Ballybrit is back, as the world-famous Galway Races get under starter’s orders on Monday with capacity crowds returning.
This year’s festival has an added sparkle for Galway racing fans after last year’s was limited to just 1,000 spectators a day, while the 2020 festival was entirely behind closed doors.
Next week, 130,000 people are expected at the racecourse, but it’s not just the punters who are giddy to get going.
Not many people skip merrily into work at 5am, but Michael Moloney, the CEO of Galway Racecourse, said he has been walking the course bright and early every morning this week.
“The last two years have been very strange for us. While we were somewhat open in 2021, it wasn’t the same,” he said.
“We have hundreds of people on site today putting the final touches in place, and it looks great. It’s such a big effort from everybody. And to get that sense of anticipation and excitement back is great, it’s what we live for.
“We have a small team – there are 10 people here full-time – and it has been a tough three years.
“When we finish one festival we’re quickly planning the next, and the hype and excitement of one carries us on to the following year.
“We feel very privileged that the Galway Races have been running since 1869, and the festival holds a special place in Irish life.
“Everybody knows about the Galway Races. It’s almost impossible to meet an Irish person who hasn’t been here at some stage in their life.
“For some people, it’s the first date in their diary every year.
“And another great part of it is the Galway diaspora worldwide, who choose to come home for the races.
“It’s about meeting people, getting together with your friends and maybe seeing people you haven’t seen since the previous year. There is a bit of magic there.
“You have everybody from toddlers in a buggy and people in their senior years and everybody in between all enjoying their day out.”
Mr Moloney’s enthusiasm for the festival has only grown since that dark day in April 2020 when the reality of the pandemic hit home.
“It was April 12. The date is stuck in my mind because it was the worst thing I have ever had to do as long as I am working here,” he said.
“I had to press ‘Send’ on the email announcing we were going behind closed doors. It was gut-wrenching to send that email.
“But at the same time, we were fortunate we did race, and even though there was nobody here except the participants, it was great to be racing.
“You walk into the weighing room here in Ballybrit, and on the wall is the list of past winners of the Galway Plate, which has been running since 1869.
“And the only year that was missing was during the height of the Civil War.
“We raced through both world wars, so not losing a year is something I am grateful for.
“And in 2020, we were one of the few sporting events that did go ahead when all other team sports had all been cancelled.”
The late nights and early mornings, the endless phone calls, meetings and arrangements come easy to the Galway Races staff.
Mr Moloney said: “These few weeks are why we do this job and why we love it. There is pressure, and it’s certainly full on for these few weeks. We are all doing 14- to 15-hour days at the moment.
“I’ll be here on site every morning at dawn to walk the course and then home again at midnight. So it doesn’t add up to many hours of sleep, but that’s fine.
“After the past few years, it’s extra special for me to see people coming through the gates again and to see people enjoying themselves.
“Life has changed, the outdoors are more part and parcel of life, and we have lots of new facilities around the enclosure.
“We have a new Guinness village and a new parade ring lounge and we have enhanced how we offer food and drinks to people. We also have more seating.
“Racing is obviously at the centre of what we do here, but a lot of people come to Galway just for the social occasion. And we have a huge list of entertainment right throughout the week. We have 50 music acts and various areas around the course.
“We have a huge family day on Sunday – July 31 – and I think this one will be bigger and better than ever.
“We have a huge amount of free entertainment for children on Sunday. It is the day we bring our future racegoers to Galway and look after them.”
While every moment of the festival week is precious to Mr Moloney, there is one point every year that he holds dear.
“I usually watch the Galway Plate on the stewards’ stand, which is right on the track, and you look back on the grandstand,” he said.
“To see a big crowd on the bandstands cheering home a Galway Plate or Galway Hurdle winner as they come up the hill with a tight finish, that to me is when our work is complete.
“That’s the memory for me every year, standing there and looking back at the crowd, watching them cheer home a winner. It’s a great feeling.”