Another day at the races

Despite a lifetime of formality, the Queen carries on without a chink in her royal armour

CP Images/Nathan Denette

In the hierarchy of dire jobs, you’d think queen would rank decidedly higher than, say, oil rig worker or coal miner. But watching 84-year-old Queen Elizabeth II work through her paces at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack on Sunday under a sweltering sun, you really start to wonder just how much higher it really is.

It started easily enough—as the Queen and Prince Phillip glided across the track in a landau at four sharp, greeted by cheers and the sort of pomp that signals another ordinary day for them—a brass band, an honour guard in their ceremonial best and of course a cute little girl brandishing flowers. The monarch appeared game if pale as she stepped down from the open carriage in the blistering heat. After meeting the racetrack mucky-mucks, she walked briskly, chin first, along a red carpet that had been laid only minutes prior.

The queen has amped-up her fashion wattage significantly during this Canadian tour, a trend that continued at the track where she showed up in a turquoise outfit that could have been coordinated by Anna Wintour herself. Yet she made the outfit her own with reassuringly dowdy accessories that you’d never see in Vogue—white gloves, sensible black patent pumps and matching purse whose contents remain a cosmic mystery.

Royal Tour

Her 89-year-old husband, Prince Philip, was her gallant and attentive human accessory—tan and dapper in a dark suit and Panama hat. Sartorially, the octogenarians outshone those surrounding them. Unlike the Brits, most Canadians don’t seem to have a clue how to dress for a Royal day at the races. A smattering of women boasted Ascot-worthy fascinators—those UFO-shaped creations fixed to the side of the head. A few had figured out how to look fresh and cool yet elegant. Far more showed up in dresses best described as bad bridesmaid, disco-appropriate or generic black polyester cocktail-party gear that looked far less comfortable than Saran wrap.

After watching one race in the Royal box, the Royal couple moved on to an open paddock where they mingled with Queen’s Plate horses and their owners before returning to the stands to watch the 151st Queen’s Plate. It’s the fourth the Queen has attended, the first being in 1957, five years after she ascended to the throne.

Now she’s 58 years into a job she never applied for, one that demands one make history without making news. She has mastered the cardboard formalities brilliantly. But clearly hers is a life reminiscent of Groundhog Day, the movie in which one day is repeated in endless loop: greeting dull dignitaries, listening to God Save the Queen, engaging in inane small talk with strangers, remaining gracious through reception lines and calm as people breech police barriers and the no-touching-the-queen protocol. Through it all she soldiers on dutifully without an ounce of arrogance or any pretence of forced enjoyment.

Up close, it’s clearly the job from hell. Working 12 hour days and being expected to walk up and down stairs in horrible humidity at age 84 is the least of it. More, it’s the simple life pleasures denied her—wandering down a city street alone or spending a day spontaneously. Every place you arrive at has been readied for you. (Prince Charles has said he came to hate the smell of fresh paint.) Then there’s all of those malcontent journalists who follow you around, riled over having to wait hours in the sun for a single photo op or sound bite. “The G20 was a lot easier than this,” one cameraman griped after the Queen’s Plate.

Yet amazingly, in almost six decades, the Queen has no apparent chinks in her Royal armor—nary an indiscretion or misstep amid the soap-opera lives of her progeny and their spouses. She remains a resolute yet reassuring mystery, the personification of those “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters you see everywhere.

Leaving Woodbine, the Queen seemed more buoyant than on arrival. Perhaps it had something to do with the energizing equine presence. Or maybe she was simply relieved to have reached that day’s formal finish line. After awarding the Queen’s Plate Cup to winning jockey Eurico Da Silva, who later described the experience as “like a dream” and boasted he would show off the picture when he returned to Brazil for a visit: “I come from a long way, working so hard and today meet the Queen. I’m so,? so, so, happy to meet her,” he told journalists. Then the Queen and the prince departed in a limo, leaving a cheering crowd of thousands who can say they’ve seen the lady whose profile adorns currency. As the car disappeared, the Queen offered one last signature wave out of an open window. It was poignant—a ghostly, gloved goodbye.