Sandwiched between the Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon, Ascot was once a highlight of the Season. Today, the Queen's favourite race meet is more Royle than Royal Family. Its fate was sealed on Thursday when images of eight men brawling among a sea of tattoos and orange cleavage were beamed round the world, confirming what snobs have long suspected – Ascot just ain't posh no more.
No matter that the Queen still attends, as she has every year since she was 19. No matter that top hats are still worn, though there's harrumphing about whether black ones are acceptable (grey is, of course, correct for morning suits). A gradual slipping of standards reached its definitive conclusion on Ladies' Day, when a group of crop-haired businessmen traded blows using chair legs and bottles of pink Laurent Perrier as weapons. For one columnist, proof of the death of civility came with the arrival of Helen Wood, Wayne Rooney's one-time prostitute lover, who "paraded like a duchess".
But while some have reacted with horror, social commentators opine that it is what they have been saying for some time: the Season is in terminal decline. "Nothing is posh any more," says Lady Celestria Noel, author of Debrett's Guide to the Season. "A lot of the events of the Season haven't been exclusive for some time, because organisers have made it much simpler to get in. It used to be incredibly complicated to get into the Royal Enclosure – you had to be vetted and know someone, and couldn't have been divorced. It was a real hurdle. Now it's much simpler."
Ascot's complex rules of entry changed in 2007, when a controversial new grandstand was opened. Intriguingly, the man responsible for the change was Stoker Hartington, chairman of Ascot Racecourse and the Queen's representative at Ascot, who sparked controversy by announcing that he would not be using his title when he became the 12th Duke of Devonshire.
But it's not just Ascot that has changed. According to Lady Celestria, many event organisers have chosen to relax entry to make their events financially sustainable. "Going to the Derby and Goodwood also used to be very complicated. But there are no more hidden or weird criteria any more. This is partly because it's a numbers game: these events have to pay their way, and organisers don't want to make it difficult for punters. But it's also because of a change in society towards chequebook democracy, where entry to the top is now only dependent on your ability to pay."
One racing adage says "all men are equal above and below the turf", but the racing world has also changed. "Ascot is still a championship event, but racing is no longer the preserve of just the English aristocracy," says Lady Celestria. "Many more horses are owned by businessmen and syndicates."
Among such owners last week was Carole Middleton, mother of the Duchess of Cambridge, the part-owner of Sohraab. It wasn't placed in yesterday's Wokingham Handicap Stakes. Although Mrs Middleton dominated press attention by arriving in the royal cortège, finally shaking off years of sniping about "doors to manual", a reference to her past life as an air hostess, her well-chosen outfit was eclipsed by that afternoon's brawl.
The Royal Family have enjoyed a renaissance since the wedding of William and Kate, but the phasing out of centuries of toff rule continues. Britain, unlike France, still retains its monarchy, but as the fists flew, for some the scene recalled Madame de Pompadour's declaration: "Après nous, le deluge." Yet as Lady Celestria observes: "Smart or unsmart, everybody uses the events of the Season for daytime drinking."
The 200-year-old summer drink is a staple of Glyndebourne and Wimbledon. But it was bought by the drinks conglomerate Diageo in 2006, and now aims for a wider audience. In 2004, a ready-mixed version was launched in tins.
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