Peter O’Hehir sets the scene ahead of the start of the Galway Festival
It’s here. The longest week of the racing year – the Galway Races – or, as many in the west coast region refer to it, simply, ‘Race Week’.
Once again, all roads lead to Ballybrit this week as racing fans, holiday makers and thousands seeking the renowned ‘craic’ that Galway offers, get set to enjoy the 149th Festival, comprising 52 races over seven days.
Last year, more than 145,000 enthusiasts, lured by the racing, the fashion and the entertainment, thronged the Ballybrit enclosures over the seven days.
And, in a significant move to push towards or top the 150,000 mark, Wednesday’s card, featuring the Tote-sponsored, €250,000 Galway Plate, will be staged as an evening meeting, with the first race set for 5.10. and the Plate set to go to post at 7.20.
Recent figures have shown that Plate day, for decades the centrepiece of the Festival, had slipped to attracting only the fourth biggest crowd of the week.
So it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ with organisers hoping their move pays off.
Thursday, now Ladies Day, with the €300,000 Guinness Galway Hurdle, is now the highlight of a week, which, last year, was estimated to have generated no less than €54milion for the local economy.
Those attending Ballybrit this week will see the latest stage of the track’s redevelopment, the €6,000,000 Wilson Lynch Building adjacent to the Parade-Ring, which has replaced the old Tote building and features a Betting Hall, Coffee Dock and Champagne Bar.
And plans have already been announced for a complete revamp of the Parade Ring area, the introduction of a pre-Parade Ring and the building of a new Administration over the coming years, a €12m project.
That provides further proof of the go-ahead approach of the Galway Race Committee, guided by General Manager Michael Molony.
While the social and fashion aspects of the festival appeal to plenty to people, for many of us, the week is all about what happens on the track.
And, of course, the name of Dermot Weld, who celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday, is synonymous with Galway.
Leading trainer at the meeting 29 times in 30 years he was dethroned by Willie Mullins in 2016 and, last year, during a trying season, saddled just two winners, compared to the 12 achieved by Mullins.
Both men will be forces to be reckoned with over the coming days, with Weld enjoying a welcome resurgence and expected to be well-represented, particularly in flat maidens.
Unfortunately, a key member of the Weld team for many years, a master of his trade wherever he has travelled, but particularly effective around Ballybrit, Pat Smullen will be sorely missed by all of us this week, as he continues his battle, faced with typical determination, to beat pancreatic cancer.
Judging by the strength of his entries, Mullins will be tough to beat in the battle for the leading trainer award.
He will chase a third Guinness Galway Hurdle success with a team expected
to include Whiskey Sour, a dual-winner at the meeting last year, Good Thyne Tara, Voix Du Reve, Blazer and Max Dynamite.
Another major force this week, in every type of race, will be Melbourne Cup, Irish Gold Cup and Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby winning trainer, Joseph O’Brien, who won the Hurdle with Tigris River 12 months ago. Tigris will be back, attempting back-to-back wins in the race, something which hasn’t been achieved since Pinch Hitter back in 1982-’83.
And he’s likely to be joined by stable-companions Ivanovich Gorbatov, Le Richebourg and Monarch.
In-form Henry de Bromhead has won the Plate twice in the last three years and will be well-represented on Wednesday, when Patricks Park is expected to lead the Mullins challenge for a race he has won once (with Blazing Tempo in 2011) and which his late and legendary father Paddy and his brothers Tony and Tom have also tasted success.
And owner JP McManus, who has won the Plate six times, is likely to have five runners in both the Hurdle and Plate, depending on how the ballots work out.
What promises to be another tremendous week kicks off today with a card featuring the Connacht Hotel Amateur Handicap.
This is a race which record-breaking, ten-times champion Patrick Mullins has never won.
So take very seriously his chosen mount from the Closutton team.