Tuesday 20 August 2019

All the fun of the festival: Galway starts at gentle gallop as punters and politicians head to Ballybrit

Stylish: Antoinette O’Connell, of Limerick and Eilish McElroy, of Bodyke, Co Clare at the Galway Races festival. Photo: Ray Ryan
Stylish: Antoinette O’Connell, of Limerick and Eilish McElroy, of Bodyke, Co Clare at the Galway Races festival. Photo: Ray Ryan
Leo Varadkar with Halimi. Photo: Ray Ryan
Racegoer Karen Leonard, from Corofin, Co Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Chloe Broderick of Loughrea and Kathy Byrnes from Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

Melanie Finn in Ballybrit

The annual pilgrimage west started in earnest this week as politicians and punters alike converged on Ballybrit for the raucous festival dubbed 'Rag Week for adults'.

Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, racing aficionados beat a path to the Ballybrit racetrack to catch up with old pals and study the form.

It was easy to spot the veteran attendees as they arrived carrying umbrellas and wearing sensible footwear, leaving the vertiginous heels and fancy headpieces to the determined Ladies' Day devotees.

Looking stylish were friends Karen Leonard and Corina Hynes, both Galway natives who attend every year.

"I was frantically making the lunches for the kids' 'Cúl Camps' this morning and now I'm here so it's a lovely day out," Corina said.

And as is always the case down west, it was a case of four seasons in one day as proceedings got off to a sunny start with hopes high for some summer weather. But shortly before the Three Tenors took to the parade ring to sing the annual opening day anthem of 'The West's Awake', the heavens duly opened, sending racing fans fleeing for cover.

Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time Taoiseach Leo Varadkar landed in on the course to unveil a commemorative statue marking the course's 150 years in business.

He seemed in relaxed form as he posed for selfies, shook hands and met some enthusiastic members of the public, while gamely ignoring an ardent heckler who hung over the balcony of the champagne bar to repeatedly call his name.

The Taoiseach was a little behind though when it came to his betting game. He attempted to put a bet on number 14 in the second race before being politely informed by the bookie that the race had already been run.

After quickly consulting his phone, he then opted for number eight with a €10 each-way bet on the horse - which came in fourth.

"Good luck with Brexit," the bookie called after him as he pocketed the betting slip.

Despite the pressing matter of a possible phonecall with the newly elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to thrash out the backstop issue, he didn't look like he had a care in the world as he strolled around the course.

His press adviser said he wasn't taking any questions from members of the media as he "just wanted to enjoy his time".

A trip down to the stables did offer up a few chuckles though as he posed for a photo with Jim Bolger's mount Halimi, whose name the Taoiseach misheard.

"He's not named after the cheese is he?" he inquired, sparking a few twitters from the assembled press corps.

"No... I think it's an Arabic name," said Bolger's head man Ger Flynn, after a slight pause.

The slip-up didn't do the mount any harm though, with the 7/1 entry going on to win the sixth race of the day in assured fashion.

The Taoiseach reappeared for the feature race of the day, the Connacht Hotel Handicap, which went to Willie Mullins-trained Great White Shark, owned by newspaper boss Malcolm C Denmark.

Ridden superbly by 21-year-old jockey Jody Townend, she's not long back after a crippling back injury and her impressive win made it three-in-a-row for Mullins, aka the 'King of Ballybrit', having won the same race two years previously.

Among those spotted enjoying a day out at the races were Mr Ireland Wayne Walsh alongside newly elected MEP and former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh.

Irish Independent

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