All bets on as the Galway Races gallops into gear

OUT of the bland box of suburbia where I am quartered in Galway I sped with glee towards the bucks fizz sparkle of Ballybrit.

Nor was I disappointed. Day one at the races held plenty of western promise. Muggy, but sunny, the gloom of the weekend had lifted and humours were warmer all round.

Racetrack officials beamed at a boost in numbers about 30,000, definitely up on Monday last year and politicians were happy to be anywhere but the Dáil.

All present and accounted for were the old reliables, Sports Minister John O'Donoghue, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds (his 38th time out), and a gaggle of Fine Gaelers, seeking out a Burlington Bertie (to the uninitiated a bet of 100/30), roughly the type of odds useless to a party with no hope of winning the next election.

Bertie himself was spotted about town and should grace Ballybrit today.

Rumour has it he's under pressure to boost the profile of the Ballybrit Suite, in the face of a rival Fianna Fáil grassroots gig in the Radisson.

For those who subscribe to the Scrooge complex and still have their Confirmation money, I may have found the ligger's loophole to the Galway Races. It would appear if you drive to the grounds (even earlier than the bird who catches the worm) you may find yourself trackside for the sum of €2. This is because 20 entry tickets are not checked at the entry to the car park. Bear in mind this will only get your car close to the rails and not into any of the carnival craziness on the right side of the tracks.

Ballybrit is for punters with a penchant for parting with cash, of which festival organisers seem well aware.

Prices are up on last year, 50 cent extra for the highly sought-after hot beef rolls, up from €7 in 2004, race cards up from €2 to €3 and other subtle little earners for those shrewd enough to set up their stall.

Hoteliers are similarly in clover, with John Concannon, chief executive of Ireland West Tourism quoting slim odds on finding any accommodation Galway-side of Lough Rea.

Amid all the money and madness, however, there was one sobering moment yesterday. When jockey John Allen rode out on Blue Corrig in the third race, a black armband darkening his yellow sleeve, the hurly burly became a hush.

A murmur of "Dick Forristal's horse" swept around the grounds and for a couple of minutes the crowd remembered the man who was brutally slain at his home last week.

Afterwards, trainer Joseph Crowley, a lifelong friend of the murdered man, could not hide his emotion when the horse came third.

"It was entered in the race so we decided to run tonight. He ran well but it was just too much to hope that he would win," he said.

He may not have won, but his presence was an appropriate tribute to the man who devoted his time to producing fine horses.

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