Festival Outlook - Richard Forristal
A Festival that's much more than the sum of all its parts
One of the curious things about the Galway Races is just how much can be going on during a week of programmes that might be considered mundane in any other setting.
It may be comprised largely of modest maidens and inconceivably competitive handicaps, but it is always a festival rinsed with so many intriguing plots and sub-plots that somehow it never makes for less than compelling viewing. Last year, Mick Winters and his band of merry men from Kanturk lit the old place up courtesy of Rebel Fitz's dramatic Guinness Galway Hurdle coup under Davy Russell.
In 2011, Dermot Weld brought the house down with a mindboggling record of 17 winners. The same year, storm clouds gathered as The Real Article tackled the featured €260,000 Hurdle after a hapless Turf Club hearing left the regulator with egg on its face, following the horse's contentious effort at Tipperary 11 days earlier.
Be it mammoth gambles or small handicapping minutiae, whatever your bent, nowhere beats Ballybrit in the height of summer for ephemeral drama. Here are seven strands that could play a part in this year's narrative – one for every day of the week.
Seven things to look out for in Galway
1. Connor to be heralded as the next King of Ballybrit
With endless opportunities for run-of-the-mill horses and a disproportionate amount of coverage and media exposure, Galway has an unfailing tendency to accelerate the progress of one or other young rider every year.
This time round, Colin Keane, Luke Dempsey, Sam James and Shane Kelly are among the names that could be thrust skyward, but the prodigy that comes into the week already soaring is Connor King.
Just 16 years old, the former pony racing champion is due to begin studying for his Leaving Certificate exams in September. However, he has set the summer alight by showing poise and composure beyond his years to establish a yawning lead over last term's exceptional champion apprentice Ronan Whelan in the young riders' table.
Right now, the irrepressible Kilbrin, Co Cork native is the man every trainer wants on their side. It should pay dividends for Ballybrit punters to take a similar approach.
2. In-form Cleary in for an emotional week
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of Sean Cleary's tragic death following a fall at the October meeting in Galway. The 22-year-old apprentice enjoyed a brilliant double at the summer Festival months earlier, so his family has an inevitable and enduring emotional attachment to the western venue.
In 2004, there was a poignant void when Sean's brother Rory was catapulted into the limelight courtesy of a barnstorming Festival treble. Four years later, with the boys' father Thomas Cleary now a licensed trainer, there were further touching scenes when he and Rory combined with Miranda's Girl to plunder a famous Galway brace.
This term, both Thomas and Rory are in the midst of fantastic campaigns. Sweet Annathea, Sophies Echo, General Bunching are all recent winners for Thomas' Athlone stable and each one will travel west at least once, starting from tomorrow. The week is unlikely to pass without occasion for the Clearys' heart-rending bond with an already spiritual venue to be further reinforced.
3. Blooming broody mares
By way of a compliment, it's often said of a pregnant woman that she is blooming. Well, pregnancy can also have a positive effect on racehorses, with mares in foal frequently clocking up winning runs during a 120-day period after being covered.
This year, Knockcroghery, Oilily, New River, Legal Lyric and Via Ballycroy have excelled during term, winning eight times between them. Tonight, Knockcroghery is on a four-timer in the big race. It will be fascinating to see if she can continue the trend.
4. A bit less figurative poundage up horses' sleeves
When The Real Article controversy unfolded in 2011, the system that saw the weights for big handicaps published in advance got caught in the crossfire. Last year, Rebel Fitz's Galway Hurdle coup was a triumph for that system – and honest endeavour.
Mick Winters' star won the same Grimes Hurdle in Tipperary that threw up The Real Article shenanigans 12 months earlier, but he took his six-pound penalty on the chin, and showed himself to be value for it by following up in Galway's marquee event.
Undeterred by a sample of one, the handicappers have now tweaked the system, delaying publication of the entries by a week so that they could frame the major handicaps after the traditional trials had been run.
The net result is that trainers are no longer incentivised not to win so as to avoid a mandatory and discretionary penalty.
5. A break from the silly season
Stewards should be like referees – if they are doing a good job, you should hardly notice them. Too often at this time of a campaign, though, silly season prevails.
This year, we had the disqualification of a runaway winner at Sligo, as well as an unpunished ride in defeat at the same track that could easily be described as suspect.
There was a controversial disqualification in Killarney, followed by that peculiar withdrawal at the stewards' request of the 'plunge' horse Like A Diamond in Ballinrobe. A day later at the same venue, a kid got hit with a 50-day ban for being beaten on a horse that should have won, yet a farcical race at Leopardstown saw experienced riders get token four-day bans for their ill-judged efforts.
As if that isn't all bizarre enough, Danny Mullins was handed a 14-day ban – reduced to 10 on appeal – for apprehending an Order of Malta vehicle at Bellewstown.
Now, we aren't passing judgment on those decisions one way or another here, but it would be nice to get through the next week without such sideshows – although some moderate horses on a twisty, undulating track is a recipe for disaster.
6. An end to the plummeting attendance figures?
When the six-month industry figures were released recently, the authorities accentuated the positives as best they could, with the apparent stabilisation of attendances (up 0.6pc) one of the chief indicators highlighted for its positive turn.
The fact that the Punchestown Festival was run off without interruption in glorious sunshine and the recent heatwave were acknowledged as being contributory factors in that, and the hope is that a dry week in Ballybrit would have a similar effect.
Depending on your source, the 2012 total for the week in Galway was down between 8pc and 11pc year-on-year.
Horse Racing Ireland has the 2012 gate coming in at 144,315 in their annual Fact Book, but the track itself had the tally at 135,480 following the event last year. Either figure is by some way the lowest in over 10 years, down by as much as 37.5pc on the 2006 peak of 216,942. Time to stop the rot.
7. And an urgent need to get Wednesday's opener off on time
Provided the ground remains good or quicker, Wednesday's curtain-raising maiden hurdle should take less than four minutes to complete. That gives officials up to a minute's leeway to avoid vexing the Flat racing enthusiasts in attendance.
The Galway opener is pencilled in for 3.0. At Goodwood five minutes later, the small matter of round three between Dawn Approach and Toronado in the Sussex Stakes is due to get under way. With Declaration Of War also in the mix, it promises to be a showdown of epic proportions. Horses at the ready, lads!