Thursday 18 January 2018

Magical Ballybrit truly is a 'state of mind'

Despite rough post-boom press the allure and unique nature of the Galway races keep the crowds flocking

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

In the early throes of the recession, it wasn't unknown for the Galway Races to be sneeringly fingered for showcasing the perceived ills of our society, those grand twin delusions of wealth and extravagance.

Having become synonymous in the glory days with the Fianna Fail builders' tent, swarms of helicopters and hoards of common revellers, the annual week-long jaunt in Ballybrit was an easy target.

It was symbolic of the unedifying excess that brought the country to its knees, we were lectured, the implication being that economic meltdown would put the western racing extravaganza back in its place. Well, it never happened, or certainly not in the damning proportions that were forecast.

Last year, with the country at rock bottom, the guts of 145,000 people paid in to Galway. On the Thursday, 42,415 swelled its bowels, which means that the average attendance on the remaining six days, of which a couple were unseasonal washouts, was in excess of 17,000 -- not quite the ghost estate predicted.

The Galway Races are a national treasure, a unique phenomenon that amount to something far more substantial than a lazy barometer of faux affluence. Sure, they fed off the heady razzmatazz of the good times, but that was only to supply the demand. It was never a dependency.

When the Galway races first assumed festival status over two days back in 1869, legend has it that an incredible 40,000 people turned up. Since then, it has grown and grown, the final flourish of a seventh day being added in 1999.

Attendance peaked, like everything else, in 2006 at 210,000, so last year's tally was down 30pc on that dizzy height. Essentially, that was little more than a necessary correction, and it's worth pointing out that only a couple of years ago some were calling for an eighth day, the August Bank Holiday Monday, to be added to proceedings.

Such is the extraordinary allure of a gala that defies any conventional explanation. There isn't another sporting occasion in the country that attracts spectators in such droves and, if there were, the quality of that event might have something to do with it.

Not so at Galway. Out of 51 races, there isn't a single Group or Graded-class contest to be found. Modest maidens, summer novices and seasoned handicappers are the food of consumption. If it's high-end fare you're looking for, you'll have wandered into the wrong mess hall.

Galway offers something entirely different, almost intangible, to any other modern-day sporting hooley. Arguably, that is its very appeal.

Over the course of the week, the Flat will mingle seamlessly with the jumps, the flat-capped racing enthusiast will rub shoulders with the Best Dressed Lady fashionista, and the €5 punter will compete with the big players for the best prices.

In the Tribal City's thronged pedestrianised avenues, any culture heads still loitering from the previous week's Arts Festival will share in the abandon of the masses, while the unsuspecting random tourist will never quite understand the mayhem of it all. How could they?

You just wouldn't find such a veritable mish-mash of carry-on anywhere else. Be it food, drink, street entertainment or simply a plain old good time you're after, Galway has something for everyone.

The cash has been put aside all year, and grown-ups let loose. Fixed as it is in the peak holiday period, or what used to trade as the builders' holiday, it consistently attracts non-racing clientele on an annual pilgrimage.

Work, banking crises and political hoo-ha are all given short shrift. Escapism, and whatever else you're having, will be the order of the day -- every day.

Lest we forget, there is also the racing. Indeed, nothing is more curious than the on-course activity. While there is a total prize fund of €1.8m, only a handful of races, such as Wednesday's Plate and Thursday's Hurdle, carry real prestige.

And yet, the place is a bear pit of breakneck competitiveness. When it comes to laying one out for a big day, only Cheltenham in March can compete with Galway as the destination of choice.

Many of the horses on duty will have had their entire campaigns tailored to climax at Ballybrit in high summer, so everyone is trying. Winning is impossibly hard, which makes it all the more sweet when a gamble is landed.

The infrequent punter might be indifferent to many of the characters at the centre of the helter-skelter action, but that won't stop them getting caught up in the excitement. After all, there is one common objective -- the quest for winners.

Knowledge of who's who or what's what isn't a prerequisite, though any first-timer would do well to pay close attention to the squadron of a certain DK Weld.

One of the country's most decorated international campaigners, each year the Curragh-based general sets aside a potent legion for the onslaught into western territory.

Twelve months ago, he left the field of battle with an incredible 25th trainers' accolade, and the foundation of a smart betting strategy would be to not back against him securing title number 26.

In a week sure to be full of colour, high emotions, fluctuating fortunes and general merriment that is defined by its brilliantly mercurial nature, there is little else so readily discernible.

The Galway Races, John B Keane was once moved to proclaim, "are a state of mind". He couldn't have put it any better.

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