09/30/2004 11:00PM

Ascot face-lift can't erase memories


PARIS - Ascot Racecourse has been the scene of many great occurrences during its 193-year history. It has been graced by the presence of 11 British monarchs, 12 if one counts the wayward Edward VIII, who attended the Royal Meeting as Prince of Wales before abdicating this throne in favor of marrying a social-climbing American.

Among Thoroughbred royalty, there has been no greater representative than Brown Jack, who won the Queen Alexandra Stakes, at 2 3/4 miles the world's longest flat race, six times in succession between 1929 and 1934.

And there was Queen Victoria who, as the Princess of Wales in 1836, became so excited as the horses turned into the stretch that she banged her head against the window of the Royal Box, smashing it to pieces.

A statue of Brown Jack is put on exhibit twice a year, first on the final day of Royal Ascot in June, again for one day in July when they run the Brown Jack Handicap. There is no statue of Victoria at Ascot, or of any of the other British kings and queens since 1711, perhaps because Ascot is a playground for the living.

While it is possibly the most historically important of all the world's sport venues, from a social as well as a sporting point of view, Ascot is once again looking to its future. After last Sunday's meeting, the track will be closed until June 2006, when it reopens for the Royal Meeting in a new, state-of-the-art grandstand.

Traditionalists may decry the attack of the wrecking ball which, after the old grandstand is cleared of hundreds of valuable sporting paintings, prints, and photographs, will slam into the members' enclosure with a vengeance not seen at Ascot since Lester Piggott was riding roughshod over the British riding community 20 years ago.

The track itself will be moved farther away from the current stand to make room for the new, enlarged grandstand and more space on the apron, but it will retain its shape, a 1 3/4-mile right-handed triangle with a one-mile straight course that meets the "round" course at the head of the stretch, 2 1/2 furlongs from the finish.

But the lovely paddock, immortalized by painters like Dufy, Manet, and Munnings, has been consigned to history. It will be moved from its place, past the old stand a quarter-mile from the betting ring, to a position behind the new grandstand, thus making it a great deal easier for people to see the horses in the paddock and get to the bookies for a bet before the start.

At my first Royal Ascot in 1984, the lay of the old land prevented me from seeing the result of what I thought had been a well-placed bet on Teleprompter in the Royal Hunt Cup. The quickest way back to my place in the stands seemed to be through a pedestrian tunnel. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea. Although the tunnel was open to two-way traffic, there was a colossal jam in my direction. By the time I emerged, the race was over. Teleprompter had run my 10-pound win bet into second behind Hawkley.

Not to worry, I would get it all back - and more - a year later when Teleprompter won the Arlington Million. As for the tunnel, it will be filled in sometime in the near future.

Ascot had provided my introduction to foreign racing a year earlier. The occasion was the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, in which the ex-American trained winner of the 1982 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Lemhi Gold, was running for his new French trainer, Maurice Zilber.

I had hoped it would be an opportunity to see Steve Cauthen for the first time since he had moved his tack to England in 1979.

But Cauthen was under suspension that day, his ride on the mare Time Charter taken by the veteran Joe Mercer. What transpired convinced me that there was something decidedly different about Ascot, and about racing in Europe in general.

As Lemhi Gold was being loaded into the gate, the horse next to him, Khairpour, was stung by a bee. He reared, spooking Lemhi Gold, who threw rider Freddy Head and ran off loose.

The track announcer informed that Khairpour had been withdrawn. Then, as Lemhi Gold was being corralled, that he had been withdrawn as well. Two minutes later, Lemhi Gold was back in the race and in the gate. He missed the break, went to the front and caved in after the first eight of the 12 furlongs. The winner, sans Cauthen, was Time Charter, who was brought by Mercer with a powerful late run to take the spoils.

A Paul Mellon horse, Diamond Shoal, was second, and the fine English Oaks winner Sun Princess, later the winner of the St. Leger Stakes, was third in just the fourth start of her career.

A 5-year-old mare winning and a 3-year-old filly finishing third in one of the best races on the planet? The old world had a decidedly new flavor for an American used to segregation of the sexes on the racecourse.

But there is no such segregation of humans at Ascot. In fact, the sexes are encouraged to fraternize in all of Ascot's human enclosures, as long as a lady is wearing a hat. Female headgear is an art form at Royal Ascot, where imagination is sometimes trumped by eccentricity if not downright vulgarity, just as in the art world.

The prize crown for best hat this observer has ever seen at Ascot goes to a young woman at the 1984 Royal Meeting, and she wasn't even wearing a hat!. The clever soul had done her hair up in the shape of a bowler hat. She not only got herself onto the BBC's Ascot fashion parade, she surely saved herself a bundle of cash on the purchase of a new hat, the better to spend in the betting ring.

To the fillies of Ascot, to its founder good Queen Anne, and to its current proprietor, Elizabeth II, long may your racecourse set the standard for fashion, both human and equine.