Meeting your true love ... at the Galway races
It's not all about the horses, you know, Susan Daly reports on the seductive quality of Ballybrit
THE thrill of the chase is not confined to the track during the Galway Races. While some racegoers admittedly come to watch hundreds of kilos of horseflesh sweating to the finishing line, for many the excitement is all in the heaving throngs of bodies in the course bars.
WB Yeats put it plainly in his poem 'At Galway Races': "There where the course is, Delight makes all of the one mind." He might have been referring to the gee-gees, but he could just as easily have been speaking of romance at the races. When the social lubricants of booze and banter are mixed in, it makes a heady cocktail.
"The champagne tent is a great place to meet people, and I would say that the Long Bar in the Millennium Stand are where most of the action is," says Sandra McGinnelly, public relations officer at Ballybrit Racecourse.
Naturally, the potential for a fling in such circumstances is high. Some last about as long as the festival -- "what goes on in Galway, stays in Galway", one society beauty told the Irish Independent -- but the festival has also spawned its fair share of long-lasting love affairs and marriages.
Property developer Sean Dunne and former gossip columnist Gayle Killilea famously met at the Galway Races in 2002. They went on to marry in 2004, celebrating with friends in a ¿1.5m bash onboard the Cristina O, the luxury yacht where Aristotle Onassis once wed Jackie Kennedy.
The euphoric atmosphere at the races is almost certainly to blame for a few romantic matches. Dr Jane Mulrooney runs a cosmetic dermatology clinic in Sandymount, Dublin, with her sister Katherine (where their list of clients includes most of Ireland's who's who) and both women make a point of returning to their native Galway for the fun of the races every July.
"You couldn't miss the Galway Races," says Jane, "because everybody is in a party mood. There are a lot of guys there because of the sport and everyone is up for a chat, swapping tips, flirting, bantering. It's so easy to meet people."
True to form, Jane met now-husband Philip Hackett (of Hackett Bookmakers) at the Galway Races in 2003. As was the Celtic Tiger trend at the time, Jane and Philip met on a helicopter taking revellers out to Ballybrit from the city.
"It was Ladies' Day and the phones were down because it was so busy," says Jane. "He lost all his friends and I lost mine. He got a tip for a horse that came in at 14 to 1 -- I was sticking to him after that!"
Sadly, Jane's father died not long after the races so she was not socialising for several months afterwards, but she and Philip reunited for dinner in Dublin that October. When she moved to London in 2004 to specialise in dermatology it put the couple to the test, but they finally married in May of this year.
Even those folks supposedly focused on the horses have found themselves drawn into the seductive Ballybrit atmosphere. Top-flight trainer Aidan O'Brien met his wife Anne Marie Crowley there over 20 years ago when they were both riding as amateur jockeys in the same race.
"I went up to have a chat to Aidan behind the barriers," Anne Marie says. "We had a bit of a bet going on Aidan's horse." Aidan's horse came in first, Anne Marie came in third and they sealed their partnership by marrying shortly afterwards.
Jockey Barry Geraghty was also celebrating when he met wife-to-be Paula Heaphy at the Galway Races in 2004. "He had had a few winners and was celebrating when a mutual friend introduced us," says Paula. "He was in great form!" The pair didn't meet again until that September at the race festival in Listowel, close to Paula's home, but they went on to have a daughter Siofra, now 4, and were married in Killarney last January.
"We got engaged in Cheltenham. On the Friday they throw a party in the weigh-in room for friends and family," says Paula. "As we had always said we would have a small wedding, I think Barry had it in the back of his mind that we would have a big engagement party. He had told Ruby (Walsh) earlier on that he was going to do it, so Ruby stood up and announced that Barry had a few words to say. The next thing he was on his knee -- that was the best part of it, it was such a big surprise!"
The Geraghtys are looking forward to their Galway outing next week as newlyweds. "Galway is one of our favourites and it will always be special to us because that is where we met," says Paula.
Galway seems to spark big romantic gestures. Take Seamus Forde, for example. Last year he watched as his girlfriend, Mary Therese McDonnell from Co Mayo, was chosen as Best Dressed Lady on the Thursday. Seeing her on the podium in all her pomp, Seamus decided he just had to make her his wife. He proposed two days later and today, they marry in Westport.
"We left Galway that Saturday to go on holidays in Portugal and Seamus proposed," says a delighted Mary Therese. "He told me that he decided on Thursday when was looking up at me on the podium in Ballybrit. He was so hugely proud of me and so glad to be there and part of it."
Spontaneous Seamus contacted a jeweller in Malahide about a ring. "Seamus got the jeweller to take a picture of the ring and sent it to his BlackBerry so he could show it to me when he proposed," says Mary Therese.
The couple will miss this year's Ladies' Day because they will be on honeymoon. "That day at the Galway Races really did change my life," says Mary Therese. "We are looking forward to going back next year as Mr and Mrs Forde."
There is a long tradition of mixing the serious business of racing with pleasure. One of the great romances sparked at the Galway Races was between Lord Killanin, Michael Morris, in whose memory the new Killanin Stand at Ballybrit is named, and his wife Sheila. He was chairman of the Galway Races trust for many years.
"It was just after the war and life was starting all over again," recalls Breda Ryan, whose late husband Patrick was also once chairman of the Galway races. "Lord Killanin was from one of the tribes of Galway and Sheila Dunlop's father was a clergyman in Oughterard. She was home from London, they met in the Great Southern Hotel on one of the race nights and that was it."
The family is still very much part of the fabric of Galway week -- the Killanins' youngest son is respected horse trainer Michael 'Mouse' Morris.
Incidentally, Breda's second-ever date with her husband Patrick was to the races in 1959. "We were introduced at a party and he invited me back to the races," she says. "He later told me that he had previously noticed me cycling past on a bicycle in a yellow dress." They were married for 45 years until Patrick's death in 2004.
In the 1940s, Galway was just a two-day race meet, but Breda recalls that the excitement and glamour was no less for that. "In the war, petrol was scarce so they went out to Ballybrit in jaunting cars and bicycles. My mother-in-law would be trimming hats weeks in advance for women to wear.
"Nothing has changed there -- it was always a place for ladies of great flair to strut their stuff," says Breda, whose son Anthony Ryan, MD of the family department store on Shop Street, is sponsoring the Best Dressed Ladies competition on the Thursday.
The romantic story of the Killanins might be just the thing to inspire the singletons who will be saddling up for potential romance on the second floor of the Killanin stand on the Friday evening of the races.
In the largest-ever singles event held at a racecourse, AnotherFriend.com and the Galway Races are hosting The Singles Party, which kicks off with the first race at 5pm and continues until 10pm and the 'lover buses' run to Eyre Square all evening, should you find a dead cert for romance and wish to go on to celebrate!
It's a new twist to finding romance on the Ballybrit stands as the country's finest horse flesh flashes by. Tickets are e25 and include admission, a drinks voucher, a free e5 tote bet and the services of a DJ to help punters show off their finest mating moves on the dancefloor (see anotherfriend.com for more info).
The Galway Races have always been a good place to mingle with other singles but getting them all together under one roof? Those are surely excellent odds for finding a mate at Race Week.
Find love at the meetingpoint .