Tuesday 28 February 2017

Galway's enduring appeal beats all talk of doom and gloom

On the eve of the Festival that defies recession, Ronan Groome sifts through the whispers to select five horses worth keeping an eye on

They used to say an event like the Galway races, the wining and dining of it all, was a defining symbol of a culture that took this country to its knees. The Fianna Fáil tent, the swarms of helicopters and limos, high heels and trendy suits, all part of a society that knew no boundaries.

And so, the common train of thought when the economy went into meltdown was that Galway would be put back in its rightful place. Two years ago, 158,000 flocked to Ballybrit. Last year HRI were hopeful, not confident, of around 150,000. It turned out that 166,000 made the pilgrimage.

That's the Galway festival. An event that goes against the norm. The races and prize money this week would not hold a candle to Glorious Goodwood, yet for the majority if not all the connections heading Ballybrit way, a Galway winner would mean much more. No Grade Ones, no Group Ones, just summer jumpers, fast handicappers and smart two-year-olds. The tradition, the crack and the laughter.

Away from the roar of the crowd will be the whispers. Alas, if you listened to them all, you might struggle to get past Tuesday evening. That's another trend-breaker with Galway -- only Cheltenham could perhaps rival it with the 'getting a horse ready for a big day' phenomenon. The racing will be as competitive as ever, so here are five to keep an eye out for -- along with all the other whispers.

Sulwaan

Where better to start than Dermot Weld. The Curragh-based trainer knows the ups and downs of Ballybrit like the back of his hand and has perfected the art of 'getting one ready' for the festival. He has been the top trainer at Galway 26 times, and is as short as 7/4 with Paddy Power to train at least 10 winners again. The opening race tomorrow, a two-mile novice hurdle, has been won by Weld four times out of the last seven years and Sulwaan is his sole representative this year.

An ex-Mark Johnson-trained horse, Sulwaan looked good on his Irish bow and his debut over hurdles at Sligo.

He was struggling for Ruby Walsh three furlongs out, but once the son of King's Best met the rising ground, he really picked up well to hit the front and win a shade cosily in the end.

It was just the type of grafting performance that Weld would have identified as a perfect fit for the undulations at Galway. He can be the first of many for Weld, and get the week off to a flyer for punters again.

Wise Old Owl

The Galway Plate is usually a difficult puzzle to solve for punters. The case for Bahrain Storm was made in the Value Betting column here last week and anyone on at the advised price of 12/1 should feel fairly pleased. The only worry for the current favourite would be his relative inexperience over fences, and it may be that he could find the hustle and bustle of a 22-runner field too much on the day.

One at a bigger price worth consideration is John Kiely's Wise Old Owl. At seven, he's the right age for this, and at a rating of 138, he's on the same mark Finger Onthe Pulse held at this time last year. Like most of the field, this will have been his aim for a long time, and there was a lot to like about his comeback run at Punchestown over an inadequate two miles. The son of Beneficial has only had eight starts, but all of them have been over fences, so he has the necessary experience, and also has the advantage of a trip round Ballybrit as well. He has only been out of the top two once (on his debut) in all his eight starts and so could be a decent each-way value alternative at around 16/1 on the day.

De Senectute

Rarely does a Galway festival go by without a Willie Mullins-trained winner, and as ever with the National Hunt champion trainer, it's likely he will have a strong team of bumper horses ready to go. But he has an interesting contender over hurdles in De Senectute, which looks fairly unexposed and possibly very well-handicapped off a mark of 104. There was a lot to like about the way this daughter of In The Wings won a handicap hurdle at Cork last season, and she has come back well this season with a good win on the Flat at Bellewstown recently. It's unclear yet which race she goes for, but she will be a force to be reckoned with wherever she ends up, especially with a fit-again Paul Townend back in the saddle.

Dirar

Gordon Elliot is another trainer worth following this week, especially in handicaps both on the Flat and over jumps, and he looks to have a leading chance of taking Thursday's feature event with Dirar. The six-year-old son of King's Best ran a cracker to finish third in this race last year, before going on to take the prestigious Ebor Handicap at York on his next start. Incidentally, Dirar is only 7lbs higher in the weights than he was for this race last year, and should last year's winner Overturn take his chance, Donald McCain's horse will have to give away 27lbs to him. Dirar is only a small horse, but he's all heart and has the advantage of big-race experience at Galway. This has been his aim for the season and, a year older, he can run another big race for his Trim-based trainer.

Sublime Talent

There was a lot to like about the way Sublime Talent won at Ballinrobe on his penultimate start. Having first travelled really well through his race, he soon came under pressure a half a mile out, but was able to come back on the bridle for Paul Carberry in the straight to win cheekily in the end -- accounting for subsequent winner Laganbank. This son of Sadler's Wells is in the Galway Hurdle but the suspicion is that he will take up an engagement in another race during the week. He has options over hurdles and on the Flat, and like a lot of his stablemates, it's likely his fitness will have been aimed to peak for this week.

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