Royal Ascot Highlights Summer Social Season in Britain
ASCOT, England — (AP) — Christina Osborne has a system for winning at Royal Ascot, the five-day horse racing event that is a highlight of England's glittering if brief summer social season.
The American in London doesn't bother with the odds, the bookies or the data-packed Racing Post. She just picks the horses with the cutest names.
"That seems to have worked a few times," said Osborne, a 28-year-old blogger who explains the vagaries of British life to American women.
"I don't really know horses," explained the Royal Ascot veteran. "These events have more to do with dressing up, socializing. The last three or four times I've been to polo, I haven't actually seen any polo, just visited friends. At Ascot, it's a really big deal if you get to parking lot number one — some people set up their tents and never leave the parking lot."
"The season" once referred to a round of exclusive summer balls, parties and other events for England's upper classes. Remnants of the tradition remain even in the 21st century: Royal Ascot, which concludes this weekend; the Wimbledon tennis championships; the Henley-on-Thames rowing regatta; polo matches highlighted by the Cartier competition and sailing week at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight off England's southern coast.
In a summer when everything royal seems fresh — call it the Kate Middleton effect — the high-tone events offer those who are young, wealthy and connected a chance to rub shoulders with royalty, perhaps with the hope of catching their own prince or duke or even a non-titled investment banker.
Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady magazine, said many Americans are coming to British shores with the hopes of snagging Prince Harry — William's hunky, ginger-haired younger brother.
"Everyone's calling them 'the Throne Rangers,'" said Johnson. The phrase is a slight variation of "Sloane Rangers," a British term for well-to-do young women — young Princess Diana was one — who do all their clothes shopping in the posh Sloane Square boutiques. "These American girls are coming over to try and snag Harry."
Johnson, who was awarding a trophy at this year's Royal Ascot's Ladies Day, said the eye-catching royal wedding between Prince William and Middleton — now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — has made anything "royal or traditional or dressy" seem fashionable again.
"That makes 'the season' bigger this year than it has been," she said.
Part of the appeal of Royal Ascot is the strict dress code, which allows people to choose elaborate and outlandish outfits provided they follow the written guidelines.
"There is a sense that Royal Ascot has maintained standards," she said. "They are very strict about the dress code. You can't show too much leg or thigh. It's not a parade of bare flesh. It goes to show how rules are actually useful. Everyone loves peacocking if it's within the rules."
Queen Elizabeth II sets the dress code: Her Majesty says yes to hats and no to cleavage.
People who don't follow the guidelines prohibiting mini-skirts and skimpy dresses may be denied entry to the royal enclosure, the priciest and most exclusive enclave at the track, and forced to make a humiliating retreat to less posh areas like the grandstand.
"I dressed modestly because of the guidelines," said fashion and technology student Shu-Ling Li, 21, who designed her own striking floral dress and lily-themed fascinator. "I made sure the straps are at least one-inch wide. On special occasions, I want to look classic. I made sure to follow the rules."
She and five friends came from Manchester for Friday's races, planning their trip — and their outfits — months in advance.
"We definitely hopefully will get a glimpse of the royals today," she said, gazing wistfully at the Royal Box.
The dress code is no guarantee of good behavior. This year's Ascot Ladies Day on Thursday was marred by a drunken brawl that saw men in suits hurling glasses, chairs and punches.
Royal Ascot, celebrating its 300th year, has a long royal connection dating back to 1711, when Queen Anne discovered the open heath near Windsor Palace and felt it might be a perfect racing location.
Jerramy Fine, the American author of the memoir "Someday My Prince Will Come," said it is not surprising that wannabes go a bit gaga at the chance to use traditional horse races and polo matches to get close to the royals, who they have only seen on television and in glossy magazines.
Some Americans spend months preparing for "the season," soliciting passes to all the best events, including a prized invite to the royal enclosure at Royal Ascot, she said.
"When you come from a country where the only castle is Cinderella's and you're here with a million palaces and a real live royal family, of course you'll have stars in your eyes," she said. "If you're only five feet away from Prince Harry at a polo match, of course you'll go a little crazy. It doesn't make you a gold-digger. I say more power to them."