Ladies take an early lead at Ballybrit
Any unwary tourists wandering into the Clayton Hotel close to the Ballybrit racetrack yesterday afternoon would have innocently assumed that a huge wedding was in full swing.
The style on every woman in the place (not to mention a few dangerously angled hats) would take your eye out.
But it was less about bride and groom, and more to do with ride and groom – the opening day of the week-long horse-and-high-heels bonanza that is the Galway Races.
Usually, the fashionistas wait until Ladies' Day on the Thursday of race week to break out the frocks and fascinators, but this year's opening meeting last night featured a 'Most Appropriately Dressed Lady' competition – hence Galwegians were putting on the ritz from the off.
And there was a bit of a buzz around the track for the evening meeting. Despite the clouds, the threatened rain was a non-runner, prompting a decent-sized crowd to turn up for the seven-race card.
The Galway Festival – like so many features of Irish life – has taken a battering in recent years as the economic storm raged. Attendance for the week last year was a lowly 137,000 – a steep drop from the record high of over 216,000 in 2006 when the Celtic Tiger was at full gallop, choppers were stacked over the racecourse like planes over Heathrow and Bertie was Ard Ri of the Fianna Fail tented village.
However, Ballybrit is exuding a perkier air this year. Despite the fact that two star jockeys, Ruby Walsh and Paul Carberry, are both injured, the festival has much to lure the dedicated racer – €1.6m competitive fields in the two big feature races of the week, the Galway Plate tomorrow and the Guinness Galway Hurdle on Thursday which has a prize-pot of €250,000 up for grabs.
And then there is the much-anticipated intense head-to-head between the many-times crowned top trainer Dermot Weld and rival Tony Martin, who gave the 27-times King of Ballybrit a close run for his money at the Galway track last year, notching up eight winners to Weld's tally of 11.
But the first winner of the Festival went to neither trainer, but to Willie Mullins, courtesy of the Michael O'Leary-owned McKinley.
The bookies weren't the only people happy with that result – the just-retired Ulster and Ireland rugby player Stephen Ferris was one of a group of players at the track, including Leinster's Fergus McFadden and Munsterman Conor Murray, and Stephen had backed the winner in the first.
So was it an educated choice or a lucky guess? It turns out that it was all about the name.
"One of the lads on the team last year was called James McKinney, but our head coach called him McKinley for the first six weeks of pre-season training, so we took the piss out of him for more or less the whole year," explained Stephen.
"So I thought I'd throw a tenner each way on him
Fergus McFadden was enjoying a break from the intense pre-season training which began a fortnight ago. And of course this summer the squad are minus the familiar figure of Brian O'Driscoll.
"We definitely miss him around the place, he's a great character and a good friend and you would miss his personality," he admitted.
However his former team-mates will be watching his new career as a rugby pundit with great interest.
"I think he'll probably do very well, he's an expert on the game," Fergus said.
Also on the track was Senator Fidelma Healy Eames.
With a couple of races to go, she hadn't picked any winners, but she had scored a victory earlier in the day when she received an apology in the High Court on behalf of Associated Newspapers, who publish the Mail.
The senator had been in court to hear the apology in relation to two 2012 articles, which "gave a wholly inaccurate impression" that she had benefited from public or charity funds.
She is also to receive undisclosed damages from which she said she is going to give a donation to Rwandan widows and orphans for whom both she and her husband, Michael Eames, volunteered two years ago.
"I felt vindicated and relieved it's over," she said at the track.
By the last race, Tony Martin and Dermot Weld – who celebrates his 66th birthday at Ballybrit today – were neck and neck, with one race apiece.
The other winner was Noelle Fleming from Claregalway who took the Most Appropriately Dressed Lady prize. But the other ladies weren't too put out – they get to strap on the frou-frou and fascinators all over again on Thursday.