Stepping out of the tunnel and into Aintree, my first ever day at the races began with the sight of a bare (human) bottom, courtesy of a rogue gust of wind. (I later learned the bottom belonged to one of the cast of MTV show The Valleys — who was clad in nothing but the Welsh flag.)
Below freezing with the wind-chill factor, almost every “lady” attending ladies’ day of the Grand National meeting had “forgotten” their coat. Outfits had been thought out months in advance — a bit of pesky icy weather was not going to put paid to that.
With nothing but layer upon layer of fake tan and false eyelashes for warmth, the racecourse was a seething, heady kaleidoscope of colour, bare flesh and extraordinary outfits. Ear-splitting music in the former parade ring heralded a catwalk fashion show like you’ve never seen. Despite being well before the first race, a number of very merry punters were strutting, wobbling and shimmering their way down the catwalk. Already, Matalan was doing a roaring trade in flip-flops for those whose feet were unbearably sore. For me, the ladies at Aintree more than made up for the lack of bling browbands.
These astonishing outfits were butted up in cheery chaos to the tweed brigade. Never have I seen such an extraordinary mix of people all rubbing along together just fine. Flat cap, tweed jacket and loafers sauntered past backless sequin mini-dress, bulging goose-bumped boobs and orange diamante stilettos without a sideways glance. Aside from here, never the twain shall meet.
On the track, we were lucky to witness the outstanding, unbeaten Sprinter Sacre canter to victory. In the parade ring everyone was drinking this horse in — he radiates easy power and confidence. Even looking through my dressage-distorted prism, I can see he’s a magnificent athlete.
His jockey barely had to move to encourage him to lengthen and stride away from the field to win easily. He’s definitely won another fan.
Crossing the track to stand right next to a fence, we witnessed first-hand the roar of more than 50 hooves pummelling the grass as the field streamed over the fence. Watching on TV you can’t hear the jockeys tussling with each other or the metallic clip of shoes on landing or the deep thunder of the ground as it takes the impact. It was a visceral, physical experience.
For the love of it
As a racing virgin, I headed to Aintree not entirely reconciled with the degree of risk involved in horses jumping those massive fences. But when it comes to the welfare of horses in equestrian sport, it’s a sliding scale. How can I justify dressage, but be uncomfortable with the Grand National?
I’ve always felt that as horses don’t have a choice about facing the danger, it isn’t really fair for us to put them in the jaws of it. On ladies’ day one of the horses was put down following its race, having broken its shoulder in a fall.
But having been at the meeting and watched the races in their entirety — from the horses’ bright eyes and keen, lean muscles in the parade ring, to their bouncing excitement on the way down to the start and their singular focus on their job (there’s no spooking, rearing or bucking to be seen, despite the electric cauldron atmosphere) — I’m convinced that if we could ask them if they wanted to run, they would say yes.
Aintree brings together the best, most capable horses; if they had demonstrated no desire or ability for the job, they wouldn’t be here — and neither would we.
Read part two of Alice’s Aintree blog online tomorrow