Donn's Articles » Dress code

Dress code

There is a dress code at Irish race meetings, but it’s not easy to crack.

They don’t make it easy for you, it isn’t published on Horse Racing Ireland’s web site and it isn’t printed in racecards, but experienced code-breakers have determined the following: Thurles on Thursday afternoons – flat cap, thick overcoat, ideally black or brown or dark grey, dark shoes or boots (Wellingtons good). Leopardstown on Thursday summer evenings – casual trousers or jeans, white or light blue checked or stripey shirt, ideally hanging outside jeans, jumper (optional, and only if tips of hanging-out shirt remain visible), burger (in hand or mouth). The Curragh on Irish Derby day – clothes. Just clothes. (Orange stickers optional.)

It is important to have a dress code, it is important to ensure that all attendees at a race meeting look good. Racegoers can’t be trusted to dress themselves, you have to direct them, and you have to forewarn them, forewarned being forearmed and all. If you didn’t have a dress code, and if you weren’t specific in informing people about it in advance, then people could arrive along to the racecourse gate without a necktie, or with a cravat where their necktie should be, or with brown shoes, God forbid, or with one of those dreadful fascinators instead of a hat. What would the horses think?

Consider it a uniform, a racegoers’ uniform. If you went to school wearing a green blazer instead of a black blazer, you wouldn’t just get a sticker on your lapel. And there is still the capacity to manoeuvre within the parameters of the dress code, it is not so inflexible so as to prevent racegoers from being creative or modern or stylish, in much the same way as you can wear either a blue shirt or a white shirt as part of your school uniform.

There is, of course, an awareness of behaviour on the racecourse, but it is secondary to dress. If people are well-dressed, they are obviously more likely to behave appropriately than if they are not. Also, a person who is indulging in loutish, yobbish behaviour is more palatable if he is wearing a jacket than if he is wearing a football jersey. And if the lad punching the other lad is wearing a tie, then surely it is more a slight spat than a pub brawl.

Racing is an elitist sport, it has an elitist image (it’s not called the Sport of Kings for nothing you know) and it is important that that image is perpetuated. It is important that people know that it’s not for everybody, it is essential to maintain strong barriers to entry. If there wasn’t a dress code, people would think that they could just arrive on up to the turnstiles, wearing jolly well what they liked, pay their money and just saunter on into the enclosure, any enclosure. That just wouldn’t be consistent with the elitist image that we are trying to project.

The Irish policy of doing away with the notion of a reserved enclosure was not a step in the right direction. The segregation was good, the class divide, people who could afford to pay a little more on one side of the fence, people who couldn’t on the other side. At The Curragh, only reserved enclosure patrons could get close to the parade ring to see the horses. Now, there is complete access for everyone. Even on Irish Derby day, everybody can get close to the horses. A gentleman in an open-necked shirt, or a lady who is not wearing a hat, can lean up against the paddock rail to watch the horses parade, and that simply is not correct.

The most popular night clubs are the elite ones with the queues outside, the ones with strict dress codes, the ones that don’t allow Converse or jeans across the threshold. So you don’t often see queues outside racecourse turnstiles, and that may be where the analogy falls down. But, you never know, if you continue to make it difficult for people to go racing, if you continue to put barriers in their way, if you make it hard for them to gain access to certain enclosures, then the day when there are queues outside the racecourse may not be too far away.

So much money is spent on promoting racing these days, that if one or two racegoers are lost because they are not happy with the dress code – or with the manner in which they are informed about it – it would not be the end of the world. Racing’s position as a popular spectator sport is secure, it has always been thus and it will always be thus. Therefore, racing can afford to relax and to be dogmatic about the dress standards that it imposes, even at a normal Saturday meeting. And anyway, wouldn’t it be better to have a few paying customers who comply with a dress code than lots of paying customers who do not?

The orange dots, admittedly, were a mistake. They should have been green.

© The Racing Post, 24th January 2012