King of the course at Ballybrit
Festival chief tells Donnchadh Boyle that this year will be bigger than ever
'WHEN I started 25 years ago, we used to just open the gates and take money off people at the turnstiles and that was it. There is so much more to it now."
It's not getting any easier to run the Galway Festival, race course manager John Moloney reveals, but it's a challenge he relishes. The mantra is bigger and better, year on year.
Each time, the planning starts in January, and Moloney and his staff look at ways to improve on the year before. And, as he explains the process, it's clear the logistics behind accommodating the various stakeholders is mind-boggling.
The Garda, Order of Malta, Galway City Council, safety officers and the Turf Club are just some of the parties consulted in the build-up to one of the biggest events in the Irish summer, so it's no surprise that during our interview, Moloney's phone hops.
The calls range from small queries to significant policy decisions, all made with the idea of making Galway the best possible experience.
"There's a lot to be done now. It has to be that way, to make sure people enjoy themselves here," he says.
"We hope we have everything covered. We'll have around 150,000 people here over the course of the week. The caterers and staff are very good and they like to look after people."
For all the decisions made, the weather is something that goes by its own agenda.
Over the spring, Moloney and Galway invested significantly in getting parts of the track drained to ensure the best possible racing conditions. And, as luck would have it, the recent hot spell meant that they have been forced to water it significantly.
Still, the ground staff have been busy. Divots are filled in with a combination of sand, peat and clay. They also use a specific type of grass seed in keeping with the native variety in Ballybrit. Nothing is left to chance.
Off the track, improvements have also been made. The Corrib Bar and Panoramic Restaurant have been upgraded. Access for people using buses has been improved, with a walk of just 100 metres from the bus stop to the track. The Tuam Road entrance has also been upgraded.
Each of the seven days will have a theme. Friday will be Fair Lady, Sunday a family day with a Mad Hatter prize for adults and children. One of the main off-course attractions of the week remains Ladies Day on Thursday, when a prize fund worth €20,000 will be on offer.
"All those events help contribute to the atmosphere. And we've introduced a few new ticket options for people and, starting at €20 a ticket, we think it's an attractive proposition for people," says Moloney.
The word is spreading globally too. Last year, the races saw a spike in Australian tourists, who, after visiting the northern hemisphere to watch Black Caviar in action at Royal Ascot, made the short hop to Galway to take in a race meeting with a completely different atmosphere.
The secretary of the Maryland Cup, a popular race meeting in the US, will also be in attendance this year to see how things are done in this part of the world.
And despite the trying economic times, all 52 of the races over the course of the Festival are sponsored in a testament to Ballybrit's enduring appeal.
Four days of racing are live on RTE, with more than €1.6m available in prize fund.
The Galway Hurdle is the richest National Hunt race in the country, thanks to the support of Guinness. With that in mind, the recent Oireachtas committee's recommendations against a ban on alcohol sponsorship at sporting events is a significant boost.
"When the first race goes off, it's great. All the work to that point has been worth it and you see people there to enjoy themselves and it's great," says Moloney.
In all, five races over the weekend have a prize fund in excess of €100,000, which ensures the best horses, trainers and jockeys will be on show in Ballybrit.
"The sponsors have been very loyal and very good to us and we're very grateful. And the jockeys, trainers and horses are obviously so important and they have been pleased with what we've been doing and that's the core of everything we do here.
"I was delighted to hear Willie Mullins and Pat Smullen talking recently about how much they like coming to Galway and how attractive the prize funds are. That's good to hear and as well as the big Irish stars, we'll have a host of big names over from the UK too."
So if Moloney had a tip for the week? He points to 2011's record-training feat, when Dermot Weld saddled 17 winners.
"Follow Dermot and you won't go too far wrong. There'll be 93 bookmakers there dotted all over the place, some of them in the in-field. If someone tells you they couldn't get a bet on in Galway, then they didn't try too hard," says Moloney.
And with that the phone rings, another query to be dealt with. Galway, you feel, will be bigger and better in 2013.