The magic that makes Down Royal a winner for all of us

Arron Curran (left) Winner of Best Dressed 2011, Bridget Hamill, Eimear McMullan, Kate Ferguson and Avril Ahern.

As the highlight of Northern Ireland’s racing calendar approaches, Stephanie Bell talks to four women who wouldn’t miss the fabulous festival of racing and style next week

It’s Northern Ireland’s answer to Cheltenham — the biggest festival on the local jumps racing calendar when the ladies turn on the style and the punters come out in their thousands. Celebrity spotters will be in their element as some well-known faces join the 12,000 people expected to flock to the Down Royal Racecourse next Friday and Saturday for the excitement of the annual festival, one of the highlights of Northern Ireland’s sporting year.

The two-day event of world-class racing signals the start of the season for the jumping fraternity, bringing legends of national hunt racing world right to our doorstep.

A total of £434,000 in prize money will be handed out over the two days, with the JNwine.com Champion Chase one of many highlights. The unique atmosphere will see fun-loving festival goers drink 15,000 pints, 1,500 glasses of champagne and 2,100 bottles of wine over the two days.

With an investment of nearly £5m in the past four years, Down Royal has upped the stakes in terms of choice for racegoers with its first-class facilities ensuring a superb day out, whatever the weather.

The JNwine.com Ladies Day on Saturday, November 3, brings some real glamour to the track, with fashionistas from all over Ireland and beyond parading in their finest. With a £5,000 prize up for grabs courtesy of House of Fraser, the annual Best Dressed competition brings its own excitement to the event.

High fashion with a flourish is the order of the day for hundreds of ladies who hope to be first past the post in what is now a hotly contested part of the festival.

Bairbre Power will lead the judging panel this year accompanied by store manager of House of Fraser Belfast, Michelle Jackson.

They will be looking for style in keeping with the prestigious event and advise ladies to dress fabulously in “fashion forward outfits that enhance the Festival’s unique atmosphere”.

We talked to four women who each have a special reason for looking forward to this year’s event ...

The trainer: “I’ve had a good few runners here, but to have a win this year would be a dream come true”

As a child, Banbridge horse trainer Sarah Dawson rode her pony round the Down Royal racecourse dreaming of the day when she would have a winner on the track.

The mum-of-four could finally realise that long-held dream when one of her horses, Slew Charm, owned by Bob and Joanne McCoubrey of the Mourne Seafood Bar, lines up for this year’s Handicap Hurdle.

The 10-year-old gelding that was due to retire has surprised everyone by being placed six times in the past year, but despite some very close finishes has yet to be first across the line.

Even though he will be an each-way bet at the Down Royal Festival, Sarah, who has already had a number of horses placed at the racecourse, is hoping that she can finally secure that elusive win next weekend.

“He is so genuine and really runs his heart out every time against young horses,” she says fondly of Slew Charm.

“It’s like a 40-year-old man running

against an 18-year-old. He came to Northern Ireland from Noel Chance’s stable in England and his owners planned to let him take part in point to points so that he could wind down with a view to retiring in a couple of years.

“Bob decided to give him one last run on the track at Gowran Park in Kilkenny a year ago just to see how he would get on, and he almost won — he was beaten by a head.

“Since then he has been placed six times and he if runs well at Down Royal we plan

to take him to Cheltenham.”

A former point to point competitor, Sarah (47) has worked with horses all her life and has been a trainer for the past six years.

She is married to Joe, a dermatologist, and they have four children, George (22), Patrick (19), Edmund (11) and Sally (9), who are all keen riders.

She currently has 12 horses in training for a mixture of flat and national hunt racing.

Even without a horse running, she said she wouldn’t miss next week’s festival.

“I try and encourage friends who haven’t been to the races to come along because it is such a good meeting and the facilities are excellent, it caters for everybody at every level.

“The racing is of such a good standard and very competitive, with some excellent prize money.

“As a young girl I rode my pony round the outside of the track at Down Royal and dreamed of having a winner there one day. I have a few runners with good placings but still haven’t had my winner. Maybe this year!”

The fashionista: “Winning Best Dressed prize made it a dream day out for me”

With the champagne popped in the car en route to last year’s Down Royal Festival from her home in Co Meath, Arron Curran was determined to have a fun day at the races.

The 41-year-old was on top of the world after losing three stone in weight, which had crept on over the years since having her three children — Cal (14), Alex (10) and Charlie (8).

Her dramatic weight loss meant that most of her clothes no longer fitted and so she raided the wardrobe of her best friend to find what turned out to be the most head-turning outfit at the festival.

Arron’s borrowed dress saw her walk away with an incredible £10,000 in prizes when she won the Best Dressed at last year’s Ladies’ Day.

“It was just the biggest surprise, absolutely amazing,” she says.

“I hadn’t a thing to wear because I had lost weight and when I raided my friend’s wardrobe I picked the most outlandish outfit I could find.

“We were both approached and asked to enter the competition and I didn’t have a clue what to expect. When they called out my name I couldn’t believe it.

“My friend was delighted because she had spent a fortune on the outfit and she was so pleased it was being photographed for the papers.

“The prizes were amazing. I got all sorts of expensive face creams, perfume, sunglasses, about £2,000 worth of clothes from the House of Fraser and a Mulberry handbag. If the Mulberry bag had been the only prize I would have been thrilled as it is my pride and joy — I could never afford to buy one.

“It was a dream day out, just fabulous. My kids were so happy when I came home and told them what I had won.”

Winning the Best Dressed topped a big year for Arron when she resolved to make some long overdue changes in her life.

She says: “Since I had my last child I got stuck in a rut. I gave up work and being at home full-time and baking and eating what I baked, the weight just crept on.

“Last year I decided I needed a change and I cut my hair, went on a diet and got a new attitude.”

Arron has picked her shoes and bag for this year’s festival and will be returning to House of Fraser in Belfast to choose her dress.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. It is such a fabulous day out, “she adds.

The hospitality & events co-ordinator: “We want to give people a perfect day out”

The Down Royal is renowned for its first-class range of hospitality packages, a standing that Vicki Moody has been determined to build on year after year.

As Hospitality and Events Co-ordinator Vicki has the weighty responsibility of ensuring around 1,500 race goers who have bought packages for the festival will have a memorable visit next weekend.

It takes a full year of planning, with work for the 2013 festival starting immediately after the last punter files through the gates on Saturday.

Originally from Wicklow, Vicki (29) studied to become a teacher at Stranmillis College in Belfast but liked Northern Ireland so much she decided to stay and now lives in Comber.

Working in the hospitality industry to pay her way through university, she realised that teaching was not what she wanted to do and jumped at the chance to work at the Down Royal five years ago.

“It’s my job to market, organise and sell the hospitality offerings and we try to cater for everyone with packages of champagne and canapés starting from £32 and going up to £135 per person for a private suite,” she says.

“Feedback is so important and as soon as the festival finishes I will be in touch with everyone who enjoyed the hospitality to see if they have any suggestions for what we could do differently for next time and we will tweak things accordingly.

“It’s a great event for businesses to bring their customers for a day out to say thank you and we want to ensure that it is perfect for them.”

During the two-day festival Vicki will also be responsible for security and health and safety provision in the hospitality area.

She says: “I just love it. I get to meet so many different people and we work so hard all year planning it that it is great to see it going so well. That’s the buzz for me, putting in the hard work and seeing that it was all worthwhile, that’s what I thrive on.”

The Tote manager: “People who wouldn’t normally bet will give it a go at the festival”

Having a flutter is part of the thrill of the races and manager of the Down Royal’s Tote betting service Molly McCluskey has made it a simple pleasure for visitors.

Having grown up with a passion for horses and riding, Molly, who trained as a barrister, gave up a career in law to follow her heart and work in the horse racing world.

Since 2008 she has managed the Tote service and is in charge of a staff of 40 whose job it is to guide and advise punters on placing their bets.

“The festival is the highlight of the year for us and I personally just love national hunt racing,” says Molly.

“There are world-class jockeys and world-class horses, which makes it really exciting from a betting point of view.

“The festival is a bit like the Grand National in that people who don’t normally bet will give it a go and we have developed a handheld system for the Tote which allows us to go to people at their tables and interact with them, which makes it less intimidating, especially for those people who don’t usually bet.”

Molly (30) who lives in Belfast with her husband Lee (30), a scientist, is mum to eight-month-old Jamie and will be returning to the track from maternity leave in time for the festival.

Despite the hard work she put into training for the bar in London, she says she has found her dream job at Down Royal.

“I have been riding horses since I was about three years old and showjumping and doing events.

“It’s a bit weird that I did my bar exams and then came back from England and decided to do something so completely different, but I love it.

“I think you need to have a bit of knowledge and passion for horses to work in this industry.

“I think one of the most special things about the festival is that you can go down to the parade ring and get so close to the jockeys and horses that are world-famous stars.”

How you can enjoy a festival of fun ...

  • The festival is held over two days on Friday and Saturday, November 2 and 3
  • Gates open from 11am on Friday and Saturday, with the first race starting at approximately 1.05pm on Friday and 12.50pm on Saturday
  • Admission is £12 on Friday and £15 on Saturday with hospitality options available
  • Limited Edition Punters’ Packs are available for Friday for £22 and must be purchased in advance
  • Entrance tickets can be purchased online, from the racecourse office or at the turnstiles on the day
  • For full details and tickets for the festival, visit downroyal.com

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