Monday 11 December 2017

10 of Galway's greatest moments

Damien McElroy

Having attended summer festivals in Galway for over 40 years, initially as a spectator and mostly in a journalistic role for the Irish Independent, the annual visit to Ballybrit is full of great memories of outstanding feats by a variety of horses and riders.

Hearing from lifelong friend John Daly of a final-fence injury to Western Problem that eased Royal Day's path to a second Plate triumph in 1969 and watching the Lough Mask trainer later scoring over hurdles with Proud Madam and Ballymac Lad only served to whet the appetite.

So here's a selection of the top 10 occasions on which either of the traditional highlights of the meeting, the Galway Plate or the following afternoon's Guinness Hurdle, left an indelible impression on this observer:

1975 marked a historic renewal of the Guinness Handicap Hurdle when the sheer volume of runners declared (36) obliged the authorities to divide the Thursday showpiece to suitably accommodate the record level of interest from the various connections.

The first division of the contest proved a bonanza for punters and a nightmare for the layers when the formidable father-and-son team of Clem and Colin Magnier combined to land a huge gamble with 6/4 hotpot Double Default.

The second half provided only marginal relief for the layers as 10/1 chance Spanner, with Peter Russell up, enhanced this horse's Galway strike rate for a youthful Dermot Weld, whose late father Charlie had won the prize a decade earlier with Ticonderoga.

1978 featured an initial sweet taste of Galway glory in the Plate for enthusiastic young Limerick owner JP McManus with Shining Flame, which he had purchased from the Wexford hurling legend Nicky Rackard.

Backed down to 4/1 and partnered by Niall 'Boots' Madden, then still riding as an amateur, Shining Flame defeated Kilkilwell and 22 others to become the first of three Plate winners in just four years for emerging Tipperary trainer Edward O'Grady.

1982 saw the emergence of another subsequent champion handler about to take the fixture by storm as Noel Meade, operating with his trademark mixed team, saddled the four-year-old Pinch Hitter to take the Guinness Hurdle as a 25/1 chance. Ridden once more by Jonjo O'Neill, the gelding returned as a 7/2 firm favourite to record back-to-back hurdle successes that, along with the similarly versatile Steel Duke, helped to make a lasting, indelible impression here for the Meade runners.

1987 will forever be recalled as the first occasion a lady trainer was responsible for the Plate winner, as Miss Anne Collen hit the target with her father Standish's Randoss (6/1) under Ken Morgan, with the following year's victor Afford A King in third place.

For good measure, in the 1989 version their father had the unique distinction of his younger daughter Sarah partnering the Jim Dreaper-trained Bold Flyer to an 8/1 triumph over showjumper Eddie Macken's Another Plano.

1988 in between those Collen success stories, Galway Race Committee's healthy five-figure incentive for any winner of Monday night's GPT amateur race also scoring in Thursday's Guinness Hurdle was snared by Marty Dunne's Try A Brandy (4/1) with Harry Rogers up.

Another shrewd owner-trainer, Willie Fennin, emulated that particularly noteworthy -- indeed lucrative -- double two years later to the delight of Galway regulars when Tom Taaffe did the steering on their 9/4 "steamer" Athy Spirit.

1995/'96 were particularly noteworthy years in the Galway Plate's roll of honour as Spiddal hotelier MJ Clancy's Life Of A Lord came home in front each time to signal the emergence of Wexford's Aidan O'Brien as a rare talent.

Close associates Trevor Horgan and Charlie Swan were the successful riders in turn as Life Of A Lord became the first winner in successive years since Phonsie O'Brien and Stan Mellor struck with Ross Sea in 1964-'65.

1997 underscored Aidan O'Brien's ability to prepare big-race victors when he captured the Guinness Hurdle with the syndicate-owned Toast The Spreece as a 12/1 outsider of the 20-runner field in the hands of another record-breaker, Tony McCoy.

2000 saw one of O'Brien's formerly successful patrons Seamus O'Farrell doing the business from his Kilkenny stable in the Guinness promotion as owner, trainer and breeder of the 14/1 chance Perugino Diamond.

Jim Culloty was aboard the four-year-old, whose handy weight of 9st8lbs was fully exploited when, following a minor intervention tactically from yours truly, they sprinted from the second-last hurdle to decisively put the outcome beyond doubt.

2001 featured another lightly weighted performer Ansar (6/1) starting to endear himself to the Ballybrit crowds by landing the Guinness Hurdle for the highly accomplished partnership of Weld and Paul Carberry.

Equally adept on the Flat, over timber and fences, this remarkably durable gelding established himself as a modern-day Galway hero when taking the Plate at 10/1 in 2004 and 2005 for the Weld yard, with David Casey and Denis O'Regan then sharing the limelight.

2004 was a rarity where the leading rider of the Festival is concerned, with those habitual winners Michael Kinane and Pat Smullen usurped for the week's accolade by apprentice Rory Cleary, thanks to three scorers and a host of placed horses.

It was a poignant breakthrough for the fresh-faced Athlone pilot and his family, however, as the previous September older brother Sean had suffered what proved to be a fatal fall when likewise race-riding around Ballybrit.

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