Saddle up for Down Royal festival
Fashion, fillies and maybe even a successful flutter ... why this weekend's races at Down Royal are a sure bet in the fun stakes
It wasn't that long ago that a meeting at Down Royal Racecourse was considered by most race goers as one of the bleakest, toughest and most inhospitable events in Ireland.
Thirteen years ago when course director Mike Todd asked me to see what might be done in terms of repositioning the place and transforming its image so that it might compete with the likes of, say, Galway or Punchestown, I looked hard into his eyes to see if he was joking. As far as we could see, the only people who came to Down Royal were damp old men with lives blighted by drink, gambling and loneliness. For them, the trip to the Maze 10 or 11 times a year was a break from an even darker monotony.
For the rest of us, it was a test to see how hard you really were. If you could stick an afternoon in November drinking pints in the unheated concrete and tin-roofed shed, eat the raw hot dogs, back the horses, stagger from track to bar and back again six or seven times and get home without dropping dead with pneumonia, you were up there with the hard men.
"Mike, are you sure about this?" I asked. Mike was dead sure. His chairman Jim Nicholson, the wine merchant, was ready to invest big money into redeveloping the facilities. There would be fancy new weighing rooms and dressing rooms for the jockeys, the stables would be upgraded and new enclosures created. And most dazzling of all, there would be corporate hospitality suites, just like they had in the Curragh.
It all seemed improbable as we looked across the flat, grey and windswept horizon. This was July and we were both shivering. Yet here we are 13 years later and Down Royal is now visited by some of the most fabulously dressed people in the north – for both men and women Down Royal now offers a platform on which it is pretty much accepted that you can wear whatever the hell you like as long as you've made an effort and spent at least three grand.
Horsey people have an eye for fashion. Depending on your socio-economic background, you will observe the strict rules which apply to your peer group.
If you want to see what passes for class among the lah-de-dahs, look at Epsom and Ascot. Top hat and tails, silk cocktail dresses and wide brimmed hats on special race days; brownish tweeds, trilbies and twills for the men and Barbour jackets, Hermes silk scarves and posh jeans for the women on bread and butter days.
Cheltenham and Aintree crowds are different. Here, men wear shiny petrol blue suits and 800 watt orange loafers and brogues. The women will be dressed according to the strict codes of modern lechery. I've seen them and they've been banned from standing within 50 yards of the owners' enclosures in case they cause the horses to faint and jockeys to stampede in collective lust.
At Down Royal, we are more Epsom than Aintree. This is due to our demure Ulster way, our reluctance to flash and a collective who-does-she-think-she-is gene which prevents us from getting stagey. Scottish and English people do not have this gene.
And this is a good thing as it keeps us classy. And this brings me to actually classy events. Apart from a Hillsborough garden party which you can only enter by invitation, the Down Royal Racing Festival is our only social event of any standing. Gone are the days of Castleward Opera to which the upper classes flocked. The Lord's Taverners annual ball has become so popular you can hardly call it exclusive. There's the very posh Booby Ball in June and a polo event in August, but really, the only classy thing on a scale which attracts thousands, is the Down Royal Race Festival in November.
That concrete shed with tin roof has been transformed and the facilities are truly international standard.
The Todd-Nicholson partnership has been serious about competing with Ireland's best. This has helped attract top breeders, horses and riders and in turn this generates a better crowd. People know quality.
With catering by Willie Jack (I once took a party to a fundraiser with lunch for 700 in a marquee and can still remember the quality of the steak) and some very clever landscaping, good customer relations and a genuine dedication by staff to create a great moment, Down Royal is a class act.
And while the damp old men are still there (I'll soon be joining them as no race course is complete without them) I'm very proud that back then we won an all-Ireland PR award, Todd and me, for the work we did on turning Down Royal's image around.