(CNN)The lush green landscape blurs into the background. Eyes that were gazing dreamily over the rolling English countryside are now focused on the scrap between the mount of popular jockey Frankie Dettori and Japanese outsider Deirdre.
The red, white and blue silks seem to merge in a flash of color and as they duel to the line. The gentle hubbub from the stands builds into a roar. British cut-glass accents switch to guttural urgings. Panama hats and ladies’ bonnets nod like wild flowers in the wind as they exhort their favorite for one last push.
Stride by stride, the charging Deirdre — ridden by jockey Oisin Murphy — hunts down Dettori’s front-running Mehdaayih. She surges up the inside nearest the rail, and when the white flash on her nose draws alongside she accelerates again. To groans from the Dettori faithful, she scores a famous victory for Japan to land the £600,000 ($728,000) Nassau Stakes, first staged in 1840.
Back in the stands, Ladies’ Day is in full swing at a sun-kissed Qatar Goodwood Festival, more commonly known as “Glorious Goodwood,” the traditional finale to Britain’s social season.
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The “glorious” moniker was added by the Victorian press, but as well as being handy alliteration it perfectly encapsulates the feeling as your eyes look out across the hilltop racecourse and take in the lush landscape of woods, fields and folds of the Sussex Downs in the far south of England. Glorious, indeed.
“The whole vista up here on top of the Downs with the backdrop of the rolling English countryside is spectacular and the light is fabulous,” says Racing Post photographer Edward Whitaker.
“It’s the prettiest track in England,” adds David Parkinson, a member of the Royal Ascot Racing club syndicate.
“I love this place, it’s beautiful. Royal Ascot is the pinnacle of horse racing, but Goodwood is a very close second.”
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Racing began at Goodwood in 1802, instigated by the third Duke of Richmond, whose ancestor the first Duke — an illegitimate son of King Charles II — bought the estate in 1697. The meeting grew thanks to a combination of its setting, society scene, and proximity to London. King Edward VII was a regular visitor from the 1860s and dubbed it “a garden party with racing tacked on.”
“The presence of royalty added to its allure, so the fact that the king or the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family and the cream of society came acted as a magnet to other people,” said James Peill, the curator of the Goodwood Collection and author of “Glorious Goodwood: A Biography of England’s Greatest Sporting Estate.”
“Glorious” Goodwood became the traditional end of the English summer season, a social melting pot for the upper classes which included the Henley rowing regatta, Wimbledon, Royal Ascot, and the Chelsea Flower Show as well as operas, balls and exhibitions.
“It was traditionally when the aristocracy, the landed gentry and the upper classes were all in London for sporting and social events, and eligible daughters were presented in the hope of marrying them off suitably,” said Peill.
“Goodwood marked the end of the season before everyone went on holiday. In the latter half of the 19th century, huge amounts of people went to Scotland to enjoy the sport, while some headed south to Cowes for the sailing regatta.
“Does the season still exist? I think it does to a certain extent although it’s not so exclusive anymore.”
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Goodwood retains the quintessential feel of an English garden party, but as an antidote to the formality of Royal Ascot. There is still hierarchy, in terms of price and privileges, but the word bandied about by most is “relaxed.”
On this sweltering summer’s day, a voice sounds over the upmarket Richmond Enclosure tannoy ahead of the first race: “Gentlemen, you may remove your jackets.”
“I love it. Goodwood is all about relaxed elegance,” adds Whitaker. “It’s much more relaxed than Royal Ascot. It’s all about linen suits for the men and ladies in floaty floral dresses.”
Disappointment from Dettori fans and excited shrieks from Deirdre backers bubble around the grandstands, but soon the genteel air settles and conversations resume.
“Goodwood has a lovely, friendly feel and brings people together,” said Nicky Reed, whose family are long-time members.
“There’s something for everyone — you can be as posh as you like. Or not. It’s the most beautiful racecourse and they are a lovely family who own it.”
The incumbent owner is the 11th Duke of Richmond, a motor racing enthusiast who instigated two of the 12,000-acre family estate’s other famous events, the Festival of Speed in 1993 — on the revamped motor circuit which was once a World War II aerodrome — and the Goodwood Revival, a celebration of motoring’s halcyon days, which began in 1998.
In a nod to its wartime past, the opening race on Ladies’ Day used to offer the winner a ride in a Spitfire, the iconic fighter from the Battle of Britain.
Both the Festival of Speed and Revival have been become notable events in what might be called the modern season, according to Peill.
The 64-year-old Duke, a noted photographer under the name Charles March, moved his family down from London to take over the running of the estate as he turned 40 in 1994.
Alongside the racing and motor sport, it also offers flying, golf, shooting, cricket, corporate hospitality and a lavish country house hotel. It employs a staff of about 700 and had an annual turnover of nearly £100 million ($121 million) in 2017, according to a report filed at Companies House.
“The challenge is always to create a sustainable business that feels relevant in the modern world but is also authentic to the place,” said the Duke in an interview with the London Evening Standard.
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‘Sense of welcome’
Behind the grandstands, looking south towards the cathedral city of Chichester and the silvery fingers of Chichester Harbour heading out towards the English Channel, the Duke is on hand in the winner’s enclosure to present the prizes.
In light linen suit and brown-rimmed glasses, the former advertising executive marshals the women who competed in the Magnolia Cup, a charity race for amateur riders won by 18-year-old Muslim Khadijah Mellah.
The media buzz has barely died down by the time Murphy steers Deirdre into the winner’s circle. Every vantage point in the surrounding open and glass-fronted bars and restaurants is taken up. Murphy is forgiven for defeating Dettori, and racegoers cheer for Japan’s first top-flight success in Britain for 19 years. Judging by later videos posted on social media, the team responsible for Deirdre are ecstatic.
“Goodwood is an amazing place. I’ve never seen such a beautiful racecourse, and it’s completely different to the tracks in Japan,” said Seiko Hashida Yoshimura, the racing manager for Deirdre’s owner Toji Morita and daughter of trainer Mitsuru Hashida.
Mehdaayih’s philosophical trainer John Gosden adds: “It’s good for the game.”
Later, free strawberries and cream are handed out and judging by the queues its a welcome treat. As racing draws to a close, the party has already started on the Earl’s Lawn, with an ever-growing throng dancing to DJ beats in the afternoon sun. For others, thoughts turn to dinner back in London or elsewhere.
Some racegoers retire to country pubs in the picturesque villages of Singleton, Charlton or East Dean down in the valley behind the course. In lengthening shadows, a cricket match on a leafy oval in Singleton adds to the quintessential English scene.
“Glorious Goodwood” is over for another day, but the memories will linger, according to Peill.
“There is that sense of welcoming people in to enjoy the beauty and the sport so it’s not just exclusive to friends and family of the Dukes of Richmond. It’s open to everyone,” he adds.
“People build up happy memories and it becomes part of their own story, their own family history.”