It’s Galway alright, but not as we know it

They celebrated one and a half centuries of the Galway summer racing festival last year with the customary swash and buckle but it was a very different vista around Ballybrit last evening.
It’s Galway alright, but not as we know it

MAIN EVENT: Finian Maguire delivers Princess Zoe with a perfectly-timed challenge to win the Connacht Hotel (Q.R.) Handicap, the feature event on the opening day of the Galway Races. In the normal course of events, the festival could expect 146,000 through the turnstiles over the course of the week but these are not normal times. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

They celebrated one and a half centuries of the Galway summer racing festival last year with the customary swash and buckle but it was a very different vista around Ballybrit last evening.

Racing professionals have become accustomed to behind-closed-doors action since its restoration on June 8, and are thankful for it, given how integral the dissemination of prizemoney is to the overall industry.

With €1.6m on offer this week, there is a lot to play for, even if owners are not among those that can attend due the restrictions of 200 personnel gathering even in the vast outdoor expanses of a racetrack.

There is something faintly sinful about a Galway without crowds. Customarily, they could expect 146,000 to flow through the turnstiles over the seven days. That’s a significant loss of revenue to track and local economy.

There was some similarity. Dermot Weld, who has been leading trainer of the festival an astonishing 31 times, saddled the winner of the opening Irish EBF Maiden, courtesy of Blue For You and Oisín Orr.

But even that was off-kilter, as the hordes who would traditionally have ploughed in and greeted the victors with an ovation akin to that received by the Galway Plate heroes, were absent.

Jerry Hannon is racecourse commentator for the week and one of the most isolated people at the venue.

“It’s surreal” said Hannon. “As soon as I arrive, I get scanned and I return to my car. I go up to my position and that’s it. There’s no place to go, you can’t go anywhere. I bring the flask and sandwiches.

“It hits you at the festivals. I found it in Killarney and Bellewstown. And when I go home to Listowel for the Harvest Festival I suppose it will be the same.

“Usually you’d hear the jazz bands as you’re walking towards the entrance, the atmosphere is coming out to greet you with the crowds enjoying themselves. But I’ve adjusted. It’s just like lockdown in that way. You adapt.

“You’d have to say it’s going well; we’re all pulling together and we’re doing what we have to do. Sinéad Cassidy and the team at Galway have done a really good job too of reaching out to people with their Phone A Friend initiatives and a few other things, in the hope that the interest will be retained and people will come back next year.”

The opening day’s feature is the Connacht Hotel Premier Handicap for amateur jockeys. It was won eight years ago by a then 18-year-old Jane Mangan, prepped to perfection as usual by the aforementioned Weld.

Having the cheers of the throngs ringing in your ears passing the line and being led in by a gleeful stable lad or lass is not an everyday occurrence for riders. It is their equivalent of playing in an All-Ireland or county final.

“It’s like being on a subway. The trains are on but nobody is in them” was the summation of Mangan, now a highly-respected analyst, working on this occasion with RTÉ.

“When you win a big race on television in front of big crowds, with your family and friends there, and you can celebrate with them after, it means so much more. This feels just dead.”

Mangan’s fellow Cork native, Finian Maguire was the triumphant pilot of the main event, getting Princess Zoe up in the shadow of the post for trainer Tony Mullins and owner Paddy Kehoe.

“Whenever you have a good summer horse, the first place you aim is Galway” Mullins explained. “And to win a feature race in Galway, it’s like a Cheltenham winner to me or having one in Royal Ascot. And we’ve won a few of the features over the years.

“Not having the crowds and owners here certainly takes away from it. You have no idea what it’d be like if Paddy Kehoe was here now. I can tell you he’d put this place alight!”

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