NO BIG freeze was ever going to halt one of the country's best-loved festive traditions.

And sure enough, a wintry sun melted the remaining ice around Dublin, ensuring any lingering doubts about racing going ahead at Leopardstown were laid to rest.

After a week of sub-zero temperatures, the thermometers reached the lofty heights of four or five degrees and St Stephen's Day racing was on.

The words bumper crowd were invented for days like these as the Christmas Day cobwebs are shaken off in fine style. But this was anything but a bumper crowd. The St Stephen's Day meeting may not represent the greatest racing day of the calendar but it still ordinarily marks an important staging post on the social calendar.

Mulled wine, hot whiskies, steak sandwiches and the ubiquitous tray of chips were the order of the day and the course was already filling up by 11am in anticipation of the first race.

If crowds were down, it was only because the heady madness of the Celtic Tiger era racing seemed so long ago. It was still a healthy turnout and punters from every parish in the land ? and much further afield ? braved icy roads to make their annual pilgrimage.

Tom Daly from Cavan had travelled up yesterday morning: "I come every year, it's a nice day out after a quiet day on Christmas."

If there was any difference from other years, it was in the way people were dressed. The biting cold of previous days withered what little will people might have had to look glamorous and hats, scarves and gloves took precedence over style.

In some ways, it was a return to a more traditional era of racing when it was not de rigeur to arrive by helicopter, and the Fianna Fáil tent hadn't become a dirty word.

Low-cut dresses and bare legs were replaced by heavy coats and thick- knit tights as common sense got the better of notions of style.

Those who flock to Leopardstown on 26 December are following the habit of a lifetime.

They fall into a few typical categories: avid gamblers overcoming the cold turkey of racing-free Christmas day, horse fans here for the entire festival, emigrants visiting for the holidays and the Ross O'Carroll Kelly set.

They were all at Leopardstown again this year, just not quite in the same numbers. Perhaps the idea of paying €5.10 for a pint and €7.50 for a burger and chips has finally exhausted the patience of the Irish public.

Betting, too, seemed a little slow with one female bookmaker resorting to a tophat while a male colleague wore a pink hat in an attempt to drum up some business.

As betting for the third race began, there seemed more interest in watching the jockeys compete in a short dash race, which was held for the charity GOAL in the parade ring.

RTE's Bryan Dobson twice called a "false start" and was advised to stick to the newsreading.

Bono made an appearance, but the usual glut of celebrities and politicians were thin on the ground.

The late withdrawal of the red-hot favourite put something of a dampener on proceedings in the opener and the crowd could only raise a small roar especially when the little-backed King's Bastion came in at 12/1.

Whether it was the heady mix of hot whiskey and festive beers, the atmosphere built throughout the day.

And on leaving the grand old course, many said they would be back tomorrow, and the day after ... and next St Stephen's Day as well.

sport, pages 6-7