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Down Royal: Winning is all the Vogue

By Jim Gracey

Only at Down Royal would you get it... a team from the Royal Bar in Sandy Row have taken a corporate table and are boisterously exchanging tips with the VIP guests seated adjacent.

Stellar among the constellation of beauties they've pitched up alongside is Vogue Williams, standing over 6ft tall in her heels and hat, looking every inch her celebrity status and at the same time totally down to earth.

The model, DJ, dancer and wife of former Westlife star Brian McFadden is there to judge the Best Dressed Lady competition, sending the beautifully attired Nicole Caldwell, from Banbridge, on an all expenses paid trip to Dubai.

Just in front of the boys from the Row, and their gorgeous new neighbour, Saintfield haulage company bosses Tim and Sonya Martin and friends are toasting the recent British Supersport motorcycle championship win by their Mar-Train backed team.

And to the rear, a party from car dealership Isaac Agnew are revving up the party mood. Top of the range to new and used... no-one is out of place at Down Royal. All walks of Northern Ireland life rendered equals by the great leveller of picking winners and having fun.

A social anthropologist once observed that horseracing provides the only stage where complete strangers from all classes and creeds share information with one another, take risks together and share a drink at the end of it all.

What a day they all had in their melting pot with more fantastic racing in an equally mixed bag of weather, rain and shine, to conclude a two-day Festival of Racing that attracted nearly 12,000 through the Down Royal turnstiles and was beamed nationwide by Channel 4.

The unassuming Mike Todd made it all possible. In 17 years since he arrived as general manager, Todd has transformed the Maze venue from a racing backwater to a market leader, whose success in pulling in the crowds and top horses has gone from being admired to copied throughout Ireland.

Typically, though, he deflected the credit, saying: "We have a great team, from our chairman, James Nicholson down through the admin and course staff. We aim to deliver a great racing and social experience on the basis that if you give people what they want, they will keep coming back, so we must be doing something right. The Tony McCoy effect helped pull in our biggest ever Friday crowd and the track also plays a big part. It's Grade One standard and we've had a lot of compliments from our jockeys and trainers... they simply wouldn't be here if it wasn't right."

It speaks volumes for Down Royal that the Sir Alex Ferguson of horse race wins, Paul Nicholls, routinely sends his best hopes to Down Royal, now seen as a testing ground for the Holy Grail of the Cheltenham Festival.

Picture David Moyes sending his new wonderkid, Januzaj, to cut his teeth with Linfield.

Nicholls duly collected his sixth successive Grade 2 Novice Chase as Rolling Aces gave a superb display of jumping under Nick Scholfield to justify his 9/4 favourite tag.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary's big race hope, First Lieutenant, looked off form in the James Nicholson bankrolled JN Wines Chase, worth £140,000 while the 'name' horse Sizing Europe probably left his attempt for the line a little late as outsider Roi du Mee made all the running for an easy success with jockey Bryan Cooper experiencing better fortunes at the track than in May when he broke a leg in a fall. Cooper only came in as a late replacement for Keith Donoghue and Co Meath trainer Gordon Elliott, who himself recorded a treble, said: "He's a little star with a great heart."

But Down Royal Festival is not only about the big names. It provides a showcase for local trainers, owners and jockeys who seized the chance to demonstrate they can compete in any company.

Joe and Pat Sloan from Templepatrick who sponsored Friday's feature, won by Jezki and Tony McCoy, registered a winning double. The Dessie Hughes trained Guitar Pete set the ball rolling in the opener with the manner of success getting the local horse a 25/1 quote for the Cheltenham Triumph Hurdle which the trainer won last year with Our Conor. In-form handler Elliott then sent out Time For Work to claim the £40,000 Feature Hurdle for the couple to enjoy a memorable day at their local track.

Banbridge rider Stephen Clements continued his run of success aboard the Elliott trained newcomer and former point to point winner Moonshine Lad in the Bumper while Larne based trainer Stuart Crawford unleashed the highly regarded Gilt Shadow in the Maiden Hurdle for a hugely impressive win under his brother Steven, reinforcing the trainer's belief that he has a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in the making.

Ruby Walsh got on the Festival scoreboard when Twin Plans cantered to victory in the Handicap Chase for County Armagh trainer James Lambe who responded: "I'm delighted to win at my local track on the biggest meeting of the year – I told Ruby he would win."

Watching and listening to it all, you couldn't help but realise Down Royal is an important racing story and also a good news story for Northern Ireland.

The idiots shouting the odds elsewhere will always command more damaging airtime than they are worth but the truer story was there for all to see as this country put on its best face at Down Royal on Saturday and the message came across loud and clear... when Sandy Row meets Vogue Williams, we are definitely on the right track.

Belfast Telegraph


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