Five highlights to look forward to at the Galway Festival

Five highlights to look forward to at the Galway Festival

It’s one of the biggest weeks of the year in the racing world with terrific domestic action at Galway as well as a stellar meeting at Goodwood. Here’s five things to keep in mind over the next six days, writes Darren Norris.

THE WELD FACTOR

To say Dermot Weld is a Galway Festival specialist is a bit like suggesting James Bond does okay with the ladies. It is, in other words, an understatement of epic proportions. Should Weld reign supreme again this week it’ll be the 30th year in succession that the Rosewell House handler will have claimed the leading trainer award. More than any other, that statistic shows just how relentless a force Weld is during the biggest racing week of the Irish summer.

2011 was particularly special as Weld trained an astonishing, record-breaking tally of 17 winners. The record he shattered was, inevitably, one he himself had set as 12 months earlier he had sent out 11 winners. Topping his 2011 tally has – until now at least – proven beyond Weld but churning out nine winners in 2012, 2013 and 2014 speaks volumes about his consistency.

He was, however, far less dominant 12 months ago, his tally of five winners being three less than Willie Mullins’ total of eight. However, the points based system of five for a win, three for a second and one for a third meant that Weld finished on 57 points, one ahead of Mullins.

Weld can expect another sustained challenge from Mullins this week but the evidence of history suggests the ‘King of Ballybrit’ will be hard to dethrone.

STARS OF TOMORROW

Because the Galway Festival – for some inexplicable reason – coincides with Goodwood, purists tend to compare it unfavourably to the showpiece across the water. Being honest, the quality of horses strutting their stuff at Goodwood is superior to those on show at Galway. Ballybrit, however, does have its charms and has, particularly in recent years, served as a launchpad for many a stellar career.

Carlingford Lough is a prime example. John Kiely’s charge justified heavy support when landing the 2013 Galway Plate and has since gone to win the Irish Gold Cup (formerly the Irish Hennessy) twice and, on his most recent start in April, claimed a fifth Grade One when taking the Punchestown Gold Cup.

There have been plenty other success stories. Dodging Bullets, the 2015 Champion Chase hero, won at Galway four years earlier; Annie Power, who proved a more than able super-sub for Faugheen in this year’s Champion Hurdle, was being trained by Jim Bolger when she won at Galway in 2012.

A year ago Rogue Angel was a 16/1 winner at Galway. Fast forward to March and he made just about all to land the Irish Grand National.

Nor are such tales restricted to the National Hunt world, a fact proven by the subsequent successes on the Flat of Galway winners Mustajeeb and Missunited.

It’s likely that this week – starting with Muthaza in today’s opening race - will produce a few stars that we’ll be talking about for a while to come.

THE BID TO DEFY THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY

As mentioned, this is a week that can unveil future stars. It certainly was two years ago when the Noel Meade-trained Road To Riches ran out an empathic winner of the Galway Plate. On Wednesday he attempts to repeat the feat, this time off a weight of 11st 10lbs, almost a stone more than he carried in 2014.

Carrying such a burden is a colossal ask but Road To Riches might just be able to cope with it. His CV, after all, suggests he is simply in a different league to the rivals he’ll face this week, a fact reflected by a current best price of 9/2.

Meade’s charge followed up his 2014 Plate win by winning a Grade One at Down Royal before taking the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. He then ran a cracker in the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup, finishing third to Coneygree.

He hasn’t shown the same level of form in 2016 but he still managed to finish second in the Irish Gold Cup, third in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham and was running a big, big race before suffering a horrendous fall after an uncharacteristic error two out when last seen, in the Punchestown Gold Cup, in April.

If he has, as all the reports suggest, recovered fully from that traumatic tumble, he’ll take the world of beating. Weight can’t trump class.

THE BRITISH RAIDER

2016 has been an exceptional year for Irish racing. We’ve plundered many of Britain’s most high-profile, iconic races. Annie Power won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and also took the Aintree Hurdle. Don Cossack powered to victory in the Gold Cup. Rule The World sprang a surprise in the Aintree Grand National.

On the Flat, Harzand led home an Irish 1-2-3 in the Epsom Derby. Minding won the 1,000 Guineas before landing the Oaks. Order Of St George claimed the Ascot Gold Cup. On Saturday, Highland Reel, like Minding and Order Of St George, trained by Aidan O’Brien won the King George.

However, we might just get a taste of our own medicine on Thursday as Superb Story, trained by the talented Dan Skelton, looks a very worthy favourite for the Galway Hurdle. He was hugely impressive when winning the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham and a 7lbs rise in the ratings doesn’t look overly harsh.

That he hasn’t run since is another positive given the evidence of his career suggests he is seen to best effect when his races are spaced out. A bold show seems certain.

Value hunters could do far worse than an each-way investment in Jessica Harrington’s Grand Annual third Rock The World. He looks overpriced at 16/1.

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT GALWAY

While the Galway Plate will be the main focus of attention at Ballybrit on Wednesday it seems likely that racing aficionados will, for a few brief minutes, turn their attention to Goodwood at 3:10pm.

The Sussex Stakes has the potential to prove the Flat race of the year as Newmarket 2,000 Guineas winner Galileo Gold takes on French 2,000 Guineas winner The Gurkha and Irish 2,000 Guineas hero Awtaad.

When they met at the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot last month Galileo Gold came out on top but it was a somewhat unsatisfactory race as the winner was allowed a soft lead by his market rivals, an act of generosity Frankie Dettori utilised to the full.

Such kindness is unlikely to be repeated this week but ground conditions suggest that The Gurkha should prove a bigger threat to Galileo Gold than Awtaad. The Gurkha was backed as if defeat was out of the question at Ascot and was similarly supported in the Coral-Ecilpse at Sandown. Aidan O’Brien’s charge fell short on both occasions but certainly has the ability to belatedly reward his supporters this time.

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