Sport Horse Racing

Thursday 22 February 2018

Richard Forristal: Wet start won't dampen Ballybrit spirits as quality of festival fare keeps on rising

30 July 2014; Road to Riches, with Shane Shortall up, races clear of the field on their way to winning Galway Plate. Galway Racing Festival, Ballybrit, Co. Galway. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
30 July 2014; Road to Riches, with Shane Shortall up, races clear of the field on their way to winning Galway Plate. Galway Racing Festival, Ballybrit, Co. Galway. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Barry Geraghty - a master of his profession
Plate winner Road To Riches was trained by Noel Meade
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

If it's true that a rising tide lifts all ships, then the Galway hurlers' comprehensive triumph over Cork yesterday should herald an even more buoyant vibe than usual in the Tribal City this week.

It could be a wet start to the revelry that descends on Ballybrit from the final Monday in July each year, but that doesn't tend to dampen spirits in the west.

Rain-softened ground denied racing fans the chance to see Golden Horn at Ascot on Saturday and there is a fear that it might also thwart Gleneagles' Sussex Stakes outing at Goodwood on Wednesday.

In a thrilling spectacle, Postponed edged out Eagle Top in a King George VI & QE II Stakes that turned out to be a damp squib in terms of quality. While it remains to be seen if Aidan O'Brien will be deterred from running Gleneagles at Goodwood, his exceptional colt has looked pretty versatile in everything that he has done up to now, so he might throw caution to the wind.

History tells us, though, that it takes something more than rainfall to quench the unbridled merriment of the Galway Races. As the week-long jaunt gets under way, here are seven themes that might shape festivities . . .

1. Good horses

Time was when we could muse that the magic of Galway had little correlation with the quality of horse on duty. Over the years, Go And Go, Media Puzzle, Grey Swallow and Monty's Pass graced the place, but they tended to be exceptions to the rule.

By and large, you could look back on Galway results and see little of note. Not so any more. In 2013, subsequent Royal Ascot winners Mustajeeb, Domination and Pique Sous all ran at Galway. Recent big-race heroes Carlingford Lough, Rebel Fitz and Missunited went on to scale even greater heights, and last year's festival threw up an array of fledgling stars.

Legatissimo, so nearly a dual Classic-winning filly, broke her maiden around Ballybrit. Ascot's Champions Day victor Forgotten Rules won there, likewise his Cheltenham Festival-winning stablemate Windsor Park.

The Plate winner Road To Riches, trained by Noel Meade (above), has won two Grade Ones and finished third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and others went on to enhance their reputations as well.

The bar has been set pretty high, but the quality of entries for the two showpiece events indicates that the trend could well be maintained.

2. Inspirational cousins

Brian Toomey and Robbie McNamara might both be on site at the suburban venue at some stage. There aren't two more inspiring individuals out there.

Toomey has recently made something of a miracle return to the saddle, having spent two weeks in an induced coma and 157 nights in hospital in 2013. The 26-year-old Co Limerick native had been described by the paramedics who attended him after a fall at Perth as being dead for six seconds.

He incurred serious head injuries, requiring part of his skull to be removed and a titanium plate be inserted in his head, yet spurned what would have been a considerable career-ending payout to pursue the dream again.

His cousin McNamara, successful on Windsor Park a year ago, might never walk again following his fall at Wexford in March. In the intervening period, his courage in adversity has been humbling to witness, and his can-do mindset is reflected in his announcing plans to begin a training career. Both men exemplify the fortitude that defines the jump jockeys' brethren.

3. Ends of eras?

In 1989, John Moloney took over as manager of Galway Racecourse. His reign is three years shy of Dermot Weld's, whose unbroken tenure as the king of Ballybrit began in 1986.

Moloney's stint at the helm ends this week, when he will be succeeded by his son, Michael. Might Weld also vacate his throne?

The Curragh wizard saddled a record 17 Galway winners in 2011. In the last two years, though, his dominion has been threatened like never before, with Tony Martin saddling eight winners in 2013, including three with Busted Tycoon, a feat even Mr Weld had not managed.

Last year, for the first time since 2010, Weld plundered none of the feature handicaps; Martin conquered three, including the biggest prize of the seven days, the Galway Hurdle, with Thomas Edison. Weld eventually saw off the challenge to his supremacy by nine wins to Martin's six for a 28th consecutive leading trainer's award, a margin of victory identical to that of 2013. Martin will again do his best to relieve him of his crown.

4. A notable absentee

The amount of times that Niall McCullagh has missed Galway since embarking on his riding career 30 years ago could probably be counted on a small portion of one hand. Sadly, a fall whilst riding out on Friday morning left him with a collapsed lung, nine fractured ribs and a broken collarbone. Now 46 years of age, the evergreen rider was yesterday reported by the Turf Club's chief medical advisor Dr Adrian McGoldrick as being in a stable condition in Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown. "They are very happy with him," Dr McGoldrick said.

"Obviously it's very early days, but he's stable and they are observing him to see how things go. He'll be in hospital for a couple of weeks and I imagine he'll be out of action for two to three months. That would be the norm."

One of the weigh-room's gentlemen, McCullagh has always expressed a desire to ride until he turns 50. Fingers crossed he recovers sufficiently to see out that ambition.

5. A spread of the riches

Last year, Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud plundered the Galway Plate with Road To Riches, a year after Carlingford Lough completed back-to-back wins for JP McManus following Bob Lingo's 2012 coup. McManus also conquered the 2014 Hurdle with Thomas Edison, and both of the feature race winners returned to relatively muted receptions, which was especially surprising in the case of Thomas Edison, given that he returned a well-backed favourite.

The importance of McManus and O'Leary's unstinting support for Irish jump racing is not to be taken for granted and should never be underestimated.

Accepting that, we've seen in recent years how success in the feature events for low-key outfits such as those of Mick Winters, Paul Flynn and Liam Burke can prompt joyous scenes of old-fashioned, unrefined bedlam.

You can't manufacture that sort of euphoria and variety is the spice of life, so here's hoping for something a little different.

6. Determined Meath men

In 2011, Barry Geraghty steered Cause Of Causes into third in the Galway Hurdle for his fellow Meath man Gordon Elliott. Over the course of the next three years, Elliott saddled Cause Of Causes, Flaxen Flare and Bayan to be second in the race.

Absolute masters of their respective professions, neither man has so far managed to conquer either the Hurdle or the Plate. At least one of them will surely rectify that omission sooner rather than later.

7. More stability

A year ago, total attendance of 148,237 represented a welcome upswing on 2013's 10-year low of 137,818. The numbers coming through the gates at Irish racecourses appear to have stabilised further in the interim, so the prospect of breaking through the 150,000 barrier for a first time since 2011 must be quite high. Come racing.

Tweet of the weekend

Ruby Walsh (@Ruby_Walsh)

@_Davy_Russel_ mighty weekend for cork GAA.

- After Cork's capitulation to Galway in Thurles, the Kildare man, buoyed by his team's defeat of the Rebel County footballers on Saturday, couldn't help having a little dig at Russell. Russell hadn't responded at the time of going to print, but Limerick jockey Mark Enright (@Markfishenright) had, quipping: "You know it's bad when a Kildare man is slagging you about GAA".

Numbers Game

300k - What this Thursday's Guinness Galway Handicap Hurdle will be worth, making it the most valuable jumps race ever run in Ireland on the 50th anniversary of the world-famous Dublin brewery's sponsorship.

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