06/22/2006 11:00PM

New-look Ascot a vision of modern times

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Edward Whitaker / Racing Post
An afternoon at the races in one of Ascot's upper-level lunchrooms can run $2,300 a head.

ASCOT, England - The old Ascot is dead, to begin with. Anyone who came to England's extravagant royal horse race meeting this week expecting Victorian, Edwardian, or even early Elizabethan II grandeur would have been sadly disappointed.

The new $350 million grandstand, a miracle of modern-day construction technique, was built in less than 18 months and bears no relation to, but much comparison with, the old stand, bits of which may well be resting eternally in mantelpiece urns throughout England. There is little else of the old structure left.

While the ghosts of Ascot past may be twisting in their tombs, the spirit of Ascot present is engaged in trying to work out a few kinks that should have been expected from a premiere on a such a large scale. Apart from its new-age architecture, the biggest difference between the old Ascot and the new Ascot is the increased, one might say the enforced, intermingling of the classes.

Time was when habitues of the royal enclosure could gaze at the masses only from a distance, one usually marked by a wrought-iron fence topped by golden fleurs-de-lis. Now the nobs must rub elbows with the yobs throughout the main concourse of the new stand. The separation of the classes at Ascot, formerly horizontal, has gone vertical.

The lunchrooms, where some of England's elite are paying up to $2,300 a day to socialize, are upstairs - two, three, four, and sometimes five stories above the masses, with the price of the lunch roughly equitable to the restaurant's distance above ground. Middle-class grandstanders must still pay $125 for a bottle of Perrier-Jouet, however, the same as what is charged the swells. If that's social equality, give me a pint of lager.

Visually impressive as the new stand is as one approaches from a distance, the view from the concourse reminds one of any recently built airport. High, light, airy, and impersonal, it is geared toward attracting as many people as possible to the many offerings of food and drink available. To that commercial end it is highly successful, but its success has come at the cost of some of the outdoor amenities that made the old Ascot so memorable.

The biggest problem with the new arrangement is the new paddock, repositioned from its old site behind the stand and beyond the finish line to a place immediately behind and at the center of the new stand.

While the old paddock, immortalized in paintings by Dufy and Manet, provided a near-pastoral opportunity to see the horses before a race, the new paddock is a treeless affair upon which the sun beats down mercilessly. It is flanked on both sides by soulless gray and black underpasses reminiscent of railroad underpasses one takes care to avoid after dark. The congregation there, coupled with the crowds in the grandstand itself, makes traffic throughout the center of the plant a problem.

Some fans, especially those without a reserved seat, have complained that sight lines on the lower-level terraces make it almost impossible to see a race. Queues for the ladies' rooms have been so long that some bolder members of the fair sex have not hesitated to use the gents'. Is this the end of civilization as we know it?

Surely not. Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first built. Now it is their prized possession. And while the ghost of Ascot present may today be struggling with the ghost of Ascot past, it is the spirit of Ascot future that hovers above the new edifice.

Fifty years from now, when the Ascot Authority builds a new grandstand to replace the tired old 2006 edition, many people will lament the passing of the old, more traditional building. It is only human nature to mourn the past.

In the meantime, welcome to the brave new world of racegoing. Ascot Racecourse is dragging British racing into the 21st century with a vengeance not normally associated with the traditionalists who still flock to the royal meeting wearing garb that was the height of fashion during the pre-World War I reign of Edward VII.

American racetracks in need of a face-lift should take heed.