Have the Aintree ladies fallen at the first fashion hurdle, or have they upped the ante?
Never mind the horse racing. One of the annual highlights of the Aintree Grand National meeting has been Ladies’ Day, with its parade of ostentatious hats, daring dresses and impressive tans.
But this year might lack some of its usual colour, as thousands of tickets have been left unsold.
Experts suggested that regular racegoers were being put off the event by a “lax” dress code, allowing women to wear flesh-exposing clothing outlawed at other racecourses.
In the past, places at the second day of the meeting at the Liverpool course have sold out well in advance of the event, but last year organisers failed to sell between 3,000 and 4,000 tickets.
This year around double that amount – 7,000 – remain unsold a day before Ladies’ Day on Friday. Organisers said they were “puzzled” about the apparent shortfall, but suggested the cost of dressing up for the occasion could be to blame.
William Hanson, an etiquette consultant, said the event risked deterring more smartly dressed racegoers if it did not impose a stricter dress code.
In 2012 Ascot revised its rules after admitting that many racegoers were dressing “as if they were going to the beach”.
By contrast, Aintree’s current guidelines state: “We have no strict dress code but smart dress is preferable.”
“It’s in the last five years that it has started to go downhill," said Mr Hanson. "It is probably because people think racing is the smart thing to do, but they are just getting it wrong.
“I do think that they should do an Ascot, so to speak, and tighten up the dress code.”
Simply asking racegoers to dress “smartly” is too “vague”, he added.
One Liverpool-based supplier of outfits for the occasion indicated that some regular attendees might have been put off by photographs of women, many from outside of the city, engaging in lewd behaviour and wearing risque clothing at the event in previous years.
“I think people felt that they didn’t want to be a part of that, so maybe they chose to go on a different day,” said Justine Williams, the managing director of Cricket, a designer boutique whose clients include Coleen Rooney, wife of the Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney.
"Thursday has become a lot more popular and Saturday as well. We have seen a real shift.”
However Marcus Armytage, a former Grand National winner and the Telegraph’s racing correspondent, said Aintree was very different to traditionally smarter events such as Royal Ascot and the Epsom Derby.
“The good thing is you get quite a bit of Cheltenham tweed rubbing shoulders with flourescent miniskirts and it is great fun.”
Nigel Payne, an Aintree spokesman, said: “We haven't sold out in all honesty. It's historically a great day for the locals [but] I think money is a lot tighter than it was.
“It has puzzled us. We expected it to have sold out very early on. Two years ago we sold out well in advance, last year we didn't quite sell out and now we have got this.
“It has picked up a bit in the last week but not as much as we expected.”
He added: “We are still going to have a very healthy crowd of well over 40,000. It's not going to be empty or anything like that.”
The cost of tickets increased this year but only by a marginal amount, Mr Payne said. Prices range from £37 to £179.
Mild weather is forecast for the racecourse on Friday with sunny spells in the late morning and early afternoon, which organisers hope will prompt more sales on the day.
Tickets for Saturday’s Grand National Day – the most prominent event of Aintree’s three-day meeting - have sold out, and organisers reported record sales for the opening day on Thursday.
Current favourites for the main race include Monbeg Dude, the nine-year-old racehorse part-owned by Mike Tindall, the former England rugby captain and husband of Zara Phillips.