In a world gone mad, the Galway Races are an honest-to-goodness great day out
No Tent, no distinction between Us and Them, just people out out have a great time, says an impressed Celia Larkin
When I got the call to go to the Galway Races, I thought, 'Oh no.' Did I really want to don hat and heels, sit in hours of traffic jams, elbow my way to bars for warm beer, eat stodgy food and lose money betting on horses I didn't have a clue about?
No. But he who pays the piper calls the tune, so off I headed on Wednesday with a heavy heart and the expectation of a headache.
First surprise was that under the sign 'Races, Red Car Park', the cars just flowed into the course with no delays at all. The colour coding, I learned, was the brainchild of one Sgt JJ Burke, shrewdly implemented by his boss Inspector Gannon. Full marks to the Galway gardai.
Following the red signs through a tunnel and into a parking field at the opposite side of the track from the stand, the scene I met reminded me of days at the Finglas Horse Show, when I was a kid.
Families eating picnics out of the boots of cars: flasks, fold-up chairs, sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, and a strong smell of freshly cut grass. There were swing-boats, ice cream stalls, tuck vans and the squeal of children getting up to high jinks. There was a hut for the Tote where you could place a bet, and through the fence you could eyeball your horse as it thundered down the home straight to the finish line. No high heels and fake tans here, just dedicated race-goers on a good family day out for the €2 parking fee.
Crossing under the track to the stand side, a different, but no less magical side of racing unfolded. For €30 I got access to the stands, the enclosure, the parade ring and the all-important bookmakers' ring.
The bookmakers' ring was packed. Tweeds and twill. Open-necked shirts and rolled-up sleeves. Toothless wonders and porcelain-capped dazzlers. All in search of the bookmaker with the best odds. With one common goal -- to back a winner. Tips were traded freely. Comments on form voiced. Wisecracks and funny stories exchanged.
No tent to set people apart. No clear distinction between Us and Them. We were all there to have a great time. Yes, politicians were there, and I'm sure the odd developer, but nobody was paying a blind bit of notice to them. Each of them was just another punter.
From what I could see, there were two distinct parade rings. One for the horses. One for the fillies of the two-legged variety. And boy, could you see legs. Long, lean tanned legs, on whoppers of heels, parading around, adding a real touch of glamour. The girls looked great (I don't remember looking like that when I was 17).
It wasn't that contrived sophisticated glamour you see on Ladies' Day, where in the words of Percy French "you don't know if they're bound for a ball or a bath", but gorgeous little dresses painted on to those mannequin shapes that are exclusive to the very young.
Even the young lads dressed up. My own next-door neighbour's boys and their friends donned suits for their venture out, purchased specially for the occasion for €15 in Penneys, the complete antithesis of their normal attire of Bermudas and rugby shirts. As one of their contemporaries informed them, knowledgably, "you have to dress up to go to Galway".
The new Killanin Stand is most impressive, with its bars, restaurants and seated viewing facilities. John Maloney, Course Manager for 22 festival meetings, says that between the Killanin and Millennium Stands, corporate facilities are provided for 1,200 people. All booked out for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Did this mean that the tent had moved upstairs? No. I gather these were all individual places costing from €112 to €300 each. No block-booking here. Just punters budgeting for a good day out. Although why you'd want to lock yourself away upstairs when all the crack was down on the track escapes me.
I had lunch, including a soft drink, for €17 in the self-service restaurant on the first floor of the new Killanin Stand. The food and service were excellent and I had a spectacular view over the track from my table.
The Galway Races are every bit as important to trainers and jockeys as they are to the punters. While in principle the meeting is no different to Ballinrobe or Tramore, the exposure the trainers and jockeys get when they win here can be enough to launch a career.
Trainer Paul Gilligan had three winners at the Galway Festival in 2007.
His success was noticed by the racing world, which led to better horses being sent to his stables. He had his first winner at Cheltenham last March. (The horse was called Bertie's Dream.)
Rory Cleary went on to be one of Ireland's top riders when he won the 2004 McDonagh Handicap (now the Topaz Mile) on Palace Star.
It was one of the most emotional moments of the past decade at Galway as Rory's elder brother Sean had suffered fatal injuries in a fall at Ballybrit the previous year.
Fifteen times British champion jockey Tony McCoy was delighted to win his first Galway Plate.
For a trainer or jockey to come away from Ballybrit without at least one winner is considered a terrible blow.
John Maloney, course manager, and his team have a lot to be proud of. The attention to detail on every aspect of service for the public at the festival was second to none.
In a world where nothing seems to work anymore, where chaos and incompetence seem to be the norm, the Galway Races are spot on.
It truly is an honest-to-goodness great day out.