Saturday 17 March 2018

A good Galway, but not a great one

Despite a hugely successful week, talk of recovery is still premature

Baraweez and Colm O'Donoghue (in orange) dig deep to hold off fellow raider Jack's Revenge to win yesterday's feature at Galway. Photo credit should read: PA Wire
Baraweez and Colm O'Donoghue (in orange) dig deep to hold off fellow raider Jack's Revenge to win yesterday's feature at Galway. Photo credit should read: PA Wire
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

There was good and bad in the fact that Missunited managed to animate the crowd in Ballybrit more with her stirring performance at Goodwood than any of the week's indigenous events in Galway.

On the one hand, it was at the western venue 12 months earlier that Mick Winters' brave mare captured the public imagination.

She will be forever synonymous with Galway, so it was great to see her achieve such acclaim on the international Flat stage. Missunited was a heroic race-mare, and a large portion of Thursday's revellers in Ballybrit responded raucously to her big-screen thriller.

However, the big races in Galway failed to generate the same level of euphoria.

There is no doubt it was a hugely successful week, with all the critical figures up, helped in no small part by the decent weather that held out until Friday, despite cloud-filled, thundery skies threatening since Monday.

Prior to yesterday's tallies, the crowd and bookmaker returns were up 9pc and 10pc, with the Tote up 18pc, although that figure is skewed slightly by foreign pools.

Excluding last year's washout, this year's six-day attendance was also up 5pc on 2012, and the Tote was up 13pc on two years ago.

The bookmakers' take was down 3pc on 2012, reaffirming that talk of green shoots should be taken with a pinch of salt for now, as we are starting from a low and volatile base. Hopefully, the decline of the past eight years is beginning to abate, but talk of substantial recovery is still premature.


There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence to corroborate that many at grassroots level continue to struggle and the recently published six-month industry statistics confirm that total on-course betting, sponsorship, horses in training, active owners, entries and runners all remain in contraction.

In that sense, it was refreshing to see RTE's Robert Hall not give Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive Brian Kavanagh a free ride in a televised interview during the week. As ever, Kavanagh sought to put a positive spin on the industry's difficulties.

Hall wasn't willing to indulge him, grilling him on issues such as one-sided, small-field graded races, the "very, very oddly shaped pyramid of excellence" pertaining to same, the decline of the owners' pool and the HRI's ongoing inexplicable refusal to accept Betfair's money.

You wouldn't expect Hall to get any meaningful solutions – "that's the challenge" was as much of a concession as he got – but it was good to see the man responsible for the game's affairs challenged by the national broadcaster.

Hall had his homework done, and he didn't mind pointing out that the main reason for a 5pc swell in the six-month attendances had a lot to do with the good work done for festivals such as Galway and Punchestown – and favourable weather has certainly helped both.

Moreover, judging by the swathes that still trudged in after the third and fourth races all week, the sense that much of the festival clientele don't come for the racing is hard to shake off. That is a pity.

The bleeding of owners was reflected in the pre-eminence of perennial champions JP McManus – who sadly lost the 2012 Plate hero Bob Lingo and Kid Cassidy to fatal injuries – and Gigginstown House Stud this week.

Both were heavily represented and amassed an aggregate 10 winners, as Gigginstown claimed the Plate with Road To Riches and McManus the Hurdle with Thomas Edison.

Yet both showpiece winners received underwhelming receptions, which was particularly surprising in the case of Thomas Edison, given that he was seemingly so well backed.

It's not easy to pinpoint why there was such indifference. It may have had something to do with the sense of it being the same old faces, but the domination of a small percentage of owners is not new and the game would be in a far worse state were it not for such influential figures.

Maybe the lack of a pulsating finish to either of the two marquee events was partly to blame, as both Road To Riches and Thomas Edison hacked up. Or it may have been to do with the demographic of the crowd, but in recent years the roof has been lifted off the place despite torrential weather. Shucks, maybe we are just happier when it is raining. Who knew?


Martin's status as Ballybrit maestro growing rapidly

Whether Dermot Weld's general prolificacy this year would impact on his Galway haul was a point of debate before the event and you'd have to conclude that it did – but only to a minimal effect.

The Rosewell House maestro saddled nine winners to land his 28th leading trainers' title and he had a number of near misses as well. On the other hand, a few disappointed, and Antique Platinum was arguably lucky to keep the maiden that she won after leaning all over her rivals in the straight.

For the first time since 2010, Weld plundered none of the seven premier handicaps and he was on the verge of departing with none of the National Hunt races for a first time since 2007 until Windsor Park cantered home in the lucky last yesterday.

In a general sense, he was certainly less dominant than he has been in recent years and again it was Tony Martin who gave him most to think about.

You could speculate forever on why exactly the frustrating Thomas Edison failed to show his true colours over hurdles for two years, but, whichever way you interpret his 11 defeats since his Bellewstown maiden win, the net result is that it was a training performance of exquisite proportions.

It was the first time in 10 starts that he was sent off favourite over flights and he delivered on expectations in style, replicating John Kiely's similarly timely feat in the 2013 Plate with McManus' Carlingford Lough, a maiden over fences that failed to win in eight previous tries.

Like Kiely and Weld, Martin is becoming something of a Ballybrit legend, winning three of the first four feature races en route to a final tally of six.

Noel Meade falls into the very same bracket and Road To Riches' triumph ensured that the man who has topped the table in Ballybrit on six occasions has now won each of the week's majors at least once.

Aidan O'Brien and Willie Mullins both departed with three winners apiece and Stephen Mahon performed the not insignificant feat of winning two chases – including the Galway Blazers – in two days with Aranhill Chief, which was one of two popular local winners, the other being Iggy Madden's Cairdiuil, which landed a fine touch from 25/1 into 9/1.

Johnny Murtagh, Tom Mullins and Denis Hogan also deserve a special mention for their endeavours, while Paul Townend claimed the leading riders' gong courtesy of some tremendous efforts en route to five winners.

As ever seems to be the case, claiming riders excelled around the suburban venue's unique turns, with Shane Shortall emerging as a serious prospect with his composed steer on Road To Riches.

Gary Halpin, Sean Corby, Conor Hoban, Leigh Roche, Ross Coakley, Brian Hayes, Johnny Burke and Finny Maguire also enhanced their growing reputations.


Handicapping system set for major tweak

A couple of interesting sub-plots to emerge from the week in Galway involved a potential game-changing tweak to the handicapping system and a case of a potential flapper.

When Dermot Weld entered Timiyan for Monday's 12-furlong handicap, the handicapper withdrew the mark of 77 that he had allotted it on the basis of three modest runs at up to nine furlongs.

While the rating was reinstated on objection from the trainers' association and Timiyan duly improved significantly for the step-up in trip to sluice up, it subsequently emerged that the Turf Club still plans to implement a policy – probably next year – whereby a rating will not be allocated to horses that are deemed to have earned their marks over the 'wrong' trip.

Suffice to say it will be interesting how that unfolds.

Timiyan's mark wasn't the only phantom to come to people's attention in Ballbrit, with Paul Gilligan's Dubawi Phantom withdrawn by order of the stewards on Wednesday after the Turf Club's senior security officer Chris Gordon stated that he had witnessed the horse participate in a flapping race at Dingle last august ridden by Liam Gilligan.

Athenry-based Gilligan claimed that he only purchased the horse in November and, while acknowledging that a photograph that Gordon supplied of the Dingle horse with "distinctive" markings looked similar, he refuted the suggestion that they were the same animal.

The matter is now to be pursued by the Referrals Committee.


Numbers game

1 - The number of winners that went for export this week, Baraweez's triumph for Brian Ellison under Colm O'Donoghue yesterday the only one.


Tweet of the weekend

@GerLyonsRacing:Happy birthday @JoeFoleyBally No nothing funny to say. I respect the elderly. HGD

Ger Lyons yesterday has a tongue-in-cheek pop at Ballyhane Stud's Joe Foley, whose wife Jane saddled Surreal to win in Galway on Tuesday.

"The impetuosity of youth!!" was Foley's response, before Lyons promptly berated the "old person" for using big words that he doesn't understand.

Pretty normal fare for two of racing's more irreverent Twitter contributors.

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