very blonde, very leggy. I say to Mr Sangster, how come all these women are so ravishing? He says: "They have to be, or they'd get sacked!" This, it would seem, is a world in which all fillies must look good - young, meticulously groomed, with excellent coats and fine teeth. Horses, too, would probably seek out plastic surgeons if they thought they were getting on a bit, and it was either that or the abattoir.
Robert Sangster is not, perhaps, as successful as he was in, say, the Seventies and early-Eighties. The Aga Khan and sundry Arab sheikhs have probably seen to that. Still, he remains Britain's greatest racehorse owner. In his time, he has owned some 700 Stakes winners, with victories in the Irish Derby, Melbourne Cup, French Derby, the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Detroit and Alleged). His 2,000- acre spread at Manton, Wiltshire, is one of the world's finest racing stables. He also owns palatial villas in Barbados and the South of France, as well as a London pad. His father, Vernon Sangster, founded the Vernon Pools which Robert, the sole heir, sold in 1988 for pounds 90m shortly before the National Lottery would have decimated profits. I am fascinated by what it's like to have so much money. Have you ever been on a bus, Robert? "Of course." When? "I can't remember." Do you have any little economies? "Yes." Like? "I don't know. Oh look, there is Peggy Taylor from Monte Carlo..."
As the box doesn't actually overlook the course, everyone gathers round the telly for the races. It makes you wonder why they don't just stay at home in their big hats and watch it on the BBC. Except, of course, the races is not, actually, what Ascot is about. It's about being here, and being seen, and being seen to be here, and so belonging to a certain set.
Mr Sangster, what do you like to do which has nothing to do with horses? "I like golf. I like the cinema. I thought Hugh Grant was excellent in Notting Hill." Do you read? "Yes. Bloodstock annuals." And? "The odd Sidney Sheldon. And John Grisham, although his books get worse and worse." What makes you sad? "Watching Nigel Dempster drink my champagne!" Do you ever get bored of the lifestyle? Do you ever think: Oh, sod it. I'll stay in tonight and have beans on toast in front of Animal Hospital? "No! No! No! I had Dwight Yorke in here yesterday. Lovely man. It would be churlish to be bored, don't you think?"
After Repton School in Derbyshire, then a National Service posting in Berlin, Robert returned to take up his place in the Vernon organisation, and to marry his first wife - a society model called Christine. The first racehorse he ever bought - Chalk Stream, which cost him pounds 600 - was a wedding present for Christine, and from then on he was hooked. His life became breeding, buying and selling, as much on the wife-front as the horse-front. You buy, you breed, you parade what you've got until you get tired of it, and then you get rid of it. After producing four children with Christine, he cantered off with Susan Peacock, the wife of an Australian politician who became the second Mrs Sangster. Then, after tiring of her, he bolted with the current Susan, once the wife of the shoe-shop heir, and with whom he had a further two children. This Susan is now looking at me very sourly indeed. "My wife doesn't like journalists," says Robert. "So perhaps you had better go now. I mean, it's not like you're Nigel Dempster, who we've known and trusted for 20 years."
So, I leave the box. And I haven't even had a bet yet. In fact, I've never had a bet, ever. So I will have a bet before I go. I note Sangster has a horse - Colonial State - running in the last race. I put a fiver on it each way. The horse comes in last. The horse could not have beaten a fat man running downhill. The thing about me, I guess, is that I'm just a total loser. Mrs Deborah Sangster, indeed! Although, that said, I do have my own private jet. It's only on the gas cooker, but it's a start, don't you think?
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