There is growing consensus among lovers of hurling, outside of Kilkenny at least, that this season’s championship will be memorable — the reason being the uncertainty of the outcome.
The talents of the four remaining panels are not at the level of the Brian Cody teams that steamrolled their way to 11 titles since the millennium but the fact we are in already in August and the bookies still price the favourites at 2/1 is an indication that anything could happen from here.
So, what has all this got to do with the Galway races? Quite a lot actually. This is exactly the reason why Galway is so consistently enjoyable — the sheer uncertainty of many of the outcomes and the enjoyment of trying to work out what exactly will happen next.
Finding a winning double in today’s Galway Plate and tomorrow’s Hurdle is a bit like searching for a very tiny needle in a particularly large haystack but one of the upsides, like this year’s hurling, is that they provide an opportunity for some of the less publicly exalted yards to have a big day out in the sun.
Those type of yards that work hard all year and dream that one big result at Galway this week make the next 12 months just that little bit more financially manageable.
Yards such as the one Joe Murphy runs near Fethard in Tipperary.
Or the one from which Eddie Harty campaigns from at Mulgrave Lodge on The Curragh who both have tangible chances of upsetting the bigger guns over the next couple of days.
Harty’s hopes are invested in Minella Foru in the Galway Plate later this afternoon and Murphy’s rest once more with the durable Swamp Fox in tomorrow’s Galway Hurdle.
Victory for either would be a welcome diversion from the current training oligopoly in Ireland where this season five trainers have aggregated more winners than the rest of the countries handlers combined.
Harty’s career doesn’t readily fit with the profile of the average Irish horse trainer. Although his ancestors have been intimately and very successfully involved in racing for well over a century (his father won the Aintree Grand National on Highland Wedding in 1969), he chose a circuitous route back to the family business.
Economic necessity took him to London for work in the early 1980s for a short time while he figured out what exactly he wanted to do in the horse racing industry.
He built an increasingly successful career in the financial services sector that eventually brought him back to Dublin. After just 20 years he finally made his choice — the call from his DNA pool proved too strong to resist and he set up as a trainer in 2004.
Success soon blessed his enterprise. He trained the great Captain Cee Bee to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2008 but since then he has soldiered on gamely without ever cracking through the glass ceiling.
Last season he saddled just a half a dozen winners although among them was the very promising novice chaser, Coney Island.
The challenge his eight-year-old Minella Foru faces today is starkly illustrated by a single fact.
The horse is only number 14 in the weights and you need to go down the field that far to find a horse that is not trained by somebody not called Mullins, Elliott, Harrington, De Bromhead, or Meade. But Harty’s sole entry this week he is far from a hopeless case.
Minella Foru doesn’t have all that many miles on the clock for an eight-year-old with just 15 runs to date, winning four and being placed in another three.
He spent some of his early days chasing around the likes of Vautour and Un De Sceaux in high-class novice races so he was obviously well thought of and still gives the impression that somewhere in there is a good, consistent horse waiting to break out and find his future.
His best and most lucrative performance came in the Paddy Power chase at Leopardstown the Christmas before last when he beat 27 rivals over three miles on bottomless ground.
Although today is over the shorter distance of two and three-quarter miles and on better going neither of these should be a serious impediment to his chances.
Like Eddie Harty, Joe Murphy isn’t surrounded by hordes of racehorses at home but happily one of the few is Swamp Fox.
This horse has already run three times at the Galway Festival and is still only five years old.
Murphy has been skilfully ‘sweating his assets’ in recent seasons and his stable has timed it’s run brilliantly to Galway with three winners and seven places with his last 10 runners including a couple of second places on the opening day.
Two of those wins have been with Swamp Fox who, if he shows no signs of fatigue from his brave efforts in coming second to Whisky Sour in the two-mile handicap on Monday night, could provide a very welcome major winner for Murphy on tomorrow.
Murphy knows tomorrow’s race will be difficult to win but this horse is the apple of his eye and he clearly loves his ability and attitude.
“I look on these races like they are listed handicaps and very hard to win” he says.
“They are hard to handicap and there could only be a pound or two between six of them. Then you have that sharp track and a lot of horses get scratches and cuts or maybe slip up or pull a muscle on that last bend. You need to overcome all that. Galway is a law onto itself.”
Swamp Fox has shot up in the official ratings and carries 11-3 tomorrow off a hurdle rating of 148 but the horse obviously likes the course and this seems to be his time of year.
He was runner-up in a Flat handicap over a mile and half two years ago and then won the big two-mile amateur handicap last season beating Ted Veale and some other decent horses in the process.
He has continued to improve ever since and has been raised 11lbs on the Flat and a massive 30lbs over hurdles in the same period, a punishment for impressive wins at Listowel Festival last autumn and then more recently in his last two outings when he won both at Ballinrobe and Killarney.
Murphy is confident his stable star is well up to this week’s two race challenge.
“A lot will depend on how he comes out of Monday’s race,” he remarks. “It’s a really big ask but if any horse can do it he is the type that can. He will go on any ground bar the extremes.”
If you want more certainty in your racing this week then Goodwood may have been the better choice, although you would have needed to fork out for a new jacket and tie for the pleasure.
Back at Galway, home of the tenuous All-Ireland hurling favourites, nothing is predictable and for a couple of unsung heroes it could be two days to remember. And you can come as you are.
Each Way Double: Minella Foru 16/1, today 5.35 and Swamp Fox 16/1 tomorrow 4.35.