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I went to Aintree Racecourse for the first time on 5th April 2013 which was Ladies Day (day before Grand National) with a friend. I've been to a few race meetings at other racecourses before but never anything on this scale. To be clear, I'm not a gambler and rarely place a bet, so don't have any knowledge on racing or horses. To me this was more a day out to have a dabble at betting but more to socialise, dress up and attend a big event.
I booked the tickets through the official Aintree Racecourse website (www.aintree.co.uk) which is an informative and easy to use website. We booked Tattersall's tickets which cost £35 per person, however were more like £40 each once the booking fee and postage cost had been added. Despite booking the tickets a few weeks prior to the event I was surprised to find that there was no option for printing the tickets at home, and the only options available were postage (£7 recorded delivery) or picking them up from box office on the day. I went for the postage option to be safe, yet on the day I noticed that the box office was relatively quiet with only a few people waiting to collect, so I wish I had opted for this and saved the postage fee. The tickets arrived quickly and came with an information pack which told me everything I needed to know.
We got a lift to the racecourse which I was glad about because I had read that parking is quite limited on the actual racecourse. When approaching the racecourse we noticed loads of random guys in hi-viz with signs saying "cheap parking for races" etc but they all looked a bit dodgy and I was quite glad we didn't need to worry about that. On race day the main road that the racecourse is on is attended by police and traffic is quite bad. It took us about 20 minutes to drive a couple of miles to get close enough to walk. The road is open though, but I heard it would close while the races are actually happening (I'm not sure why!)
After the races we decided to go into Liverpool city centre so opted to get the train there. Aintree Train Station is directly opposite the racecourse, you literally cross the road to it. Of course because we left just after the final race, the train station was packed and there was a massive queue to get near it. The queue moved quickly though as trains turned up every 10 minutes, and there were loads of staff on site to keep things moving properly and ensure the trains/platforms weren't over loaded.
We had originally wanted tickets for the County Stand, yet unfortunately tickets were sold out and we ended up opting for tickets for Tattersall's which was the cheapest admission. It cost £35 per person with a fee for postage of tickets. The racecourse itself is huge, bigger than any I had seen before. The biggest area is the Tattersall's which is open to anyone who goes into the racecourse, yet doesn't include access inside the racecourse. The Tattersall's is mainly an open area and there are no actual race stands. Instead there is what is known as the Aintree Mound which is a hill and slope where you can stand and get a good view of the closing stage of each race. Within the Tattersall's enclosure there is access to the Parade Ring and Winners Enclosure, as well as the Red Rum Lawn where there are various bars and cafes. There is also access to the Aintree Pavilion which is a huge indoor arena housing cafes, bars, live music on a stage and live coverage of each race on a big screen.
The day we were at Aintree the weather wasn't the best. It was dry yet there was a strong wind and temperatures were at around 8 degrees. Therefore we were extremely grateful of the Aintree Pavilion where we could keep warm yet still be part of the atmosphere and watch the races on the big screen. In fact it seemed there was more atmosphere in the Pavilion than outside! We even saw people with badges for the Queen Mother Stand which costs £100 entry in there, obviously they had just found it too cold out there. Inside the Aintree Pavilion there were a few bars and cafes around the outside walls, but the majority is a huge space in the middle where people gather and socialise. We were fairly near the front of the Pavilion where there was a great view of the main stage which featured live entertainment from various singers/bands as well as the big screen which came on during each race.
We did venture outside and walked over to the Aintree Mound which gave great viewing of the final part of the racecourse and walked through the general areas where there were benches, bars and tote betting cabins. The toilets were located just outside of the Pavilion and were a series of upscale portaloos but felt more like mini caravans. There were about 15 in total and each had 5 toilet cubicles and a few sink and vanity areas. They felt like real toilets and were much better than the usual portaloos. They were clean and just like using a toilet in a normal building.
Whilst we enjoyed being in the Tattersall's enclosure and it included everything we needed, I did wish we had access to one of the private stands (detailed below). It would have been nice to get a bit more involved in the racing itself and spent more time outside. I felt we missed out on a certain element of the day and always felt like we were in the area behind all of the action and it didn't feel like we were actually at live races, but more like we were in another big party nearby. Tattersall's are very lacking in seats and table areas. Within the Pavilion where there must have been thousands of people, there were probably about twenty small tables to put drinks down. This proved quite awkward at times, but luckily we managed to squeeze onto a table with some other racegoers meaning we could put our drinks down. I also felt the Tattersall's weren't as luxury as the rest of the racecourse may have been. I must admit the weather probably was too poor to spend time outside, but if it had been a nicer day I would have definitely preferred to have been in one of the stands and getting a bit more involved. Yet it can't be denied that the Tattersall's are full of atmosphere and very busy which made for a fun day.
If you want to have seating without paying too much more you can pay for West Tip Seats which are within the Tattersall's enclosure but offer a private area with sheltered seating and a private bar. These tickets cost around £67. Other stands available when booking are the Princess Royal Stand which offers a choice of either seating on the main grandstand or standing on the roof terrace. The majority of this section is sheltered and it also has a private bar inside. Tickets for this area are between £90-£120.
The County Stand is a high up area which overlooks the finishing line. There is a big screen within this area. Tickets cost around £90.
The Queen Mother Stand is similar to Princess Royal in the sense that you can either sit in the main grandstand or stand on the roof terrace. All seating in this area is sheltered and there is a big screen available for closure viewing. Tickets cost between £90-£110.
The Earl of Derby 7 Lord Sefton Stands are two separate stands which include two levels of seating, the upper level is the highest stand on the racecourse and then there are terraces on a lower level. Tickets range from £85-£110.
If you want to push the boat out there is the Platinum County Lounge which is a luxury lounge area including reserved seating in the county stand, a private champagne bar, free race card and a race day hostess. This ticket costs £120.
Early on in the day we decided to buy a race card from one of the betting stands. This cost about £6 but proved invaluable throughout the day and was actually borrowed by many around us who hadn't got one. It gives a full summary of the horses included in each race, plus background information on each horse, as well as odds. As I've already mentioned neither I, nor the friend I went with, have any knowledge on betting or the horses, yet the race card helped us to gain a better understanding and at the very least we knew which horses were actually in each race and could choose one before queuing up to bet.
Placing bets was easy, no matter where you are on the racecourse there are numerous betting stations around you and the people in them are understanding of any lack of experience as I think a lot of people at big events like Ladies Day don't really know what they are doing!! Placing a bet is quick and easy, you just say the horses name and the amount you want to bet and they give you a slip. If the horse wins you return to the betting station and claim your money using the slip. Due to having little knowledge on the subject we never placed more than a £5 bet on any horse, so it wasn't major money. But it was fun and we still got a buzz when our horses won (or were leading). I can't stress enough that even if you aren't a betting person who wants to put loads of money on, or someone who knows a lot about the race, it can still be fun betting and watching the races!!
**Food and Drinks**
When we first entered the racecourse (about 12) we decided to try and find somewhere to eat. There were several takeaway style food places with various food options, for example pizza, pies, Spanish food (paella) etc. We ended up opting for a burger from the 'gourmet burger' stand. It cost £8 for a burger and it was the most awful burger I have ever had. I understand the mobile food cabins aren't going to produce the best quality food, but this was ridiculous. It came on a small piece of dry bread, the burger was tiny and some soggy lettuce on it. I've had burgers from stands at various events and they are usually really nice but this was poor. And to pay £8 for it was an insult. That was the only food we had whilst at the racecourse.
The first drink we had was from one of the cocktail bars. It drew our attention because the barmen were performing all sorts of tricks whilst mixing the drinks and looked like they knew a thing or two about mixing drinks. We both went for a Mojito and watched while the barman made the drink. There was a fair amount of effort and show involved and typically it was served in a plastic cup which is understandable at an event like this, but it was such a small cup. The drink only lasted a few minutes as there was barely any liquid in it amongst the ice. He used real Bacardi which was good but the drink was tasteless as he didn't bother with any sugar. It cost £8 each for the cocktail which was a complete rip off for what we got. So at that point we decided to move onto wine as at least you know what you're getting there.
We got our first wine from the main bar in the middle of the Pavilion. They were serving mini bottles of white, rose and red. We both went for Rose which cost £5 for the bottle which was about a glass full. The wine was nice and it was good to have a decent drink, however it was served in ordinary plastic cups which felt a bit strange. This bar also offered beers and spirits. After that we decided to move on to the champagne bar which served only full size bottles of wine, sparkling wine and champagne. The wine was about £20 a bottle, sparkling wine was £35 and champagne was £80 (I think...) We decided to go for the sparkling wine which was lovely and lasted us for the rest of the day. Even better the champagne bar provided mini plastic wine glasses which made the drink more enjoyable and just felt better!
So in summary everything is expensive, but there is plenty of choice. I wouldn't recommend the cocktail bars which aren't worth the bother, stick to bottles or measured mixers then you know what you're getting. And be careful where you get food from, take a moment to have a look at the food on offer rather than rushing like we did!
I thought I'd include this in the review as its one of the things which can concern a lot of people. There is no official dress code at Aintree so really you can wear what you want. (With exception to Grand National race day when sports clothes and fancy dress are not permitted). Every man I saw was wearing a suit, or shirt and trousers, and 90% also wore a tie. Every woman was dressed up, I'd say 80% were in dresses but there were also many women in trouser suits or trousers with a smart top. Therefore it is optional what you wear, yet the preference is to dress up and look smart, with most women wearing dresses. The majority of women also wore a hat or fascinator. Anyone who reads the newspaper reports on Ladies Day will see that there are quite a few who take the dressing up a bit too far and favour bright clashing colours, and this really is the case when you are there. But it is all good fun and its fun people watching at some 'interesting' outfits and flamboyant hats!
We actually got dropped off at the Racecourse at 10:30am (it opens at 10:00) but decided we didn't want to go straight in at that time. So we went into the Rocking Horse pub which is located directly outside the racecourse. This is a typical blokes pub and there's nothing fancy about it, which we expected to be honest. I'd say 90% of the people in there were blokes, as it was quite early on for women. I got the feeling people were getting a head start with drinks in there before facing the ridiculous drinks prices in the racecourse! We only had a soft drink in there but it was clear that drinks were reasonable priced in there. The pub got busier and busier the closer it got to lunchtime so we decided to get out around 12:00.
We had a good day at Aintree Racecourse and I would definitely return. The racecourse is very big and provides many options depending what day you are looking for and how much you want to spend. There are plenty of different areas available even in the Tattersall's, so there is always somewhere new to stand and it won't get boring. I would recommend splashing out on a stand ticket so you can get a bit closer to the action, particularly if the weather is going to be good. Aintree isn't just for hard-core betters, especially on a day like Ladies Day, there is so much more on offer. Ticket prices are reasonable but expect to spend quite a bit on food and drinks once you're in there.