Ireland’s legendary Galway racing festival still comes first in the revelry stakes.
Text Susanne Madsen Photography Tine Harden/ The Horse Rider’s Journal No.2
If prestigious Derbys, Belmont Stakes or Grand Nationals are your thing, beware: you won’t find them at the Galway summer festival. Yet, despite of its lack of high-end, high-status races, the Irish flat and steeple racetrack has secured a place as the world’s most fabled racing event, surrounded by a mythical air of history and adventure – it even compelled the Irish poet W.B. Yeats to pen a poem about it. Galway is to the world of racing what Glastonbury is to the music festival and Mardi Gras is to the carnival: an epic, not-to-be-missed non-stop seven-day party, celebrating not just good old-fashioned horse racing, but a very jolly good time.
Every summer, starting on the last Monday of July, Galway’s Ballybrit racetrack – which is situated on the eastern outskirts of Galway and trails around the moss-covered remnants of the ancient Ballybrit Castle – welcomes thousands of merry racegoers. Flat-capped bookies flash their betting signs, the Guinness and Oyster bar is buzzing, and the air is filled with live music and anticipation as the crowd scream at the top of their lungs, anxiously holding their breath (and clutching their race cards and tote tickets) as the horses come thundering into the home stretch. But the Galway Races are more than a national Irish treasure. The festival is the country’s biggest sporting event and a key entry on the social calendar. Everyone comes to take in the spectacle, place a few bets and visit the champagne tents, fish and chip shops and the tearooms. And even in the throes of the recession, Galway is going strong: this year’s sunny meeting attracted more than 20.000 visitors daily, generating an estimated 70 million euro for the local Irish economy. During the festival, the medieval merchant town of Galway – nestled on Ireland’s beautiful west coast – turns into 24/7 party central, with pubs and bars forgoing normal closing hours to cater to the massive crowds.
Since the first race festival at Ballybrit in 1869, Galway has completely captured people’s imagination. Racing in the area can be traced back to the 1300s, and it is hardly surprising that national hunt racing (as steeplechasing is called in the UK and Ireland) has its roots in the horse-loving Ireland. In the 1700s, chases took place between village churches: competing riders would clear any hurdles, fences and walls on their way, using the church steeple to guide them towards the finish line. And when land was made available for racing at Ballybrit in 1869, local politicians and nobility set up Galway’s inaugural event, drawing crowds of 40,000 people. The competing horses arrived in leisurely style: The Midland and Great Western Railway had offered to transport all racehorses free of charge.
Today’s main race, the Galway Plate – an open handicap national hunt that takes place on the Wednesday during the festival – has been running since the first meeting, while the other important race, the Galway Hurdle, was added in 1913. Galway has of course produced its fair share of celebrity horses, the most famous being the triple Galway Plate winner Tipperary Boy, who won the Plate in 1899, 1901 and 1902. Irish Grand National winners such as Fair Richard and Red Park have also been tested on the course, as Galway has a reputation for being an ideal place for maidens and novices. That doesn’t mean the wide, right-handed track provides an easy ride, though: the last two fences are the closest of any two fences on a racetrack anywhere in the world, and sit at the bottom of a famously steep decline. And after that, the track takes a sharp incline before reaching the finish line, putting the strong Irish thoroughbreds to the test.
Every year, national hunts come under scrutiny due to the number of horses injured during the races, and it is sadly not unusual to witness a horse being put down by a vet in the middle of the racetrack after a vicious fall. (Of course, the UK’s Grand National takes the most heat in this discussion – this year, the drop and width of the controversial Becher’s Brook fence was adjusted once more, after two horses died.) Although fences at Ballybrit are much less severe and each horse has the capacity to easily sail every obstacle, any good horse and champion jockey can get caught at a bad angle. Especially when 22 horses try to tackle the same fence.
But if you’re planning on doing a little betting at Ballybrit next year, it pays to do some research on trainers before you survey the parade ring. The name Dermot Weld usually spells winnings: the former jockey and qualified vet has not only produced winners for the most illustrious racetracks all over the world, but has also had an astounding 238 winners at the Galways Races. This year, the Irishman even beat his own record, with 17 winners in one week. Another major player is Willie Mullins, whose yard continues to produce some of Ireland’s (and the world’s) top horses. Mullins trained this year’s Galway Plate winner, the mare Blazing Tempo, who was ridden to victory by Irishman jump jockey champion, Paul Townend. Other big jockey names are always out in force at Galway. Irishman Ruby Walsh, who has won the Grand National and is a major player at Cheltenham, is a long-standing favourite at Ballybrit. Walsh sadly missed this year’s meeting due to a crushed neck vertebrae and ligament damage, but is back in the saddle now, much to the delight of his huge fan following. All-round amazing jockey star, AP McCoy, always comes to Galway as well, alongside his wife Chanelle, who leads Ballybrit’s style stakes. Because although Ascot may rule the turf when it comes to Ladies’ Day, there are amazing dresses aplenty at the Galway Races as women compete with the jockeys’ jewel-coloured silks for attention.
Chanelle McCoy’s designer of choice this season? The French designer Roland Mouret. •