‘It’s Ladies’ Day and where the ladies go, the men will follow’
On day four of Punchestown Festival, even the lads are making an extra effort to look good
Women shelter from the rain on the fourth day of the Punchestown Festival 2018 in Naas, Co Kildare. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
“Today will be good,” says veteran bookie Frank Snell, eating cake and observing the windswept track. “It’s Ladies’ Day and where the ladies go, the men will follow.”
It’s the fourth day of the Punchestown Festival and he loves it: the clamour of people, the buzz of the maths he will do in his head. “When I started you had to go to a racetrack if you wanted see the great horses like Arkle. Now [the younger people] are all just on their phones.”
He saw Arkle?
“I did,” he says.
Why are he and many of the other bookies so dapperly dressed? He laughs. “I suppose we want to be noticed.”
Around two-thirds of the crowd are dressed up. Men wear bowties and blue suits and women stand astride stilt-like heels and beneath hats with antennae and satellite dishes. They all spend the day shivering.
Seamus Kelly and Johnny Mooney are wearing more weather-appropriate anoraks and flat caps. Mooney, a 67-year-old Kildare man, has been coming here since he was 10 years old and for him, he says, it’s all about a love of horses and socialising and, perhaps, “a small flutter”. Kelly, from Galway, says that he has similar priorities, but then he lets slip that he’s already won “a couple of thousand” and that last year he won more than €18,000. “He knows what he’s doing,” chuckles Mooney, a master of understatement.
Middle-aged Liverpudlians Mark Maddox and Robert Hornby have different priorities. They are here, says Maddox, “because we’re always blown away by the Irish ladies at Aintree . . . They make such an effort.”
They look like particularly stylish Batman villains. Maddox is wearing a double-breasted navy suit and a large floppy green hat. Hornby is wearing a tweed three-piece suit with a purple pork-pie hat and a matching pocket square, tie and shoes.
“Those shoes cause havoc,” says Maddox, pointing at Hornby’s feet. “He walks by up on the grandstand and women stop to stare at them . . . We’re cannon fodder for social media. They all want to have their photos taken with us.”
“You don’t have to work hard to meet ladies if you dress like this,” adds Hornby, which I imagine is true, though I’ve no way of knowing for sure because I’m wearing a dirty yellow anorak and have food in my beard.
Would they ever come dressed more casually? Hornby sounds appalled. “We wouldn’t come here dressed as tramps.”
I watch the first race. “What do you reckon about this one?” asks a 16-year-old in a three-piece suit. His name is James and he has been fooled by my notebook into thinking I’m an expert.
“What do you think?” I say.
“Well,” says James. “I think that [trainer I’ve never heard of] has [verb I don’t quite understand] [horse name I can’t remember] very well since [another race, I presume]. So my money’s on him.”
“I agree,” I say.
I wander through a shopping “street” where you can purchase necessities (fur, tweed, paintings of horses) to get to a champagne bar near the newly built Hunt Stand. There, Mary O’Halloran, a friendly, glamorous woman in a purple cape and fur-trimmed gloves, tells me that she pays little attention to the horses. She and her friends are here for the fashion and they are very competitive about it. “Some might spend up to €1,000 on an outfit,” she says.
“You need to stand out,” says her friend Niamh Kenny, who is all in white beneath a wide-brimmed hat. “I might spend the month before figuring out what to wear.”
They discuss the minutiae of the Bollinger Best Dressed Lady competition. Kenny thinks that it’s more difficult for petite women to win. O’Halloran wonders about the wisdom of older and younger women being judged together. A woman stops for a moment to take a picture as Uptown Girl booms from a nearby DJ booth.
“We’re not here gambling on the horses,” says O’Halloran. “We’re gambling on ourselves.”
A little later the competition is won by Eimear Cassidy from Drogheda, who wins a trip to the Bollinger estate in France and a year’s supply of champagne. An older man is particularly pleased and comes roaring up to the front of the stage with his fist aloft. “Go on ye boyo!” he yells. “Fair play to you! Fair play! Up Drogheda!” It sounds, in fairness, like he’s at the races.