Tuesday 23 January 2018

The A to Z of Galway

Richard Forristal shares his list of the Festival's many quirks, sights and sounds through the years

The Ballybrit crowd rises as another race unfolds up the hill Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
The Ballybrit crowd rises as another race unfolds up the hill Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
John B Keane said: "The Galway Races are a state of mind."
The Mad Hatter competition is always popular with the ladies
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

A is for Ansar, the ultimate Galway specialist. A seven-time Festival winner, he twice won two races during one week and retired in 2008 with a Hurdle and two Plates to his name, having never finished out of the first five in six editions of the latter feature. Legend.

B is for bookmakers, who never lose, even when they do. Last year, turnover in the ring continued to plummet, down a whopping 26pc on 2011 to €8.7m. Yet, the bookies admitted that their profits were up. Go figure!

C is for Captain Wilson Lynch, who donated the land on which the racetrack was built. Let's all hail the captain!

D is for dermot weld, otherwise known as the King of Ballybrit. Last year's haul of nine winners was more modest than 2011's eye-watering 17, but it was still three times more than anyone else. He hasn't been leading trainer there on 26 occasions for nothing.

E is for euro. The prize fund across the 52 races runs to €1.6m this year. And God knows how much more will be spent on the track, as well as the bars, restaurants and hotels of the city over the seven days.

F is for foreigners, who don't tend to do so well at Galway. Since 2010, just three of the 213 races held at the Festival have gone for export to Britain.

G is for glorious goodwood, which runs parallel to Galway between Tuesday and Saturday. Suffice to say that its Pimms and Panama hats play second fiddle in this part of the world.

H is for helicopters. Ballybrit once resembled a scene from Apocalypse Now, but now, since the economic apocalypse, they are an endangered species.

I is for innovation, long a feature of the Galway Races. When the Festival was still in its infancy, the Midland and Great Western Railway agreed to carry all horses to and from the course for free provided they had run in a race, which encouraged entries from far and wide.

J is for jewel. The races are undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Galway's summer, but the Oyster Festival, the Ocean Race and the Arts Festival keep the crowds flocking west.

K is for keane. John B (left) said: "The Galway Races are a state of mind" – who are we to doubt the late, great Kerry sage!

L is for length. The old bar under the Corrib Stand was – anecdotally at least – the longest bar in the world until it was replaced in 1999.

M is for Mad Hatters Day. On Sunday, the wearer of the craziest hat will win a trip to Milan, while the winning child will be heading off to Barcelona.

N is for no charge. U-16s used to pay a nominal €2 entrance fee, but last year that charge was waived, so long as kids are accompanied by an adult. Expect to be approached by the odd clever stray at the gate: "Can I come in with you, Mister, pleeeaase?"

O is for often – don't be put off by horses running often during the week. Last year, five horses won on their second starts, while one, Shadow Eile, won on her second and third outings. Even the horses are resigned to the fact that you need to up your game at Galway.

P is for pope. The Festival will draw crowds of up to 150,000 to the track this week but the Pontiff is by far the biggest attraction Ballybrit has ever seen. He addressed almost 300,000 people there in 1979.

Q is for queues of traffic that wind their way out to the track. They are usually long, but don't worry, the local gardai are always on duty to ensure they move along without too much delay.

R is for rackard. Wexford hurling legend Nicky Rackard sold JP McManus his first winner of the Galway Plate. Shining Flame romped home in the 1978 renewal.

S is for sponsors, of which there is no shortage this week, in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the racing calendar. Each of the 52 races has a promoter.

T is for tied. The 1961 Galway Hurdle was a dead-heat when Newgrove and Cynge Noir couldn't be separated. Also for Tribes, as in the 'City of the Tribes', which provides the backdrop to the seven days of revelry.

U is for Ussher. Before Dermot Weld, there was Harry Ussher. He trained seven Galway Plate winners and, in 1920, he trained all the first-day winners, with the exception of the Plate.

V is for valuable. With a prize fund of €260,000, the Galway Hurdle is the most valuable jumps race in Ireland. The fact that it is only a handicap run in the middle of summer for middle-of-the-road horses doesn't tend to matter.

W is for Winters. Last year, the inimitable Mick Winters brought the place to life courtesy of Rebel Fitz's hugely popular Galway Hurdle coup. A jubilant Cork contingent descended on the winner's enclosure in spades after Davy Russell's mount held on in dramatic fashion, though there was little as dramatic as Winters' outfit. No one wears purple so well.

X is for (E)xtra Day. The Festival has been a seven-day event since 1999.

Y is for young love (and old). An ever-growing singles event has become a feature of race week. Aidan O'Brien met his wife Anne Marie (above) there.

Z is for Zzzzz. What everyone will need when the Festival is over.

Irish Independent

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