A good week or bad week? The winners and losers from the Galway festival
It isn’t unknown for Galway’s seven-day spectacular to throw up its share of controversy, but last week’s festival went about as smoothly as anyone could have hoped.
Dramatic episodes involving The Real Article, Carlingford Lough, Pyromaniac and curious trainers’ championship criteria have all coloured the unique Ballybrit bonanza in recent years. There was no hullabaloo of such emotive proportions last week, and the week was certainly no worse for it.
Here, Richard Forristal reflects on those who enjoyed a memorable week and those who could have done better.
Good week for . . .
Jockeys: the old guard reassert authority
Barry Geraghty returned from injury with a winner in the very first race and ended with a belated first Guinness Galway Hurdle success and the leading jump jockeys’ title. Happy days.
Likewise, Davy Russell’s fascinating relationship with Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud firm took another twist when he appeared to in effect be reinstated as their first-choice rider for the Galway Plate.
He exhibited all his customary big-race calm to add a breakthrough Plate victory to his two Galway Hurdle triumphs and leave everyone pondering if he will once again be a routine presence on Gigginstown first strings through the winter months.
Ruby Walsh was also in fine form, while Noel Fehily made his flying visit pay by collecting on Tuesday aboard Three Wise Men, his only ride of the week.
A mention too for Paddy Kennedy, older brother of Jack who emerged from the young tyro’s shadow to depart with two winners.
Trainers: Mullins farms a yield of Punchestown proportions
Willie Mullins plundered a second trainers’ title in succession and an aggressive strategy that yielded 12 wins mirrored what you might expect of him at Punchestown in April.
He landed three of the seven feature events, two of which came via Whiskey Sour, who is now unbeaten in three starts for him. The Plate and Hurdle heroes Henry de Bromhead and Joseph O’Brien also excelled.
Happily, there were plenty of others from the lower echelons who also left their mark. Brothers Paul, Peter and Seamus Fahey departed with four wins between them, while the rampant Joe Murphy enjoyed another fabulous week in the west.
Swamp Fox endured the misfortune of finishing second in two of the main events, getting there a mite too late when bidding to retain the amateur riders’ race and a mile too soon in the Galway Hurdle.
Murphy finished up with two winners and three seconds from ten runners, a strike-rate that John Joe Walsh would render wasteful.
The wily County Cork handler ran just two horses and both won, with Ballyegan Hero clinging on to take Saturday’s showpiece under Rachael Blackmore.
Brian Ellison reaffirmed his affinity for Ballybrit by saddling the first three home in Sunday’s Ahonoora Handicap, while Robbie McNamara scored with Cascavelle on Tuesday.
If the reception he got was anything to go by, that was the most popular winner of the week.
Horses – class to the fore once more
Many gallant turns, but the standout performances came from Amedeo Modigliani and Balko Des Flos.
Inexplicably, good horses turning up at Galway has become something of a post-truth phenomenon, and both are of a standard that used to be a rarity around Ballybrit.
The Ballydoyle juvenile didn’t have to beat much but looks smart, while Balko Des Flos won a cracking edition of the Plate.
Old and new developments
Hats off to all involved for the operation and management of almost every aspect of the festival, with, for example, masses of departing traffic now directed in a far more fluent manner.
A two-page spread that made each day’s entire programme accessible at a glance in the traditional racecard proved popular, and there was also a top-of-the-range touchscreen replay facility available inside the door of the weigh room, or outside the door of the stewards’ room, if you like.
Provided by Bart and Helen Arnold’s Irish Racing Integrity Services (IRIS), it is an innovative interactive tool, and there is an ambition to eventually install the technology at every track in the country. It is a simple but invaluable device that might also herald a movement toward more high-tech resources inside the stewards’ room.
Bad week for. . .
Jockeys – Smullen and Cooper get a taste of the challenges ahead
Pat Smullen departed with two winners. It constitutes a poor return only because of the stratospheric standards he and Dermot Weld have set, but it does illustrate the scale of the task he faces to retain his champion jockeys’ crown.
Colin Keane had to wait until the penultimate day to get on the winners’ sheet, yet it might have been the week that saw the title race swing Smullen’s way. As it was, a brace meant Keane more or less cemented his lead by standing still.
In a similar vein, Bryan Cooper’s yield of one is significant only because of the context within which it is framed.
It was apt that Cooper and Weld should combine to get off the mark for the week with Adyoun, and, while the Kerry-born rider is still going to be part of the Gigginstown plans, he is also now going to have to beat his own path.
Russell’s presence on the fancied Balko Des Flos highlighted how the status quo has altered, so Cooper needs to somehow reinvent himself as a go-to rider in a similar fashion to his predecessor.
Both he and Smullen have considerable obstacles to overcome in their respective quests.
Trainers – Weld and Martin struggle to get going
There was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it seemed every second yard was hit by a dreaded virus of some sort.
Advancements in training procedures and veterinary technologies seem to have helped eradicate the propensity of virus-struck stables.
As such, it is slightly incongruous that Weld, a vet by profession, is seemingly suffering the most noticeable negative impact from a virus in recent years. That it took him six days to get a winner at Galway tells its own story.
Tony Martin is another who has targeted Galway to great effect over the past few years, so a return of 1-24, with Dara Tango finally getting him off the mark on Sunday, represents a disappointing strike-rate for him.
Opportunity lost by publishing entries late
Although reluctant to crib too much, there are a few points to note.
First, while acknowledging there are reasons for delaying the entries for the two big races, including to dissuade nefarious activity after the weights are published, there is surely an opportunity being missed in terms of promotion when you have classy and popular horses like Balko Des Flos, Shaneshill and Clondaw Warrior among the intended starters.
The Monday before racing began was the first the public saw of the entries, which is hardly ideal, and is a week later than normal for valuable handicaps.
As is often the case at the major festivals, once-a-year punters continue to be dealt a miserable hand by the on-course layers, with routinely large SP over-rounds doing little to validate the theory that the ring is the place to get value.
Sure, the on-track bookie faces all manner of challenges, but that doesn’t make it acceptable to take advantage of casual bettors’ ignorance.
Betting with the layers was down eight per cent in all over the course of the week, and the Tote turnover clocked a similarly negative return, while attendance also took a hit.
As ever, there were mitigating circumstances, not least the clash with the All Ireland hurling semi-final that Galway won so dramatically on Sunday. Still, there is always something.
It is a reminder that Ireland’s reported economic recovery is still fragile, while the continued dominance of the big players in the major handicaps is another factor at play.
The Plate, and the Hurdle to a less defined extent, has become the preserve of the major forces within the game.
While acknowledging what these influential stakeholders do for the sport, it cannot be denied such hegemony serves to erode some of the romance.
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