It had been three years since Dee Ahearn last wore her eye-catching turquoise ensemble. As CEO of Barretstown children’s charity, she had donned the outfit in June 2019 for a very special occasion, the visit of former US first lady Hillary Clinton to the Kildare organisation for seriously ill youngsters.

ittle did she know then how long it would be before she got the chance to wear it again.

She certainly couldn’t have realised it would have the winning formula for the opening day of the 2022 Punchestown Festival.

After the darkness of the past two years, the beautiful bright ensemble was exactly what caught the eye of style judge Marietta Doran as she declared Dee “winner all right” of the Bollinger Best Dressed.

“It’s lovely to see colour again after such a drab time. I avoid black now,” Dee said.

The Kilcullen woman was clearly a popular choice – a huge cheer erupted from the crowd in the champagne tent when her name was announced.

“I designed my outfit myself and it was made for me by a girl in Naas called Liz Byrne, she’s a brilliant designer,” said Dee, who was at the races with her daughter, Millie Ahearn O’Donnell.

“I had the dress made for when Hillary Clinton was visiting Barretstown in 2019 and so I haven’t had the chance to wear it since.

“I bought the hat here, from one of the milliners here in Punchestown, and my bag is Prada and my shoes are Nine West, and I can’t believe I’ve won.”

She said the last time she wore the outfit, Clinton had told her the dress was “beautiful”.

“It has sat in my wardrobe for so long that it’s lovely to wear it again. I can’t believe I’ve won this, I’m so thrilled. Our gang from work decided to club together and get a table to come here today.

“Then Marietta Doran said, ‘Your dress is amazing, I want you to enter the competition’. I’m thrilled.”

Spirits were sky-high for the start of the festival.

Many racing fans were making their first ever trip to the Kildare event, and they were keen to clock up new experiences.

The corporate areas were jam-packed with work colleagues getting together in person for the first time since 2020.

Punters, both male and female, also appeared to have made an extra effort with their ensembles, having had so long to plan them.

Making their debut at the event were Ailbhe McMackin and Eve Mortimer, who were there with a group of customers from their pharmaceutical company, McKesson Ireland.

The firm had been involved in distributing Covid vaccines, and the pair said it had been a “long, tough stint”, so they were delighted to be on the other side of it.

Looking stunning in a monochrome dress from Coast, Ailbhe admitted to having an unusual hope for the day – that it would rain so she could use the umbrella she had painstakingly customised for the occasion.

“I have always loved My Fair Lady so I’ve always thought that racing outfits should be black and white – hence the outfit choice,” she said.

“We’re all in a different world after Covid. I opened my wardrobe and was like, ‘I’ve got 40,000 dresses here, I really shouldn’t keep buying things’. It’s great to get out and see people’s faces again without the masks.”

For long-time fans, the annual festival had been dearly missed. Local man PJ Cummins has been coming for the past 40 years.

Initially, his reason for attending was that he and his friends “used to get a half-day off school”.

“We’re from Straffan, so as kids you couldn’t miss it,” he said. “It’s great to get back after Covid.”

Surveying all the action with an experienced eye was former champion jockey Nina Carberry, winner of the latest series of Dancing with the Stars.

She said it was “nice that the atmosphere is back”, and after the success of the Fairyhouse festival she was keen to see how the week would turn out at Punchestown.

On the recent rumours that her pro-partner, Pasquale la Rocca, is being lined up for BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing to replace Aljaz Skorjanec, she said he had texted her about the speculation, saying he didn’t know what was happening.

“He said, ‘Thank you, partner. This morning it’s all over the papers, who knows’.” 

She said she would love to see him on the BBC hit show.

“I’d love to. Of course I would. I’d be like, ‘I danced with him’.”

On the track, there were no fewer than three Grade One races with the feature event, the William Hill Champion Steeplechase, providing some thrilling action.

Energumene won in a dramatic fashion for jockey Paul Townend and trainer Willie Mullins, giving Mullins the first win of the festival.

The hot favourite managed to beat off stiff competition from last year’s victor and his stablemate, Chacun Pour Soi.

A delighted Mullins said Energumene “took the mantle” off his rival.

“I was delighted with Chacun Pour Soi,” he said. “He jumped well and finished his race and he hasn’t done that for his last couple of runs, so at least he’s making progress and he’ll probably have another season racing.

“Energumene deserves all the plaudits as he did it the hard way today.”

Organisers had spent months planning for the return of the festival and the hard work clearly paid off as the opening day went off without a hitch. Even the weather behaved itself as the clouds that hung over the racetrack for much of the day failed to turn to rain.

When it came to crowd figures, 14,562 people made their way through the turnstiles, which was down from the 17,486 recorded back in 2019.

Given that Tuesday is generally the quietest day, crowd figures are expected to build over the week.