However you dress it up, there’s no doubt that Newbury’s Hennessy meeting is growing in stature and quality.
But therein lies the reason why the meeting attracted so many negative headlines. It was all to do with the way you dressed up.
There is something curiously wrong with a racecourse where three days of fantastic and fascinating Jumps racing can be overshadowed by controversy about its dress code.
The code, which banned the wearing of jeans and also dresses and skirts of “non-preferential length” in the Premier Enclosure, was shrouded in rows and ridicule, particularly as it was policed by an army of over-zealous stewards.
I am not against dress codes per se. At Royal Ascot, for instance, a code is essential. At many other summer meetings, they work well, encouraging racegoers to inject distinction to the occasion in their new suits, frocks and hats.
However, at Jumps meetings in the winter, when the weather puts warmth and comfort before style and elegance, dress codes are wholly unnecessary. Who cares whether a collared shirt and tie can be found underneath layers of coats, jackets and jumpers? Even sartorial Ascot has accepted this for its National Hunt meetings. And, of course, it is no coincidence that the most successful Jumps track in the world, Cheltenham, has no dress code whatsoever.
Of course, those who defend Newbury’s dress code point to the raising of standards. But standards in what? Certainly not in dress sense. Why target jeans? Why not chinos or cords?
The time has long since passed when jeans were a byword for scruffiness. Whereas, after a couple of wears, a pair of chinos are invariably rendered the shabbiest pieces of apparel known to legs.
The code could hardly be said to encourage the raising of standards in behaviour either. Not when the racecourse’s bars encourage their trouser-laden punters to neck copious amounts of beer.
This is the track, remember, that inadvertently hosted a drink-fuelled mass brawl among Welsh racegoers last summer. When, incidentally, many of the protagonists were wearing suits.
This is also the racecourse, remember, that advertised its big Group One day on the Flat a few years ago with a poster that screamed ‘Lockinge Lock-In’, advertising primarily not its great mile race but rather the fact that a bar would be open long after the day’s racing.
The Berkshire track has also faced criticism of its post-racing concerts and the manner in which it has haughtily re-named itself The Racecourse Newbury to support its money-making housing development scheme.
Add everything together and the way Newbury now projects itself, both to the racing purists and to the general public, has degenerated into a mighty mess.
Perhaps it should chill out a bit. Relax. Put on a pair of jeans. Concentrate on what it is good at. And that, unequivocally, is staging very good horse-racing.
I love the place. I would put Newbury in my top three favourite racecourses. It has so much going for it, both on the Flat and over Jumps. Facilities, viewing, its own train station, race programmes, ground.
But let me give you one telling example of why it is in danger of losing its identity -- and maybe even the plot.
The final day of last weekend’s Hennessy meeting marked the farewell appearance of one of the most popular horses in training, IMPERIAL COMMANDER, spectacular winner of the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup when he beat both Kauto Star and Denman.
Yet barely a mention of this farewell was made in Newbury’s promotion of the day, in its racecard and or on its website. To the best of my knowledge, no public announcements were made (save for a fleeting mention by race commentator Ian Bartlett) and no presentation was made to the horse’s owners, the Our Friends In The North syndicate.
Throughout the meeting, racegoers could have found out how to wear a suit, how to eat German-style Bratwurst, indulged in lifestyle masterclasses, won a luxury trip to Dubai, danced the night away at ‘The White Room After Party’, sampled wine “for any culinary occasion”, taken a stroll down ‘Hennessy High Street’ buying Christmas gifts, grabbed the autograph of Rob Brydon and sampled Hennesy Horse’s Neck cocktails.
But if you wanted to pay tribute to Imperial Commander, one of the greats modern Jumps racing has known, you had to content yourself with a few spontaneous rounds of applause as he galloped to post.
At a meeting where a dress code exposed the source of Newbury’s priorities, cynics could only assume that the Commander had turned up in jeans.