Saturday 25 May 2019

Festival to reap bumper harvest from Brooks' Croke Park no-show

Richard Forristal

When Pope John Paul II descended on the racecourse in Ballybrit 35 years ago, it was estimated that he was greeted by a crowd just shy of 300,000.

For all Pope Francis' far-reaching popularity, you'd wonder if the current Vatican incumbent would muster such a swell in modern Ireland.

If he donned a Stetson, a pair of tight jeans and belted out a few catchy tunes on an amped-up guitar, maybe his chances would be enhanced, because around 400,000 yee-hawing country music fans had committed to worshipping at the altar of Garth Brooks until bureaucracy won out.

Ostensibly, there is no relation between Brooks and the seven days of frenetic activity that will get under way in Galway this evening.

Still, it's not hard to picture some enthusiastic hand-rubbing by those in need at the suburban venue when the plug was finally pulled on Brooks' overflowing Croke Park bath a few weeks ago.


Suddenly, 400,000 lost souls might need somewhere to let off steam during the last week of July, and there are worse sources of unbridled merriment than Ballybrit's hallowed turf.

With the World Cup out of the way to boot, the western gala's enduring charm has the stage all to itself.

Goodwood will complement Galway's unique appeal with a dash of Pimms-soaked, sun-kissed, Panama hat-adorned quality from Wednesday, but it is ever thus.

Better that than an unequal three-way joust between Galway, Goodwood and Garth.

Between now and Sunday, the turning, undulating course will play host to a compelling fusion of middling on-track fare that bears little rational correlation with the masses that pay in to witness it.

Along with the street entertainment that colours the Tribal City's cobbled streets, it is an indecipherable phenomenon that sways to its own inimitable rhythm.

Dare we say it, it's a cheer that chases the blues away. Here are seven strands that could shape proceedings – one for each day of rampant gaiety.

Bit of sideshow drama never very far away

Maybe it's because it falls in the height of silly season, but Galway has a tendency to create a bit of an off-track stir.

In 2011, we had the The Real Article fiasco ahead of the Galway Hurdle, an unwelcome sideshow that never came to the crescendo it might have had the horse won the feature race after its dubious Tipperary defeat.

A year later, Torphichen had to be scratched from the Plate field after it emerged he wasn't eligible.

Then, in 2013 there was the withdrawal of one of the JP McManus-owned legion in the Plate – a development that paved the way for the heavily gambled favourite Carlingford Lough to take its place under AP McCoy.

With many punters on side, his win constituted a swashbuckling gamble, while at the same time exposing another chink in the rule book. There's always something.

It's gambles galore - so follow the money

Galway is about the only festival that can compete with Cheltenham in March as the destination of choice for the culmination of a plot. Every year, swathes of horses are laid out for Ballybrit. Races are targeted far in advance, and there's nothing like the whiff of a well-executed coup at the roadside venue. Carlingford Lough's epic triumph was the most famous last year, but it was one of an array of successful punts. Follow the money.

Future stars makes their bones in Galway

Notwithstanding that the overall standard of horse plying its trade at Galway tends to be modest, the place has been graced by some exceptional future stars, from Go And Go, Media Puzzle and Grey Swallow to Monty's Pass and Treasure Beach.

Last year, this summer's Royal Ascot winners Domination and Pique Sous were beaten there, while Weld's Royal winner Mustajeeb did win, as did his Classic-placed stablemate, Tarfasha.

The subsequent Cheltenham winner Spring Heeled was just thwarted at Ballybrit in 2013, and the Hurdle heroine Missunited went on to achieve international fame by nearly bringing down the house in Ascot's Gold Cup.

Carlingford Lough and Rebel Fitz complemented their Galway wins by aggregating three Grade Ones, so the challenge is to identify the quality before it is confirmed.

Weld to be given a run for his money again

The only market for the leading trainer award this week is one that bets without Dermot Weld.

If the outcome is inevitable, though, the journey might throw up a few twists, as the Curragh genius has been firing on all cylinders since March.

It will be fascinating to see what consequences that has on his haul, which hit a record high of 17 in 2012. Will it mean that he has slightly less up his sleeve, or that his team's prolificacy will render him even more untouchable? It's impossible to say.

Weld claimed his 27th trainers' gong with 11 winners in 2013, but Tony Martin served it up to him for much of the week, his total of eight including three for the versatile mare Busted Tycoon, a feat not even Weld had managed before.

Martin might struggle to replicate such a yield, but things could get interesting if someone did.

Can Geraghty finally claim one of the big two?

Of the six active jump jockeys who have been crowned champion on either side of the Irish Sea, Barry Geraghty is the only one still waiting for a triumph in one of Galway's two showpiece events.

With Paul Carberry and Ruby Walsh among a raft of sidelined riders, he should have plenty of options this time.

Philip Dempsey's Jacksonslady, which he steered into third for his only place finish in the Plate 12 months ago, might be one, while Nicky Henderson's Laudatory and Jessica Harrington's Macnicholson will come into the mix in the Hurdle – a race he has made the frame in three times. The ultimate big-race king is due a turn in Ballybrit.

An end to plummeting attendance figures

It is wrong to use Galway as a barometer for gauging the condition of racing's general well-being. Still, it is an indicator of sorts that often reflects not just the game's status, but also gives us a snapshot of the economy at large.

An attendance of 216,942 in 2006 was a record high. Last year's tally of 137,818 was down 36pc on that, the worst total in more than 10 years. Rock bottom must be somewhere on the horizon, and a 5pc rise in the recent six-month industry stats is a source of hope. In fairness, it would help if the monsoons stayed away for a change.

Rembering Colm

It will be a year on Wednesday since Colm Murray lost his long and dignified battle with motor neurone disease. The immensely popular and approachable television presenter was a racing aficionado to his core.

Having graduated from University College Galway in 1972, race week in Ballybrit held a special place in his affections, so his departure 12 months ago was poignant.

He will be missed by all who were lucky enough to encounter him, and more besides.

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