WHILE the arrival of Christmas Eve sees most of us down tools and begin to put up our feet in the thoughts of indulging in food and wine for a couple of days, there are some still juggling work and home.

Someone in the thick of things, with one eye on dinner and another on the forecast for the following day is Vicki Donlon, Leopardstown’s marketing, sponsorship and events manager over the last years.

This year saw her move to a new position as Commercial Manager of HRI’s racecourses but she is back for a short while at the Foxrock track as it prepares for another Christmas Festival.

For anyone connected with the track it’s gear-up time, not wind down as Christmas approaches.

“I was doing interviews recently and it’s something that I make very, very clear to anyone interested in working in Leopardstown, Christmas is one thing you can say goodbye to!” she confesses.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its appeal, and after many years at the front of the preparations, she is well used to a Christmas Day with one eye on the following one.

“It’s just different for me. For me, before Leopardstown I was in Down Royal and we raced on St Stephen’s Day. For the past 14 years of my life I’ve been working right up to Christmas Day, and to a certain extent on Christmas Day if it requires it, and then the next day as well.

“It’s just different but it’s what you are used to and you don’t mind. Once you are used to it and you love what you are doing, it’s not so bad.”

And it’s not as if it was a total change of habit, moving to a racecourse where the Christmas season is all about preparing for an influx of racegoers.

“I come from a hunting family, so we’d always be hunting on Stephen’s Day, that was our thing. Sports horse was my family background and I only really got into racing when I started in Down Royal in 2007.

“But I’m extremely passionate about it and absolutely adore it.

“And you are working over Christmas when you come from a horsey background of any description, animals need to be fed, horses need to be ridden, especially if you are hunting Stephen’s Day, groomed and plaited the day before as well. Horses don’t know the day of the year!”

With four days of action kicking off on the 26th, there is no luxury of a sleep-in on St Stephen’s Day.

“Stephen’s Day I’ll probably leave the house at 6 o’clock in the morning, I’ll be in Leopardstown just after 7 o’clock, to start getting everything ready. You’ve done everything you can up to Christmas Eve, but on the morning of Stephens’ Day, you wouldn’t believe the amount of people who contact you and email on Christmas Day.

“I think everyone has their Christmas dinner, has a little sleep and then thinks, oh what we doing? Oh Leopardstown, let’s find out what’s going on!

“On Christmas Day all my team at Leopardstown keep an eye on social media and enquires come in and they may answer them or do it first thing on Stephen’s Day morning. It’s sometimes easier to keep an eye on things.”

The arrival of daughter Isobel two years ago added another pleasant element to the attention list for Christmas – how has that changed the days?

“It’s just trying to fit a lot more in in the little time I have! My focus has had to change on Christmas day, I do have to prioritise Isobel on Christmas Day, presents and Santa, the focus is very much around her.

“One of the good things about working the four days after Christmas is I flatly refuse to do Christmas dinner at my house. That’s the positive from this!

“If you work in a racecourse you become obsessed with the weather. There was many a morning, and last year was no different, on the morning of the 27th, they were forecasting a cold snap for the 28th and 29th and you could be there at 7 o’clock in the morning and the place is absolutely alive with a buzz and all of us sitting around a desk, huddled round trying to work out, do we change race orders, do we take a chance, do we not.

“Last year on the morning of the 27th we changed the race order for the 28th and put chases last just in case the ground needed time to thaw out.

“There’s always things that don’t go 100% to plan. You want to make sure everything is perfect for everyone coming, for such a wonderful event and you want it to showcase itself the best it can. You are moving around in the morning doing whatever needs to be done.”

Plans for a this Christmas are well on the way to completion, with the hopes of no further restrictions on having a smaller attendance.

“This year – and touching every piece of wood around me – we are absolutely delighted that we will be able to welcome people back. It’s such a huge tradition in people’s lives at Christmas. It didn’t really feel the same last year without people there.

Great atmosphere

“The Christmas Festival in particular has such a great atmosphere about it. It’s all about reuniting and meeting up friends and family. It was just a little bit dead. It showed how much spectators bring to the Christmas racing.”

Current times have meant more planning for this year to safely cater for patrons.

“There been a lot more planning on the operational side going though in minute detail, putting up different scenarios to ensure our customers feel safe primarily and have a really good time no matter what restrictions and protocols might be in place. There’s a lot of extra planning but we are absolutely delighted to be doing it.

“The planning for the marquee is it will be an outdoor event unless you are indoor for hospitality. It’s going to be an open marquee so we are trying to provide as much cover as possible. It’ll be open because logistically you couldn’t Covid-check everyone.

“We want to make sure that if people come, they can get in, get some form of hot or cold drink, they can watch the first race without having to go into another queue, get Covid-checked for Covid certs or anything like that and later if they want to go indoors, there’ll be points to get Covid-checked.”

With Covid a presence our lives for over 20 months now, even the simplest Christmas gifts are more apprecitated.

What might Vicki want for Christmas? “I just want to see a normal Christmas Festival back, that would be wonderful!” Fingers crossed.