Edward VII once described Goodwood as "a garden party with racing tacked on," and he wasn't far from right (the king was a frequent guest). Goodwood, a 12,000-acre estate about 50 miles southeast of London, has one of England's premier horse racing tracks, and the people who go there dress accordingly. It's like the Kentucky Derby without the mint juleps.
For the Richmond Enclosure, one of the more upscale areas of the track, women are advised to wear "a summer wedding outfit, an effortless dress that feels fun but chic." ("Flamboyant headpieces" are also encouraged.) Men are told that "a linen suit, especially when topped by a Panama hat," is appropriate. Needless to day, jeans are not allowed.
I had neither linen suit nor Panama hat, but I passed muster and was allowed into the Richmond Enclosure.
My day at the races had started early on a Saturday morning at the five-star Corninthia hotel in London. The Corinthia has an arrangement with Goodwood where guests can buy one of three day packages that mix-and-match horse racing, off-road driving, the use of one of the two 18-hole golf courses and tour of the stately Goodwood House.
But it was the horse racing I was interested in. We drove through the rolling hills of West Sussex, looking dubiously at the dark rain clouds off in the distance.
At the Richmond Enclosure, we had a lovely lunch of duck cromesquis, aged sirloin of beef and lemon posset. I noticed that as we got closer to race time, diners began to move toward a balcony just off the dining room. There, you could see the horses walking down below on their way from the paddock to the track.
A "tote hostess" with a hand-held betting machine came around to my table. I chose at random from the racing card. One of my picks, a horse named "California," was in fact Irish-bred, but I figured that since I was from California, luck would be with me. It wasn't, nor was it for the rest of the day.
The track is undulating, climbing uphill at the start and then downhill for the rest of the way. It's not a perfect oval, but a kind of twisted question mark shape. And because Goodwod is only six miles from the coast, it can get very foggy.
Although horse racing is the main attraction during the summer months, Goodwood also boasts an auto racing track and an airfield where you can fly in a vintage World War Two Harvard Warbird, which will do barrel rolls if your stomach can tolerate it.
Next month, Goodwood will host the Goodwood Revival, where vintage race cars are rolled out for wheel-to-wheel competition and guests dress up in period costumes recreating the 1950s. The current owner of Goodwood, the Earl of March, is a car racing enthusiast, and the race draws thousands every year.
The Earl of March's family, descendents of the Duke of Richmond, the family that controls the estate, lives on the property in part of the main house with its distinctive four copper-topped turrets. Visitors can walk through it 60 days of the year, but otherwise it's off limits.
At the end of the day, we headed back to London and the Cornithia, a few dollars lighter but happy that we'd seen what elegant, old time horse racing could really be all about. And I learned a new phrase. When you "have a flutter" at and English race track, it means "make a bet." Try that at Aqueduct.