Almost 20,000 punters and one president packed out Ballybrit for the big race of the week — the Galway Plate.

In Ballybrit, a president can mix with the punters, such is the happy-go-lucky nature of the event.

President Michael D Higgins is an annual attendee at the festival and has been coming for years — long before he got the top job at the Áras.

He also presented the Galway Plate to the owners of winning horse, the Henry de Bromhead-trained Balko Des Flos, ridden by Davy Russell.

The result went off second favourite and was heavily backed in a stinker for the bookies.

Mr Higgins said the festival is not simply about racing but is part of the culture of the west of Ireland.

“What I always like myself about all the years when I began to come first were the early evenings when you’d come on the first days and some of the local trainers had been saving up a surprise and word gets out around town and it circulates,” he said.

“I’ve just been talking to Pierce Mee there who really was in UCG around my time and the races bring that opportunity where you meet people you mightn’t have seen for years.”

As for a second term as president, Mr Higgins remained coy but said he hadn’t ruled anything out.

“It would be easier to pick the winner here now,” he said. “What I can say is that the only change in the circumstances is that nothing is ruled out.”

If Mr Higgins’s attendance record is nothing to be sneezed at, he has nothing on Westmeath’s Joe Fagan.

The fresh-faced 91-year-old first came racing in Galway in 1942 and had his best year that year, backing King of the Jungle. He has been at every festival since and wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Joe admitted that a whole lot about Galway and the festival has changed since his first year.

“There was no cars then,” he said. “There wasn’t a car at then at that time. You’d come down on the bus or the train. I came from about five miles outside Moate. I’d come down on the bus.

“I got a pony and sidecar out from Eyre Square. There was nothing else on the Square at that time, only ponies and sidecars and traps and all that kind of craic.

“I’ve never missed one. I make sure to come down and I always stay in Galway up to last year and this year. I always stay for a week or a fortnight.”

It’s tough enough to last a week here, never mind 75 years on the bounce but Joe said it’s simply the craic in Galway that keeps him coming back for more.

“Well, it’s the craic at night and everything between the pubs and one thing or another,” he said. “It’s very seldom that I am celebrating the winners. I celebrate the losers quicker.”

As for his favourite memory, Joe happened to back a horse that dropped dead after passing the post.

“There was a horse passed the post here one year — Highfield Lad — he dropped dead after he passed the post,” he said. “And I had him backed! I didn’t forget him. I have some of them forgotten but I remember him quite well. That’s a good few years ago now.”

One man hoping for a big win of a different kind was golfer Shane Lowry, who was in Galway for the day yesterday ahead of the last major of the year, next week — the USPGA Championship.

The Offaly man admitted his form hasn’t been great of late but was hoping for the best.

“It hasn’t been great. I missed the last two cuts so I am just trying to get it back,” he said. “You never know with golf. It’s a funny game so we will see how it goes next week. I genuinely am at the stage where I don’t know how it’s going to go. I’ve been playing well going into tournaments and not doing well and I’ve been playing badly and doing well so I just need to try and prepare my best for next week and see what happens.”

There’s a lesson for us all for the rest of the week.


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