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Here come the girls – Ladies' Day is bigger than ever at this year's Festival

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: March 13, 2014

By TRISTAN CORK

  • The hats and the fascinators were getting almost as much attention as the world's finest racehorses, as the ladies enjoyed their moment in the spotlight, with the fashion world turning its eyes to Cheltenham

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Models on a catwalk, a nail bar, some thumping dance music and big glasses of Pinot Grigio – this was not Paris or Milan, but Cheltenham yesterday, as Ladies' Day got serious for the first time.

And, as if to reinforce the status of Ladies' Day at the heart of the world's greatest jump racing festival, the daughter of one of its leading trainers was crowned the best dressed.

Camilla Henderson, the daughter of legendary trainer Nicky Henderson, from Lambourn, near Marlborough in Wiltshire, won first prize, with Elaine Waterworth from Lisburn in Northern Ireland named in second place.

It rounded off a great day for the Henderson clan – father Nicky's horse Whisper took an impossibly close photo-finish in the third race of the day, the Coral Cup.

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The competition was only one part of the Ladies' Day experience. Instead of the usual shivering organisers huddling around a small sign-in desk, the ladies were treated to an entire warm marquee full of fashion and beauty, with a bar serving wine and models strutting their stuff on a catwalk thrown in.

The fascinators, glamorous dresses and immaculate nails now had a home, and the ladies were loving it.

There was no missing the Fashion Zone Live arena. A vast 6ft high shiny gold stack-heeled stiletto proclaimed that this was no ordinary Cheltenham Festival area.

Inside, ladies were invited – no pressure, just for a laugh – to enter the best dressed competition, by tottering on to circular podium and having their photo taken.

They were instantly and quietly judged in categories including best accessories, best hat and best outfit, and those who did not make the cut were given a white envelope.

For previous years, the ladies were asked back later in the afternoon if their fascinator had fascinated enough, but this time, admitted organiser Matthew Foxton-Duffy, it was slightly more brutal.

"They get given a white envelope, with a note thanking them for taking part and saying that, this year, they weren't quite what we were looking for, and a ticket to come back to the races, so everyone is a winner," he said.

"It's a little bit harsh, but overall it's just a bit of fun, the competition. I don't think people mind really," he added.

The large Fashion Zone, for Matthew and the ladies inside it, meant that Ladies' Day was now established, after stuttering beginnings.

"If Cheltenham is going to have a Ladies' Day, it's got to be done properly, and I think this is what Ian Renton, the regional director of the Jockey Club, wanted it to be.

In the past it didn't touch enough people, and this shows it can work in harmony with the races," he added.

The upgrade was enough to encourage one Cheltenham regular, Louise Allen, to get up on to the podium.

The 31-year-old from Meath in Ireland has come to the Festival since she was a teenager, but never entered a best-dressed competition.

"The other days of Cheltenham I am a lot more casual," she said, checking her own smart dress and fascinator.

"But any excuse to wear a hat, always," she laughed.

At a table nearby, Laura Burton, Karen Bacon and Danielle Stewart were enthusiastically enjoying a midday Pinot Grigio, after a champagne breakfast.

"I think it's amazing, all this," said Danielle.

"It's the only time of year we can pretend to be posh."

The trio had made the short trip from Hatherley in Cheltenham, and Laura was enjoying her first festival experience.

All three had stepped on to the podium and received the polite white envelope.

"I'm not a hat person," said Laura. "But at least my shoes match my bag.

"A hat was just a step too far, and if anyone saw a hat on me they'd understand.

"We're just sitting here watching everyone else have their pictures done and checking out their outfits," added Danielle.

"But we're not being catty about it. Everyone looks fabulous. Look at that lady in the green over there, I can't stop looking at her, she's amazing."

Next door, and perhaps a generation up from the fashionable Cheltenham set, the redoubtable ladies of the Gloucestershire Federation of WIs were enjoying their festival.

They had all they needed: a bar with hot food, large tables and an in-tent bookies to put on their £1 bets. At one table, the ladies of Upton St Leonards, near Stroud, were getting acquainted with the ladies of Forthampton, near Tewkesbury.

"We love it every year we are here," said Kathy Quant.

"It started six years ago, and now the WIs come each year. "It's great to meet old friends and socialise."

They studied the form books carefully, but picked names they liked, and colours of the silks.

"I always bet on Ruby Walsh, because my granddaughter is called Ruby," called one – it was a wise choice, the silver fox jockey came in ahead in the first race.

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