Some things never change at Royal Ascot, England's 278-year-old turf institution. The meeting is always held at the end of June, the weather rarely cooperates, strawberries and champagne are served, and the horse race is never as diverting as the human race. The sun was hot on Ascot opening day this year, and so was gossip about the royals.

First out of the gate was the latest dish on Princess Michael of Kent, known to detractors as Princess Pushy. One such belittler is her former private secretary, John Barratt. In a newspaper interview published during Ascot week, he claimed that his ex-boss was one persnickety princess, given to bitter rows (she and Princess Margaret enjoy a "mutual hate" relationship), an inflated sense of self (she complained when the children's nanny didn't curtsy to her) and creating royal rifts (Prince Charles so dislikes her that he didn't want her as a neighbor in Gloucestershire).

The House of Windsor didn't allow such ugly disclosures to spoil its time at Ascot. It was a red-letter day for blue-frocked horse lover Zara Phillips, 8, who got special dispensation from grandma Queen Elizabeth to sit in the royal enclosure. Generally, children under 10 are never allowed in that exclusive enclave, but, as a palace spokesman pointed out, "It is Her Majesty's race course."

It was no less special a day for Timothy Laurence, who made headlines a few months ago when intimate letters he wrote to Zara's mother, Princess Anne, were swiped from Buckingham Palace. Kept mostly out of sight since then, Laurence was back in service at Ascot as the Queen's equerry—supposedly at Princess Anne's insistence. A reporter at one of the newspapers noted that Anne and Tim "exchanged broad smiles" as the princess passed by the Queen's box. For intrigued spectators, it was a scene that almost, but not quite, upstaged the arrival of the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York.

As usual, Diana's opening-day outfit, a chic blue-and-white suit topped off by a turban-style hat, put her squarely in the winner's circle. On the other hand, most observers gave a long neigh to Fergie's unflattering yellow coatdress and black straw hat. She was able to redeem herself on the third day, however, with a cream-and-navy suit and a wide-brimmed striped topper.

No such redemption was available to Joan Collins. When the prime-time prima donna tried to enter the royal enclosure with a false name badge reading MRS. FRASER (her escort was British real estate magnate Malcolm Fraser), she was unceremoniously turned away at the gate. One onlooker said the actress "threw a tantrum like a 2-year-old." But according to a reporter, Collins claimed she "did it as a dare. It cost me £100. But it was great fun. And I don't give a damn."

And, of course, there's always next year.