The day I went to Ascot with a dead chicken on my head.
Black Caviar’s magnificent Ascot debut was let down only by her jockey who’d got a bit used to just sitting there, I guess, and who can blame him? I tip my Race Day hat to the Queen of the Track.
Last time I wore it was at Doomben, to watch her enjoy yet another glorious win and the first time I wore it was at Royal Ascot, where I was a guest of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television.
With a little work, my hat could have six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.
I will not retire this hat until it’s seen a Melbourne Cup and the Birdsville track. The Kentucky Derby would also not go amiss, but seems less likely at the moment.
I was invited to Sky’s box in my capacity as Editor of a magazine called Hotel.
It was one of the best gigs I ever had as a journalist – a trade magazine for the “independent hotelier with 10 bedrooms or more.”
A happy consequence was that my stories were generally written with Sybil Fawlty’s words in mind, “Basil, 22 rooms is the limit!”
An even happier consequence was that I got to swank around at the Ivy and stay in outrageously good hotels, probing the murky depths of in-house versus contracted laundry services. It was heavy stuff.
So a Day at the Races seemed a welcome diversion and I duly went off to purchase The Hat.
I started in Debenhams, the British equivalent of David Jones, where the hats were expensive and uniformly too big. Don’t you have any other sizes?
“In fect, Modom, many leddies find a little draught excluder achieves a perfect fit.”
Poms. Fashion. Pffft.
I picked up a natty black number covered in dancing dyed chook feathers for a fraction of the price – and it fitted me too – from C&A (or Coats and ‘Ats, as my former mother-in-law (mother-out-law?) called it.
I was pretty broke at the time so a new frock was out of the question. I set off feeling more than a little like the poor governess being allowed to mingle with the guests for half an hour before retiring to the nursery.
Still, I tottered off to the station, clutching my wobbly hat – not yet brave enough to put it on – by this time a bundle of nerves that I can only attribute to being a little Aussie battler braving one of the bastions of the English Upper Crust.
Pluck me a cabbage and call me Eliza.
The ticket seller was thrilled to hear I was off to Ascot, and asked me to come back and buy him a drink if I backed a winner.
Aaaargh! I’d been so wrapped up in inadequate dresses and draught excluder and sudden terrors at just what the Sky Television box at Royal Ascot actually meant that I’d completely forgotten the main point of the day.
I had about £15 on me. And I already felt like a dormouse. A dormouse in an ostentatious hat. Oh God.
By the time the train pulled into Ascot I was shaking with fear. A nice little old lady gave me a tip for the first race and assured me I’d have a wonderful time.
She was right.
The short walk to the track was a joy in itself, with musicians playing all along the way and scalpers, or touts as they’re called over there, by the dozen offering grandstand tickets.
Ha, I thought, as my hat wobbled in the breeze, I’ve already got one – AND a box.
When I got there, it wasn’t at all what I had worked myself up to expect.
There was the Sky PR Graham, a lovely Scotsman in a beautiful morning suit, and 10 other women, all from various hotels of 10 bedrooms or more, plus a reporter from the Dastardly Opposition, Hotel and Restaurant magazine.
You may judge from this that Sky was busy breaking into the hotel market at this time and was indeed one of our biggest advertisers.
It was the first time at Ascot for all of us and we were in a private box, crammed to the gills with Champagne and quality snackage – none of your party pies, thank you – with its own open balcony from which to view the races.
We did Queen waves at the Royal Carriage when it trundled past and sang bits from My Fair Lady to each other, before ducking out of the summer chill for some more Champagne.
My Hat, which by now had stopped feeling like a dead chicken on my head and had transformed itself into an essential part of my being, was unanimously voted Best in Box.
Stick that, Modom.
Placing our bets was a delight – an opportunity to squeal at particularly beautiful hats and admire just how good men can look when they dress up in fancy clothes.
I put £2 on Intikhab to win in the first race – my old lady tip and my only success of the day. And in all was £8 down by the time I headed for home.
£8 for one of the best days out I’ll ever have is pretty good value.
That the day went so quickly is the only pity. Suddenly it was 5 o’clock and Cinderella had to go and pick up the kids.
I put £5 for a place on The Editor and gave my slip to Graham. Came nowhere, for the record.
At the station a very drunk man came over and sat next to me.
“I just had to come and tell you that I love your hat,” he said. “Did you win anything?”
He was £40 up and drunk as a lord. He begged me to come and live with him in Wandsworth and then said, “Oh no, what about your husband? I expect he’s a big bloke, is he?”
Enormous, I assured him, and a front row forward to boot. Not to be messed with.
“Oh rugby! I was a prop myself. Blackheath and England A’s.”
Hmmm. D’ya see what he did there?
The train arrived and he wished me a safe journey, before staggering off to another carriage.
Even getting chatted up by a drunk felt special at Ascot.
When I got home my lefty daughter berated me for enjoying Rupert Murdoch’s hospitality, however remotely.
To which I’m told I replied, “I’ll never dance with the Devil darling, but I’ll always drink his Champagne.”
A sure sign that I’d enjoyed a lot of it.