Galloping start to the races in City of Tribes
THE buzzing noise overhead was sufficiently unusual to make several motorists on the M6 motorway to Galway look up and out their car windows.
It was the thwack-thwack of helicopter blades as a lone chopper made its way to Ballybrit for the opening day of the races.
Once upon a Celtic Tiger, the sky over the Galway racecourse would have resembled the opening scenes of 'Apocalypse Now', with formations of whirlybirds jostling for landing space.
But there were precious few helicopters in evidence on the opening evening meeting of this seven-day marathon festival.
And the infamous Fianna Fail tent has long gone to the knacker's yard -- and as for its former inhabitants . . . well, the politicians are all taking part in a flat race for survival, while the property developers have all fallen at the Beecher's Brook of NAMA.
Still, Galwegians are made of stern stuff and have no intention of letting the minor matter of the worst recession of all time spoil their annual equestrian fun.
And although a foggy mizzle settled on the course yesterday evening, ensuring it was more a case of mojitos in the mist rather than champagne in the sun, a large and cheerful crowd poured on to the course regardless.
Of course the cheerfulness largely had to do with the King of Ballybrit, Sir Dermot of Weld, who provided his loyal subjects with a winner in the very first race.
Since 1972, the legendary trainer has saddled an impressive 210 winners at the festival, and a mighty cheer went up when he added his 211th, Force of Habit, just after 5.10pm.
And in the ring to present the winner's trophy was Galway West deputy Michael D Higgins.
In the small world that Ireland is, it turned out that one of the owners of Force of Habit was Dr Ronan Lambe, a former classmate of Michael D.
And the Labour deputy, a chap of impeccable character, had decided to remain neutral for the race, and so denied himself the pleasure of placing a few quid on the nose of his pal's nag.
So was he livid to lose out? "That would be the word for it," he admitted.
The other owner of the winning horse was Michael Burke, owner of Chanelle Chemicals in Loughrea.
Michael is the father-in-law of champion jockey Tony McCoy, who is married to his daughter, Chanelle.
Also milling about the parade ring after the first race were former EU Commissioner Ray MacSharry and former MEP Mark Killilea, and also rugby players, Munster's Ronan O'Gara and Alan Quinlan, and Osprey's Tommy Bowe. The lads were on the course to officially launch the race festival. But there was a problem.
They had no ball to chuck about for the benefit of the press photographers who usually prefer if there's a prop present (such as a rugby ball, as opposed to the formidable likes of Ireland prop John Hayes, that is).
And so they threw a jockey about instead. Paul Carberry, a jockey who has little truck with the concept of fear, happily allowed himself to be hoisted energetically above the heads of the trio of players, watched by a bemused Daithi O Se.
Tommy admitted he was a Race Week virgin, never having set foot on the hallowed turf before last evening.
"I like horses and enjoy racing, but I know nothing about it. I'm still on holidays, so it's a great place to spend a day or two before I get back into pre-season training in Wales next week", he said.
Ronan O'Gara looked remarkably fresh for a chap who has three children under the age of two -- he and his wife Jessica have twins Molly and Rua who were born in October 2008, and earlier this month Jessica gave birth to a baby boy.
"It's not too bad, they're all in a good routine," the rugby star explained.
And he's back in a routine himself -- he had driven to Galway after starting back training in Thomond Park yesterday morning.
"I can't wait to get started back, we've a big season ahead of us," he said.
Ronan is also looking forward to taking a run-out on the new green grass of the Aviva Stadium when the international season begins.
"I haven't seen it yet, but hopefully I've two or three more years to play if my form remains good, so it'd be great to play there."
And as the owner of a race-horse, Your Busy, Ronan has more than a passing interest in the Sport of Kings, and is hoping it might get a run in Ballybrit tomorrow.
"He's going well at the moment," reckoned Ronan.
Tommy Bowe beside him was looking pleased with himself, having had a winning bet on Dermot Weld's horse in the first.
But no such luck for Alan Quinlan.
"He was still queueing when the race started," grinned Ronan with not a whit of sympathy.
With a bit of luck, Alan was still in the queue when Dermot's much-backed horse Rainforest Magic came in third.
It's only day one of a long week.