Betting shop the only escape from madding crowd

The buzz was back in Ballybrit yesterday afternoon.

It wasn’t the featured Galway Hurdle and it wasn’t the weather. It was Ladies’ Day — the highlight of the week for much of the female sorority — and all of the male fraternity. It remains the best supported meeting of the week and the Galway glamour girls were out in force, as usual.

In recent times, the gentlemen have been making the effort to emulate their ladies but the economic downturn would appear to have affected them more than their fair maidens. Admiring all the sartorial splendour, one bookmaker suggested that he, his clerks and his runners would be declaring cheekpieces in advance of next year’s Galway Hurdle Day — just to keep their minds on the job. Perhaps there’s an opening there for some corporate sponsorship.

The first true sign that Thursday was the special day of the week came in the Beginners’ Chase that opened the card. This wasn’t the Galway Plate and had no pretentions to be so, but close your eyes for a few minutes and it could have been. Any attempt to stroll down and commandeer a place on the stands — not the Killanin Stand, of course -was met by a wall of resistance. If the Plate day was well supported, the Hurdle day was positively swarming.

More, much more, than yesterday afternoon, the assembled masses were intent on getting involved and standing room was at a premium. Some reasonable beasts circled down at the start but when they turned to face the starter for the last time, a wave of expectation moved through the crowd. A roar not un-akin to that which sees off the runners in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the great Cheltenham Festival each year, erupted from the stands as the field set out on its near three-mile journey.

Those that survived the early obstacles and punishing undulations of the first circuit were warmly welcomed past the stands for the second time, while the diminished dare-devils that made it round for the third time were cheered home like champions.

After another couple of races and much hopping, skipping and dodging later, a stroll away from the all-action betting ring was called for to recharge the batteries. The Ladbrokes on-course betting shop became an unlikely oasis in this particular desert. The ability to walk unimpeded was a privilege — but one I paid handsomely for.

Jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire was never deemed a great idea — and certainly not on this occasion. I needed therapy. Not from Freud or any other psychoanalyst: from Ryan Moore and his mount Group Therapy in the Audi King George Sprint at Goodwood.

I felt we had an immediate connection as he, like I previously, bobbed and weaved his way through runners to negotiate a safe path to his ultimate destination. Unfortunately, Kieren Fallon and Borderlescott chose the direct route and they got there first.

I hung around a little longer to enjoy the freedom but that, too, went on the bill as ex-Irish tracker Pocan Fada came up a little ‘beag’ at Romford. From the cosy but costly safety of the betting shop I watched Colm O’Donoghue and the stewards go their separate ways as the third race of the home meeting was awarded to the well-backed Luttrell Lady. By that stage I’d seen enough and it was time to return to the ring.

The crowds just kept coming in. There was now little or no comfort in the open air and the fare was little flashier on track. That doesn’t matter, though, when you back a winner and, after a timely intervention from John Oxx and Smart Striking in the seven-furlong handicap, I was back in the game.

If the HRI could bestow beatifications on people instead of just handing out trophies, I would like to put the afore-mentioned John Oxx forward for a saint-hood. Saint John Oxx sounds right. And I know very few who would disagree.

The same can’t be said of the nag, St Devote, in the following race. Who bestowed such veneration upon a horse that cannot win a novice hurdle on the hallowed turf at Galway? Can I get that rescinded? From now on I want him to be referred to only as Devote.

The novice hurdle led us nicely to the feature event of the afternoon — the Galway Hurdle. The bookmakers had turnover, plenty of turnover and certainly too much Overturn, as Donald McCain’s six-year-old romped away with the race.

The 6-1 chance led a merry dance from start to finish in a race where the layers never had a chance of victory. The market leaders dominated from start to finish and it was only the grace of God that denied the favourite, Dirar, a victory that looked likely on the turn for home.

It’s been an up and down week for the men on the boxes but, somehow, they keep bouncing back and this day, Ladies Day, was the day when the old Galway — the one I remember from my youth -also bounced back. It was a triumph and a joy just to be there.


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