October 15 2010
British horse racing has been blessed with royal patronage ever since Charles II gave his personal endorsement to Newmarket Heath. But the monarchy’s love affair with the Turf really blossomed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With kings and queens now in regular attendance, top racecourses such as Epsom and Ascot decided that they needed to improve their facilities, so they added special royal boxes to the grandstand. The tradition continues to this day, but, whereas most contemporary royal boxes are strictly modern affairs, the beautiful and unique royal box at Newbury has been part of the same building since 1905 and has lost none of its period charm. Far from being off-limits to commoners, it can be hired out for private parties and Hennessy will once again entertain its guests there on Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup day on November 27.
Edward VII was Newbury’s first royal visitor, in July 1907, and every monarch has dined in its royal box since then, as well as the late Queen Mother – a steeplechasing enthusiast who made her final visit in 2001, when she presented the trophy for the Hennessy Gold Cup at the venerable age of 101. Lady Gabriella Windsor, first cousin once removed of the present Queen, will continue the royal connection when she presents the trophy again next month.
The Newbury Royal Box was first refurbished for the modest sum of £3,149 in November 1957. Five years ago a more detailed but sympathetic renovation was conducted by the London interior designer Julia Howard. Guests still enter via the stout navy-blue-painted door at the back of the grandstand and then make their way up to the first floor by stairs or lift. The smaller, modern room straight ahead of them has a bar, a Tote betting kiosk and a picture window overlooking the course, but the original royal box is the much bigger, high-ceilinged room to the right. Its parquet floor and fireplace overhung by a gilt framed mirror have been lovingly restored, along with the comfortable old sofas and chairs – more Sandringham or Highclere Castle than corporate function suite – which provide a sitting-out area and were no doubt welcomed by royal racegoers of advancing years.
There are hat stands and bookshelves, and the walls are decorated with fascinating old black-and-white photographs of royal owners with their horses, trainers and jockeys. There is also a balcony, reached through French windows, which affords a perfect view of the water jump and the finishing line.
It’s an unbeatable setting for a racing party and Hennessy took to it with style last winter. This year it will serve that delicious vintage cocktail “Horse’s Neck”, which dates back to around 1910 and will celebrate its 100th anniversary. It comprises a double measure of Hennessy Fine de Cognac, poured over a couple of ice cubes and served with chilled ginger ale and a pre-soaked strip of orange zest. Stir furiously and drink and, believe me, after two or three of them, you’ll be in the mood to give the bookies a caning.
It’s difficult to select a tip for the big race this far in advance but if last year’s runner-up, What A Friend – who is part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson – lines up again, I suspect he’ll go close. In the meantime, the former French Derby winner Vision d’Etat has a good chance in tomorrow’s Champion Stakes at Newmarket at 53-10 on Betfair.