Irish boss Martin O'Neill takes chance to enjoy races
SEAN Shortall from Moate was cavorting around the parade ring like a mad thing. His 22-year-old son Shane had just won the big race of the day, the Galway Plate, in fine style on board the aptly-named Road to Riches.
"My phone's hopping. It's unbelievable. Brilliant," declared an overjoyed Sean, as he watched his lad Shane – who had also won the third race aboard Greatness – and trainer Noel Meade being presented with the prestigious trophy by a beaming Michael D Higgins.
Watching the presentation was JP McManus who had fielded seven runners with no reward. But absent was the owner of Rags to Riches, Michael O'Leary. "He watched the race in his office in Dublin," explained his brother Eddie O'Leary who runs Gigginstown Stud.
One almost expected to see a Ryanair jet make an unscheduled landing and Michael emerge for a lap of honour to mark his first-ever Galway Plate victory.
There was much attention – and plenty of money – being lavished on the main race. Earlier in the day, champion jockey Tony McCoy was strolling around the track with his wife Chanelle and their two young children, Eve and Archie. He was riding a brace of much-fancied horses, Draco in the first who was narrowly beaten into second place, and the heavily-backed JP McManus-owned Alderwood in the Plate.
It was a busy day at the Ballybrit track; by lunchtime, President Higgins had arrived, and was looking forward to placing a few bets, and he was full of praise for the Ballybrit committee who kept the show on the road throughout the recession. "It continued over the years to keep ploughing back more and more into the provision of facilities, and it's appreciated by the public," he said.
Also on the track, swapping the Beautiful Game for the Sport of Kings, was Ireland soccer manager Martin O'Neill and his wife Geraldine. The manager cheerfully confessed that he doesn't follow the gee-gees.
"I will enjoy it today. I used to [go racing] years and years ago, and obviously with the job I get less time to come and race," he explained. "Hopefully if the few bets survive, I might even be here tomorrow," he joked.
During the afternoon, Martin was taken on a tour of the betting ring, where he bumped into former Fianna Fail Minister/MEP and avid punter Charlie McCreevy and his wife Noeleen.
"I might have a bet on Ballinaslow," he pondered. A Cautious Charlie. Who'd have thunk it?
At the Ladbroke's betting-pitch, Martin was invited on to the stand to take a few bets from punters. But he wouldn't play ball. "I'd die of embarrassment," he insisted modestly, much to the chagrin of the posse of lurking photographers.
One visitor who was keeping a low-profile was Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald who revealed that she is a "keen race-goer". But she was less enthusiastic about stopping to chat about non-racing matters, such as the future fate of her Secretary General Brian Purcell, who is to move to a new role in the civil service.
Dermot Weld had another good day, notching up his fifth winner with favourite, Brooch in the final race of the evening.
He had begun this third day of the Festival in unusual surroundings, when he and fellow trainer Jim Bolger were conferred with honorary degrees by NUI Galway.
Introducing the legendary Dermot, who has trained over 3,700 winners throughout his career to date, senior academic Dr John Newell quipped, "So dominant has he been at Ballybrit over the last two-and-a-half decades, Irish bookmakers Paddy Power suggested renaming the Galway Races the 'Dermot Weld Retirement Fund'".
And dressed in his scarlet and white robes, the King of Ballybrit was clearly chuffed with his conferral. "It's a great honour and very much appreciated," he said afterwards. "I regard it as a reward for Irish horse racing, not just me personally".
It was a good day all around; the crowd numbers were up considerably on last year – 18,766 in contrast to 14,038 in 2013.
The punters had a few wins, and even the bookies weren't too despondent. Hayley O'Connor of Ladbrokes was most philosophical. "A couple of JP McManus' battalion were well supported, so having one of Michael O'Leary's charge first past the post was a relief for the ring," she said.
And with Ladies Day a big feature of today's card, there will be bubbles. There may be bobble-hats too, if the rain hammers down.