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Hilary Swank a marquee guest of honour on Derby Day

Most Derby Day celebrities spend months planning their outfits. But Academy Award-winning actor Hilary Swank had less than 24 hours to organise her frock and hat.

The star of Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby and Freedom Writers was in Sydney this week visiting some friends. Swisse? got wind of this, snaffling her as its guest of honour in its opulent, China-themed Birdcage marquee.

Naturally, there was no shortage of designers willing to dress her.

“Christopher Esber? came to my rescue, and a beautiful hat was made for me, too,” Swank tells Fairfax Media.

While she has never been to Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival, she has toured the city before ? 21 years ago. Indeed, she celebrated her 20th birthday in the Victorian town of Hepburn Springs, near Daylesford.

“Victoria is one of my favourite places. The people, the culture and the country are just stunning. I remember the food being great. I wish I had more time to spend here.”

She even picked up a little Strine the first time around; “goodonya” being her favourite Aussie-ism. Having just returned, she’s already broadened her vocabulary.

Swank quickly learned that “Coffee, please” is the best response to “Cuppa?”.

“Oh, and ‘Is Bob your uncle?’,” she adds. “I’m like, ‘No, my uncle is Dave! I think ‘Is Bob your uncle?’ means, ‘Of course’.”

Fellow Swisse ambassador, model Ash Hart, normally chooses Australian designers but went for a Dolce & Gabbana frock this year, to reflect the company’s international expansion. While Hart and her female friends went to a lot of effort, she’s pleased the blokes did, too.

“Men are pushing the boundaries in fashion,” she says. “Even when it comes to the simplicity of black and white on Derby Day, they’re being more daring. It’s great to see.”

As Swisse’s marquee becomes more impressive, so do its competitors. Emirates’ marquee resembles an old English building ? a double-storey edifice with a sit-down restaurant. Appropriately, its guest list includes Lady Kitty Spencer, niece of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Serving the estimated crowd of 90,000 on Saturday are 1200 Victorian Racing workers and 1600 catering staff. A frantic 180 of them will do nothing but restock fridges, trying to keep pace with thirsty racegoers. Over the next four days, about 65,000 glasses of Mumm French champagne will be drunk (or, occasionally, spilled).