O a man who has been coming to the Galway Races for 40 years, which in itself is a sobering realisation, today’s experience for the opening of the 2020 meeting was surreal.
The short walk between the now empty betting ring and the Mayor’s garden still plays host to those antiquated buildings which, in busier days, offered respite from the crowd and do not fail to evoke many great memories. But today Galway lacked that verve.
That is what the Galway Races was always about: a lively, vociferous, upbeat atmosphere at the track which carried itself into the city each night and to the outskirts, especially Salthill.
This week, my home for the meeting is a seat at one of the windows of the Tote building beneath the champagne bar, looking straight out, and through, the betting ring, which should be the greatest hive of activity for these seven days.
The year’s events and all that has led us down the path to this curious existence will, in time, lead us back out, and we have to remind ourselves and, more importantly, our children that life was not always like this.
When the virus has been banished to the uninhabited parts of the globe and the green light flashes from government buildings, we will be back. Galway, in 2021, will hopefully be a celebration of that. Until then, we must make the best of what we have.
Yes, today’s racing was different, but not all bad, and if ever there was a man in the position to bring a sense of normality to such a strange occasion it was Dermot Weld winning the first race of the meeting, the Claregalwayhotel.ie Irish EBF Maiden.
When his Blue For You, with Oisin Orr wearing the famous Moyglare colours, gave the Master of Ballybrit a winning start not all was right in the world, but it was a good start.
And Weld added one more for good measure when Centroid, a half-brother to Enable, took the Easyfix Handicap under Gavin Ryan. Having just his second ride for the stable, Ryan made a race-winning move just after turning in. It took him to the front, and his mount did just enough to deny Penny Out, who was out the back early and wide most of the way.
The feature was the Connacht Hotel QR Race and while Willie Mullins’ winning run in the race came to an end, the prize remained within the family as victory went to Princess Zoe, trained by Tony Mullins and ridden by Finny Maguire, who said goodbye to his 3lb claim in the great style.
A fine second on her Irish debut, and a runaway winner of the Ladies’ Derby on her second start, she was up 13lbs for that victory but showed herself to still be well handicapped with this success.
The grey ran into trouble on the turn for home but had the pace to quicken when in the clear and that gained the day. Run For Mary ran on well to snatch second place for Phillip Byrnes, having his first ride in the race.
“There aren’t too many better ways to do it,” said Maguire, of losing his claim. “I’ve ridden a few fancied horses in this since I started riding six years ago, and third was the closest I got on a horse of my Dad’s on my first ever ride in it.”
Of the winner, he said: “She is a fair mare, and it is great she got there. Tony told me not to light her up early and to ride her for a bit of luck.
"I was travelling into the dip and trying to follow Derek O’Connor and when we quickened out of the dip, I was very flat-footed.
“I thought I was going nowhere, and there were horses coming back in my face. It took her five or six strides
to find her feet and when she hit the rising ground, she put her head down and galloped. In hindsight the bit of trouble probably helped because I don’t think she’d do too much in front.”
Billy Lee is enjoying a fine season and, with a double, brought his tally to 31. Michael Mulvany’s Talking Tough provided the first leg, winning the claytonhotelgalway.ie Handicap.
Soaring Monarch mounted a late challenge, but the winner dug deep in the demanding conditions to deny that rival, the pair clear.
The Willie McCreery-trained Royal Canford stayed on strongly but didn’t quite get there when runner-up at this meeting in 2019 but Lee made sure there would be no repeat this time as he sent her to the front early in the first division of the Galmont.com & Galwaybayhotel.com Handicap, kicked clear coming out of the dip, and kept his mount up to her task to win readily.
There was an upset in the second division in which Eastern Racer withstood the late rush of Atlas by a head to win for Sean Byrne and jockey Sean Davis.
Joseph O’Brien, Wayne Lordan and JP McManus took the Eventus Handicap with Flying Scotsman, who appreciated the step up in trip when leading late to make a breakthrough success.
To bring the opening day to a close, Mt Leinster, ridden by Patrick Mullins for Willie Mullins, became the third of Sixhills’ progeny to win the mile and a half maiden for qualified riders, and her fourth winner at the Galway Races. An easy-to-back 100-30 chance, he travelled with his usual zest and responded to pressure to hold off Ciel D’afrique.