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Horse-racing traditions vary
An English Rose in Georgia
Lesley Francis - SBF
Lesley Francis grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. - photo by File photo

On Saturday, the Kentucky Derby (which the English pronounce Darr-Bee) comes around again.
The world’s fascination with this famous horse race has made me think about a comparable British institution that takes place over five days in June: Royal Ascot. Both have high stakes, are highly publicized, have many traditions surrounding them and are known for sartorial elegance and fashion — in particular, ladies (and some men) wearing stylish or even outrageous hats, usually in a fairly competitive fashion.
My husband and I were lucky enough to benefit from some lovely corporate entertaining at Royal Ascot over the years, and early on in our marriage we lived only 5 miles from the small but elegant town of Ascot. Queen Anne founded this prestigious race course more than 300 years ago in 1711 and, according to, Royal Ascot is Britain’s most-valuable race meeting. It draws many of the world’s finest racehorses to compete for the equivalent of about $8 million in prize money.
The link with royalty remains strong. The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is a great fan of both riding and horse racing and owns many thoroughbred horses. The proceedings kick off with The Royal Procession, which began in 1825 and is a popular moment to herald the start of each of the five days of racing at Ascot (which will take place June 16-20).
There are three enclosures for spectators to choose from, but The Royal Enclosure is the most sought-after and is widely regarded as the historic heart of Royal Ascot. Originally set aside for the royal family at the running of the first Gold Cup in 1807, the space was reserved for the family, guests and household of King George III. To this day, membership continues to be by invitation only.
Turning back to the USA, the Kentucky Derby is now in its 141st year. The famous Churchill Downs racetrack has been in Louisville since 1875. According to kentucky, 20 horses will compete hard for a prize pot of $2 million over 16 events that comprise the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series,” which takes place over the
10 weeks that run up to the first Saturday in May.  
Famously, the mint julep has been associated with the Kentucky Derby since before the Second World War. A mint julep is traditionally made with four ingredients:  mint leaf (always spearmint at the Kentucky Derby), bourbon, sugar and water. A true Southerner would never mix a mint julep with gin (as is sometimes the way), and in classic American style, the brand of bourbon selected is fiercely defended and commands a high sponsorship price in the Kentucky Derbies of the 21st century.
In the land of my birth, one of the favorite British beverages to sip at Royal Ascot is tea (hot tea, of course, as most British believe that iced tea has no place in modern society!). The Rare Tea Company has created a special blend for Royal Ascot. However, Pimms is very popular throughout the British “season” of fashionable sporting events as the alcoholic beverage of choice.  
According to, this quintessential British drink was first served at a London oyster bar in the 1840s, where owner James Pimm invented the thirst-quencher. Using a concoction of gin, quinine and secret herbs, Mr. Pimm served up the brew as an aid to digestion, dishing it out in a small tankards, and the blend became known as Pimm’s No. 1 cup. It is interesting that in the USA, early mint juleps also were traditionally used to settle a queasy stomach and served in silver or pewter cups.
After the Second World War, Pimm’s extended its range, using a number of other spirits as bases for new cups. Scotch whisky lent its name to “No. 2 Cup” while Nos. 3 through 6 used, respectively, brandy, rum, rye and vodka. Of these varieties, the vodka cup and brandy (now called winter) are the only ones still in production, but the original gin version still reigns supreme in popularity. It is THE fashionable alcoholic beverage at Royal Ascot, where it is mixed with two parts lemonade (which is the British phrase for Sprite or 7-Up). In addition, Pimm’s would not be a proper cocktail without slices of orange, lemon, apple, cucumber and sprigs of mint. My husband hates this drink, but I say “Cheers!”
I will leave you with a quote from President Ronald Reagan (and I am sure the sentiment is shared by Queen Elizabeth II): “I’ve often said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” Maybe a bit of Pimm’s wouldn’t hurt, either.
 God bless America!

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