Stephen Fernane reflects on one of the best Listowel Races in recent times as people came out from under the shadow of COVID to enjoy one of life’s best social retreats.
Two years of COVID restrictions did little to diminish what we already know to be true: that a seven-day Listowel Harvest Festival is an absolute necessity in life.
If you don’t believe me, just ask any of the 90,000 or so people who visited The Island to enjoy an occasion unlike any other in the long and storied history of horse racing in Ireland. Throw in the fact that it’s worth around €15 million a year to the local economy.
It’s saying something when Sam Maguire’s long-awaited return to Listowel Races – akin to the days of old - wasn’t even the main attraction.
The Punchestown Festival in April and the Galway Festival in July still hold their ground in terms of week-long festivals and do so incredibly well. But this past week proves once and for all that Listowel Races is on another level.
The entire seven days is a physical and spiritual deliverance from the burden of day-to-day life; an occasion that has evolved magnificently in its 164-year history without ever comprising a scintilla of what makes it good.
Crowds on the opening day of the meeting produced the best start in over 15 years, while Saturday broke all final-day attendance stats. In between, The Guinness Kerry National drew a crowd north of 25,000 on Wednesday, with Ladies Day going one better with 27,000 people passing through the gates on Friday.
All this is about more than just a place where people go for enjoyment. It symbolised the reawakening of a social ritual that we took for granted prior to 2020 when our world momentarily stopped.
I covered the Listowel Races during the depths of COVID restrictions. Let me tell you that it was far from a pleasant experience. Racing before empty stands and enclosures feels like paradise lost. But all that’s a memory now, swept away by the week that was.
As always, the crowds at Listowel Races represent every stratum of humanity. It takes us in and reshapes us in its own image, no matter how watertight one’s preconceptions of ‘self’ might be.
To go to Listowel Races is to surrender and become part of a collective cavalcade of passion and fashion – a tiny friction-less corner of the world where absolutely everyone is at the same fever pitch of dizzy appreciation for being alive, for being there.
A measure of the meeting’s reputation was apparent from the moment I exited my car on Wednesday. Two men from County Roscommon tucked into sandwiches after a 240km journey to Listowel. There’s no need for satnav when you’ve been coming to Listowel Races for over 35-years.
Another couple from County Carlow, who stayed in a Tralee hotel, put it all down to the late summer sunshine as they queued to collect their winnings courtesy of Busselton in the Kerry National. Listowel Races has always been one of the best kept secrets around these parts, yet we sometimes overlook its significance for people beyond the Kingdom’s borders.
Listowel looks after its own, too. Monday marked the return of the native when local jockey Brendan Lyons rode his first winner under National Hunt Rules on Well Funded in The Adare Manor Opportunity Handicap Hurdle for trainer Eoin McCarthy. Friday saw Dingle native and trainer Michael Kennedy send out Presenting J to land The Shanahan EBF INH Flat Race.
Even though The Island produced its best last week, Listowel Race Company Chairman Pat Healy will be first to admit that no man is an island. The popular racing photographer has held the chairmanship for three consecutive years, the first in its history to do so.
Pat’s affable and gregarious personality is precisely what Listowel Races needed during the disappointing COVID festivals; a time when Pat kept the faith and told us all that Listowel Races would still be here. He was right. And it was only fitting his swan song should be a festival to beat the band.
Pat’s immediate reaction is to give thanks to ‘the three aces’ in the pack: Race Secretary Brenda Daly, Enclosure Manager John Sheehan, and Head Groundsman Dan O’Connell.
“They do an unbelievable job; you couldn’t fault them. They make it what it is. Brenda deals with everything. We have a fantastic race committee and I’m delighted for them. I’m over the moon for the town of Listowel," he said.
"This is a community race meeting, one that locals embrace. The town looked immaculate. That’s all down to the locals. They want to welcome everyone to Listowel.”
On the COVID years, Pat believes this will fade into The Island’s long and illustrious racing history.
“Time will show that the racecourse came through it. That’s what matters,” he said.
“For the ordinary race-goer, who couldn’t come to Listowel for the last two years, they came this year. They were rewarded with a brilliant and fantastic race meeting. It’s all about our customer, you want them to have a memorable and happy day. I think we did this over the seven days.
“I’m indebted to David Fitzmaurice [vice-chairman] for giving me the opportunity to stay on an extra year. I also thank my fellow directors. They are great bunch of people who work hard. We do what we do for the good of the Harvest Festival,” Pat said.