Saturday 24 March 2018

End of an era but Moloney name stays over the door

Galway is like a web that keeps on pulling you in

John Moloney and son Michael, who will take over as manager of Galway Racecourse when his father retires after this year’s festival
John Moloney and son Michael, who will take over as manager of Galway Racecourse when his father retires after this year’s festival
John Moloney with jockey Bryan Cooper and the new Galway Plate at the launch of this year’s festival
President Michael D Higgins visits the Galway Races last year with racecourse manager John Moloney (centre) and Terry Cunningham, chairman of the racecourse committee
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

When the last punter shuffles out at the close of the Galway Festival this year, it will signal the end of an era. Racecourse manager John Moloney will pull the gate after him for the last time. He'll work out a few more days to bring him up to his 65th birthday but after 26 years in charge of the track and 27 festivals, the time has come to move on.

Things have changed greatly in those times. His first year in charge amounted to little more than opening the gates and manning the turnstiles. But the modern Ballybrit is almost unrecognisable since then. More than €50m has been spent on the track, much of it at a time when money was hard to come by. Only the old Tote building survives in the original format and even that won't be around for too much longer. The place is moving forward. It has to.

Even when things were going bad, Galway found a way. The first development came in 1990 when money was scarce.

When the country was awash with cash and attendances at the track burst through the 200,000 mark in 2006, they kept making changes.

New stands, traffic and pedestrian facilities and a host of other smaller changes have been made, all with the aim of making the festival a better experience.

"People keep coming back and you want to give them something different every year," Moloney remarks. "The HRI [Horse Racing Ireland] have grant-aided a lot of it and they should be as proud of what they have here as the committee is."

"All the money has been reinvested in Galway. The committee has spent wisely."

What hasn't changed is the atmosphere of the place. Other than the switch from six to seven days of racing, the meeting and its people remain largely the same. Overseas bookings are up considerably but, crucially, Ballybrit has retained the same charm it always had.

That Moloney has been around to oversee it all is something of an accident."It was a job I never thought I'd be in for this long," he says. "We have been able to work together and the committee here has been great. It's been a great voyage for us all.

"There was always a great sense of pride when racing was finished here on the last day for another job well done. It's very different now to how it was. There's so much more to it with health and safety and all the different agencies involved. Over the years, a lot of the same people or their sons or daughters are working in catering or in the bookies or in whatever job. Galway is like a web - it pulls you in."

So what of the future? John Moloney moves on but the name will remain over the door as his son Michael will succeed him in the role.

His credentials look impeccable. As well as being around the Galway track all his life, he also worked as manager of Plumpton racecourse in England for four years.

"I think it's great that it will be in safe hands. He'll do as good a job if not better than me in looking after the place. I think the committee has made a good decision.

"He has been around here since he was four and he has done practically every job in the place, so he knows it well. I think his first job here was cutting the grass, it goes back that long.

"And his four years in Plumpton will stand to him and be very beneficial. Maybe he can bring some fresh ideas to the place."

Moloney Snr is in charge for a few more days yet. There have been many highlights, too many to remember off the top of his head.

But Dermot Weld's special week where he recorded a record number of winners stands out. The atmosphere in 2013 when Missunited won the Galway Hurdle was memorable too.

"The place just went wild. There was something about the excitement of the people. There was more people in the parade ring than you might get at a meeting. For some reason, everyone felt like they owned that horse. Dan and Vanessa Hutch were the owners and they were great - they let people share in it. That was a great day."

There have been other small victories too. Ensuring all 52 races secured sponsors even during the country's darkest days was no mean feat.

The quality of the fields taking part has improved too. As much as facilities for customers were upgraded, Moloney always made sure to take care of the the track. Having the venue in tip-top shape for jockeys, owners and trainers was as important as anything.

No stone was left unturned, in any new track development; for example, only a strain of grass native to Ballybrit would ever be used.

"That has been vitally important. We have always tried to improve that. And I think the calibre of horse that has been coming to Galway has been getting better too and that helps everything along."

And that has probably been the theme of his stewardship. Sometimes they took giant leaps while on others they made just incremental progress. Either way, Moloney always made sure Galway was moving forward.

And it's fitting that he signs off on a record-breaking year. The prize fund for the week's racing now stands at a staggering €1.8m and the Guinness Galway hurdle is worth €300,000 on its own.

By the week's end, he'll pass on the flame.

"There was 210,000 here in 2006," Moloney recalls.

"We've come back a bit since then. But through the Celtic Tiger and everything else, Galway has stood the test of time."

Irish Independent

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