April 08 2011
Today is Ladies Day at Aintree, the middle day of the Grand National meeting and a flamboyant prelude to tomorrow’s big race. A sell-out crowd of around 50,000 is expected at the Merseyside track and, if the past few years are any guide, an extremely good time will be had by all. For the sporting and social high-rollers of north-west England, Aintree’s big fashion event is one of the region’s great unmissable occasions.
With élite Premiership clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United just down the road, it’s not surprising that Wags are regularly involved. Coleen Rooney – wearing a black Matthew Williamson minidress with Christian Louboutin heels – was queen of the scene last year. The wife of the England and Man U star shared a box with Justine Mills, who runs Cricket, the renowned Liverpool fashion boutique, and judged the Best Dressed competition, picking winners from the profusion of brightly coloured and flesh-exposing outfits.
A senior racing correspondent once declared that if you are a woman at Aintree on Ladies Day and you are wearing much more than a thong and a pair of stilettos, you’ll feel overdressed. A little harsh, maybe – though despite the often arctic winds, most female racegoers clearly believe less is more, and bare and preferably tanned legs are definitely the order of the day. The jockeys, especially the unattached ones, love Ladies Day, and after the racing is over you will see many of them flirting with the crowd, hoping to pair off with some lively company for a night on the town.
But however high-spirited Aintree may get, let it not be said that the well-heeled denizens of Cheshire and Lancashire don’t appreciate the finer points of the Turf as well as a good party. Chester racecourse, which begins its 2011 season next month, is not only the oldest but also one of the best and best-attended racetracks in Britain. The Roodee, as it’s called, is an extraordinary left-handed oval, little more than a mile round. Uniquely, the course is bang in the city centre, bounded by the River Dee and a magnificent Victorian railway viaduct on one side and the old city walls on the other. The quality of the racing is top drawer, especially at the May Festival when the historic Chester Cup – first run in 1824 – is the highlight. Numerous future Derby winners, including Shergar in 1981, have warmed up for Epsom’s tricky contours with a spin in the Chester Vase or the Dee Stakes. The ambience is as effervescent as the action on the track, with plenty of popping corks and some thick bets going down – and the local racegoers can’t get enough of it. More than 41,000 of them attended a Sunday fixture in 2009 and similar numbers flocked to last season’s Midsummer Meeting featuring a Ladies Evening and sponsored, appropriately, by Manchester’s Trafford Shopping Centre.
The veteran Lambourn trainer Barry Hills is the man to follow at Chester. His victory with Daraahem in the 2009 Chester Cup was his 150th winner at the course, and whatever he runs there next month will have been laid out carefully to add to his tally. In the meantime, I fancy What A Friend, part-owned by Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, each way in tomorrow’s Grand National at 16-1 with Paddy Power.