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Miriam Lord: On Ladies’ Day at the Galway Races, Ballybrit is the fake tan capital of the world

Older racegoers are thin on the ground this year, but the young crowd galloped around in their taffeta and feathers, glad for the chance to step out

The crowd may not have hit the heights of the boomtime days, but Ladies’ Day at Galway Races this year saw a post-Covid Ballybrit back in rambunctious good form.

It was sunny and it was very hot and a noticeably younger crowd thronged the track for the first daytime meeting of the seven-day racing festival.

“The older, more traditional racegoers aren’t back in big numbers yet,” said our taximan as we whizzed back to the city before the last race in surprisingly little time.

Business was better during the recent arts festival. “This is the quietest week so far this summer.”

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Nonetheless, the place was buzzing.

We took the shuttle service on the way out. Six euro from Eyre Square to Ballybrit with lines of air-conditioned buses filling up from a fast-moving queue and heading to the course. It seemed a well-managed exercise.

Bus Éireann was clearly determined to avoid a rerun of last Sunday’s transportation fiasco when the Dart service, overwhelmed by crowds going to the Bray Air Display, went into complete meltdown.

Apart from a few hardy betting men in sensible suits with their newspaper racing pages already marked up and a few older ladies in picture hats, our bus was packed with highly excited young lads and lassies done up to the nines and raring to go. If Ireland uses more fake tan per capita than any other country (and we do), then Ballybrit was the fake tan capital of the world on Thursday.

It was like being caught in the middle of a dystopian Debs dance — even though everyone appeared deliriously happy. The intoxicating fragrance of eye-watering aftershave competed with non-stop squealing as the girls in strappy dresses with eyelashes like chimney sweeps’ brushes alternated between choruses of The Fields of Athenry, Sweet Caroline and a Ploughing Championships favourite called Hit the Diff.

The polite young lad beside us twisted the screw cap off a naggin of Buckfast as soon as the short journey started. He had it necked before we arrived. The portaloos set up at the bus parking area did great business. At the turnstiles, two big strapping gasúns in regulation sprayed-on skinny trousers, waistcoat and tight jacket approached with a rather unexpected request.

“Would you take us in as your children?”

Which is how we learned that minors attending the Galway races must be accompanied by an adult. And when we realised that nearly every young fella at the racetrack was dressed like a three-pieced, brown-shoed pundit from The Sunday Game post Spillane and O’Rourke.

Heels were high and strappy and emergency flip-flops were selling for a fiver a pair at the ice-cream kiosk

But hats off (or hats on, to be more precise) to the Ladies’ Day women of Ballybrit. They made a huge effort for the day that was in it. Perhaps they went all out, and then some, because this was the first full-scale festival since the pandemic struck and it was time to shine again.

Tiaras and jewelled headpieces were everywhere, rising out of new hairdos in all manner of weird and wonderful arrangements of baubles and crystal geegaws. Feathers swarmed up over elaborate blowdrys. Feathers covered little dresses. There were fluorescent puffball creations in taffeta and satin. Heels were high and strappy and emergency flip-flops were selling for a fiver a pair at the ice-cream kiosk.

The Connacht Hospitality Group-sponsored Ladies’ Day competition was the epicentre of this fashion extravaganza. Judges patrolled in the vicinity of the stage area for a number of hours before settling on a shortlist of 25 finalists who were then interviewed for what seemed like an eternity on their choice of outfit and its provenance. This was conducted in front of a very savvy, mostly female crowd, some of whom had hoped to make the final cut.

They are known by their rather sniffy demeanour and the catchphrase which they mutter to themselves and fellow disappointees: “mutton dressed as lamb.”

The bars, restaurants and mobile eating parlours were doing a roaring trade. The vast top level champagne bar was ticking over nicely with none of the profligate madness of the Celtic Tiger era.

We bumped into a relic from the infamous Galway Tint days, those days when you were nothing if you hadn’t access to a helicopter, a senior Fianna Fáil politician and Seánie FitzPatrick’s generous ear.

Our man appeared to be doing okay again, sitting with friends at a high table groaning with fully occupied ice buckets and small designer clutch bags with gold chains.

“What are you drinking?”

“Moët. It’s only the bog-standard stuff,” sez he.

According to the laminated bubbly menu we nicked from a table it was, indeed, the entry-level non-vintage “stuff” at a piffling €125 a bottle. The Rosé was €140, the Grand Vintage cost €150 and a Ruinart Blanc de Blancs a mere €220.

Guinness sponsored the racecard with the Guinness Galway Hurdle the feature race of the day. It was won by Tudor City, a 10-year-old bay gelding owned by John Breslin, trained by Tony Martin and piloted by Liam McKenna on his first ride since breaking a collarbone in April. This was Tudor City’s second time in the winners’ enclosure, having also triumphed in 2019.

The race was worth €270,000 in prize money, with a first prize of €160,000. No bother to the sponsor. Parent company Diageo had another big event on Thursday: the launch of its year-end results. Our business reporter Ian Curran wrote that business is booming, with net sales in Ireland up 71 per cent, “lapping a significant decline” last year and driven “by strong growth in Guinness” as pubs and bars reopened.

There were sightings of Ivan Yates and Tom Parlon and sundry Galway GAA players and a few rugby heads

No wonder the company is sponsoring Friday’s card as well. The amount of drink sold on the racecourse should put a nice dent in its outlay.

There weren’t any big names around the place. On the noticeboard in the media room the attendance of two VIPs was flagged. The Belgian ambassador and er, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what her excellency Karen Van Vlierberge looks like, and there was no sign of McConalogue, probably because he was above in Dublin competing in the Sectoral Emissions Ceilings Climate Targets Hurdle, which will be running for the next five years. There were sightings of Ivan Yates and Tom Parlon and sundry Galway GAA players and a few rugby heads.

The Best Dressed and Best Hat winners were announced and duly taken over to the Parade Ring, which they shared with the runners in the Guinness Novice Hurdle, for the traditional two-legged clip-clop to the presentation stand.

They looked fantastic. Catherine O’Connor from Newry won €3,000 for her cream ivory tulle pleated creation by Marc Millinery in Cork.

Sandra Faller from Eyre Street in Galway won her first best-dressed competition after years of taking part.

“Hand on my heart, I am completely shocked,” she said.

She wore a black Laura Hanlon hat and a bronze satin Róisín Linnane trouser suit from Olori in Cork. She last wore her Premoli sandals on her wedding day last August.