06/08/2006 11:00PM

Excitement builds as Ascot nears


The official unveiling of Ascot's new $350 million grandstand on Royal Ascot's June 20 opening day will be a cause for celebration in British circles, both racing and social. For the royal meeting is not only a gathering of Europe's elite horsemen, but a glittering five-day garden party at which England's A-list presents itself in full summer regalia.

And they will pay for the privilege, as world-class fun does not come cheaply.

Racegoers in the Royal Enclosure will be charged $145 each day for standing room, although a five-day badge reduces the daily fee to $110. A reserved seat costs an additional $45, and a place in one of seven restaurants serving breakfast, a five-course luncheon, and tea runs between $645 and $2,100 per person per day.

Grandstand admission at Royal Ascot averages $105 a day, and the patrons in the Silver Ring at the head of the stretch pay $34 a day, a price that does not include admission to the paddock area. Those on the infield, or Heath Enclosure as it is euphemistically termed, pay $13 a day for a panoramic view of the new grandstand.

It is estimated that Ascot will gross nearly $30 million in admission fees for the royal meeting, enough to keep the queen and her court in strawberries and cream from here to eternity. That 275,000 Englishmen and women will skip work between next Tuesday and Saturday to schmooze with the ponies at more than $100 a pop before even having placed a single wager is a testament to their love of a game they invented.

A few foreigners will mingle with them. Foremost will be Sheikh Mohammed and his Dubaian associates at Godolphin, some of whom are actually English and one of whom, Frankie Dettori, is Italian by birth but a world citizen by reputation.

Officials at both Godolphin and Ascot heaved a sigh of relief on Wednesday, when Dettori rode Librettist to a conditions-race win at Nottingham. Godolphin had actually shut down its racing operations for 10 days beginning May 28 after a series of poor performances, missing both the Derby and the Oaks for the first time in its 12-year history. Librettist, who had not run since October 2004, was Godolphin's first runner back. Godolphin is now in the process of loading up for Royal Ascot, although Simon Crisford, Godolphin's English frontman, has warned, "We are behind schedule," and that it will be a close call getting all of Godolphin's intended runners ready for the big week.

Foremost among the intended runners is Electrocutionist, who will return to turf for Wednesday's 1 1/4-mile Prince of Wales's Stakes. The winner of the Dubai World Cup, Electrocutionist will probably start as the second choice behind David Junior, the Dubai Duty Free winner who passed on a date with Hurricane Run in the Tattersalls Gold Cup two weeks ago because of heavy ground at The Curragh.

Withdrawn from the May 20 Lockinge Stakes because he wasn't ready, Sussex Stakes winner Proclamation will represent Godolphin in the one-mile Queen Anne Stakes on opening day. Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed and company are anxiously awaiting the season debut of Shawanda, a Sinndar filly they purchased from the Aga Khan after a 3-year-old campaign in which she won the Irish Oaks and the Prix Vermeille. She is expected in the 1 1/2-mile Hardwicke Stakes on Friday, when she could meet Ouija Board, who is also under consideration for the Prince of Wales.

Royal Ascot's two big sprints, the five-furlong King's Stand Stakes on Tuesday and the six-furlong Golden Jubilee Stakes on Saturday, could be dominated by a trio of Australian invaders. Takeover Target and Glamour Puss are the first and second favorites for both races, each of which form part of the Global Sprint Challenge. Along with Falkirk, they are looking to duplicate the remarkable feat of Choisir, the Australian speedster who landed both races three years ago.

With 2000 Guineas winner George Washington sidelined until early July, Tuesday's one-mile St. James's Palace Stakes has lost some of its luster, but its filly equivalent, Friday's Coronation Stakes, looks like a hot contest. A one-mile Group 1 race, the Coronation has attracted Newmarket's 1000 Guineas winner Speciosa, Irish 1000 champ Nightime, and Tie Black, who was awarded the French 1000 via disqualification. Also headed to the Coronation from France is the improving winner of last Sunday's Group 2 Prix de Sandringham, Impressionnante, a Danehill filly trained by Carlos Laffon-Parias.

Because the new grandstand required an expanded apron, Ascot's stretch and its one-mile straight course had to be moved back 70 yards. Jockeys gave the slightly reconfigured course high marks after the track's unofficial opening on May 27, with Dettori calling it "the best racecourse in the world." By all indications, the new Ascot promises to live up to Dettori's rave notices.