It’s a cross between a county final, St Patrick’s Day and a giant open air wedding reception. It’s the Magic Lads beating the big boys and the Shark moving in for the kill. It’s middle-aged couples jiving frenetically to ‘The Crack Was Ninety In The Isle of Man’ and youngsters hopping up and down to ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’. It’s the old style Hollywood glamour of ladies’ day dresses but also flip-flops for a fiver when feet ache too much in high heels.
It’s inimitable, irresistible and infamously tricky for the punter. It’s the Galway Races. There’s nothing quite like it.
The contrast between the Galway and Goodwood Festivals, which run concurrently, illustrates a key difference between Irish and English racing. Glorious Goodwood features some of the most valuable horses in the world and takes place on the rolling Sussex Downs on a course owned by the Duke of Richmond whose country house stands nearby.
Galway, on the other hand, involves mostly moderate horses, is situated in a town whose hinterland includes some of the rockiest soil in Europe and is commemorated by a song whose most famous words are “with me whack fol de do fol de diddly idle day.” It’s all about the democratic rather than the aristocratic aspect of racing.
Take the Magic Lads, a band of friends from Trim whose horse Magic Chegaga is trained by Brian Duffy. Duffy has four horses in his yard and four winners to his name. He’s also from Trim, as is champion jockey Colin Keane who agreed to ride the horse in the second day’s feature race, the Colm Quinn BMW mile.
On the road to Galway Magic Chegaga’s horsebox broke down. They loaded him in with a stablemate in a churchyard in Rochfortbridge. “I really could have done without it,” said Duffy, who nipped into the church for a quick prayer.
It seemed a neat metaphor for the fate of Irish dreamers. You hope for the best, you make your plans and then your horsebox breaks down. But sometimes dreams come true and Keane brought Magic Chegaga through to win against a field which included horses trained by some of racing’s biggest names. The cheers greeting the victory were almost heard back in Meath.
The Galway Races is not for puritans. A puritan is, by one definition, someone who’s afraid that other people are enjoying themselves. And Ballybrit is packed with people having a whale of a time, from oul fellas who’ve been coming here for 60 years to the young lad working energetically on a teething ring as he’s wheeled along in front of the stand.
There’s a Londoner who’s been travelling over since the 1970s and whose hobby is collecting vintage horse racing games, Totopoly and the like. He scours e-bay to buy pieces for his sets from all over the world and takes photos of fences at Sandown Park to add verisimilitude to the backgrounds.
There’s a Canadian woman who’s never been to a race meeting before in her life and wants to know if the same horses race every day and if their jockeys have day jobs as well. This didn’t prevent her from backing a winner. “I bet on Rock Road because I like Rocky Road ice cream,” she reveals.
Maybe it’s as good a system as any. Galway lived up to its reputation as a punter’s graveyard with just three winning favourites in the first four days. Sometimes you could practically hear the air leaving the crowd as another outsider romped home.
This was good news for Danny Boy Racing, for Patsy Browne’s Boys, for Mc Coy — Accept No Substitutes, Star Sports — The Gentleman’s Bookmakers, Team Snell, Sam Stewart Belfast, McCartan, McGarrity, Deane, Flood, Desmond, O’Neill and all the other habitues of the betting ring.
As the young bookie Brian Keenan notes in his excellent blog: “Galway is the big one of the whole year. Lose in Galway and the winter feels very, very long. Watching horses come out of the dip in Ballybrit knowing the next two furlongs will decide if you spend three weeks in October on a beach somewhere warm or if you will spend it shovelling shit on the farm at home is not for everyone.”
By Thursday evening, sun tan lotion seemed several lengths clear of more noxious substances.
The eclipse of favourites owed much to a remarkable fightback by medium level Irish trainers. There’s been concern in recent years about Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, and to a lesser extent Henry de Bromhead and Joseph O’Brien, monopolising the big races and squeezing out trainers further down the ladder.
That’s why John ‘Shark’ Hanlon’s victory in the Galway Plate with Hewick was so cheering. An indomitable ex-cattle dealer from Carlow, Hanlon had been training for a decade and a half before notching his first Grade 1 win last year with a horse, Skyace, he’d bought for £600.
Hewick cost Hanlon £850 at a sale in Goresbridge. “I went home for a bit of grub and started thinking about the horse,” he recalled. “Then I came back and bought him.” The bargain buy held off O’Brien’s Darasso by half a length despite being forced against the rail by a loose horse on the run-in. The brilliant young Wexford jockey Jordan Gainford’s effort in getting Hewick home was the riding performance of the Festival.
Another famously canny operator, Tony Martin, also spiked the big guns when saddling Tudor City to take Thursday’s Guinness Hurdle at 22/1. This was the Meath man’s fourth Guinness Hurdle win in nine years, Tudor City providing his previous victory in 2019.
Even Willie Mullins seemed infected by the underdog spirit. Dads Lad, he admitted, had only been entered in a Tote sponsored maiden on Wednesday because his son Patrick thought it would be a nice day out for the Whitegrass Racing Syndicate which owns the horse.
The syndicate come mainly from Ferbane, in whose green and white GAA colours their horses run. It turned out a very nice day indeed for them. Dads Lad won at 28/1 thanks to an excellent ride from young jockey Ruth Dudfield who made her debut just four years ago.
At the other end of the scale experience-wise, the incomparable Davy Russell has never seemed more Davy Russell than when waiting till the last 100 yards of the Guinness Novices’ Hurdle to send Elliott’s Salvador Ziggy past the Mullins trained Hors Piste as another favourite bit the dust.
Russell is well acquainted with the risks of racing, terrifyingly illustrated on Thursday when Wesley Joyce was unseated after Red Heel stumbled in the Corrib Fillies Stakes. The 23-year-old Limerick jockey remains in intensive care at University Hospital Galway at the time of writing. Everyone wishes him well.
There seemed something intrinsically Galway about Thursday’s back-to-back victories for local owner Basil Holian with Visionarian and Soaring Monarch, both trained in Kildare by Peter Fahey. Holian is a former Galway minor hurler who, over the past two decades, built the high tech services company Westerwood Global into a multi-million euro enterprise.
Westerwood recently signed a major sponsorship deal with the Galway camogie team. That blend of technological sophistication and local pride seems like 21st century Ireland in a nutshell. A lot of things have changed since my grandfather walked the same route from Spiddal to Galway that I took last week. But perhaps the people haven’t changed all that much.
After his Plate victory, Hanlon noted that it was his elderly parents’ first day at the races in three years. Almost everyone I spoke to mentioned immediately that this was their first Galway Festival since 2019. After two years of Covid restrictions, the usual high spirits were accompanied by a heavy dose of gratitude.
The whole marvellous spectacle, the thunder of hooves on the turf, the ladies in their fabulous frocks, the lads in their Peaky Blinders caps, bookies in front of their boards, punters punching the air in the stands, pints being lowered and ice cream cones licked, couples remembering when they brought their children who are now bringing their kids, old friends bumping into each other, new friends being made, so many smiles on so many faces, brought to mind the great Jewish toast, ‘L’chaim’.
L’chaim means, “to life,” and the Galway Races are more than anything else a huge celebration of life. Of life and of people. What could be better?