The Winners 2007 Under 26 Runner-up

Women strutting like peacocks, preening and pouting in a positively predatory manner. Men, like grey doves, standing proudly, silently willing their other half to outdo all the others. Forget the horses with pint-sized flashes of colour perched like seagulls on their backs; it’s the Best Dressed Lady that attracts the fiercest competition.

Weeks of training, hours of bathing, plaiting, and polishing, choosing the perfect dress, shoes and hat. An air of nonchalance, of being a good sport and undecided whether to even enter, descends into a rugby scrum of painted beauties the second the collecting ring beckons. Cheshire grins hide gritted teeth, whilst admiring looks hide five-second once-overs. Cries of “darling, you look spectacular” fill the air and life heavenwards, their insincerity hanging like rain clouds.

Slowly a circle forms, a wedding ring of optimism made from women who haven’t looked so beautiful since they said “I do”. Jostling for position, irritated glances when a neighbour’s crimson hat clashes with a petal pink shawl. Aquamarine, summer skies and buttercups crowd one end, whilst fields of lavender, stormy seas and weeping willows cluster in another. Splotches of indigo and poppy redness are dotted like fireflies. Perched on hats are National Trust gardens, hospital fruit bowls and birds, as if about to take flight.

The portly judge, obscenely flattered to be asked, and feigning surprise although he is a yearly staple, strides into the centre, beads of sweat forming as he faces the high watt smiles, his hair slightly ruffled from the breeze blown by the batting of several hundred eyelashes.

In all his years of judging, he says, importantly, he has never seen such a lovely group of ladies. Those who were here last year blink in recognition. Circles of beetroot colour his cheeks, as his eyes flit from flirty flamenco dress to frosted lipstick. Partners on the sidelines wink encouragingly and gesture jokingly over to their wives and daughters, hoping the sudden arm movement will capture the judge’s attention. The hats are beginning to wilt in the July sun, and make-up is starting to become high shine Technicolour. Choose me, they are all willing him, already preparing modest smiles and a serene glide to the middle to collect their rosette. The silence is deafening, soaked up by the grass, now a colander of stiletto hoof prints.

Without warning, it’s all over. A young lady in a cream hat and blush brocade Jane Austen dress has been declared the winner. She is getting married tomorrow, she says, her laughter dripping from the end of the triumphant scarlet ribbon. Sighs and rueful smiles are caught in the air and drift over to where she is standing, in the coveted spot next to the judge, posing for a local newspaper’s social pages.

She turns her head, ebony curls whipping around her face, as if she can feel the jealous eyes upon her, then a shout from the sidelines causes a ripple of relieved laughter. He wished he had put a bet on her.