Blow for Galway as crowds for summer festival are capped at 1,000 for each day
Galway manager Michael Moloney has described the news that just 1,000 spectators will attend each day of the track's summer festival as "extremely disappointing" for the meeting's supporters, having hoped to host 5,000 people in plans submitted to the government.
Officials at Ballybrit had been waiting over two weeks since announcing proposals for the largest crowds on an Irish racecourse since March 2020, but the government on Tuesday night granted just 20 per cent of the capacity they had sought permission for.
Trainer John 'Shark' Hanlon and local rider Leigh Roche were among those to express their disappointment at the news.
The development comes as a blow to Irish racing's immediate hopes of returning to larger crowds at fixtures, with no increase in numbers from the 1,000 spectators allowed to attend the Curragh's government-led pilot event on Irish Derby day last month.
It appears tickets on general sale will be limited, with owners and Galway's 1,200 members getting first refusal on the spaces.
The festival is due to start on Monday, July 26 and includes the Tote Galway Plate and Guinness Galway Hurdle, two of Irish racing's most prestigious races, each carrying a €250,000 purse.
Speaking on Wednesday morning, Moloney said: "We know given the support we’ve got over the last couple of weeks this will be extremely disappointing news to all our fans who had been looking forward to the opportunity maybe of coming back to Ballybrit this year.
"On the upside it is 7,000 more people than we had this time last year and, for those who do manage to get to come to Ballybrit this year, we’re delighted we’ll have owners back and now a small amount of public on top of that. We certainly look forward to making it an event worth being at."
He added: "The one light we hold is that hopefully we can look to a 2022 festival where the number of people here will be dependent on how many we can get through the gates, as opposed to how many we're allowed."
On how the 1,000 places for spectators will be divided up, Moloney said: "Owners are top of the list and after that we have our members' club at Ballybrit, with about 1,200 involved in that. That'll be the second offering and after that if there's a small number of tickets left over they'll be offered to the public."
As it stands, tracks in Ireland can host 500 people at regular meetings, with owners included in that allocation.
From June 7, 200 spectators were allowed at outdoor events and restrictions were relaxed to permit 300 more on July 3, since when some racecourses have been welcoming back members and shareholders, as well as putting on sale a small number of tickets to the general public.
Other sports such as gaelic games have been allowed to host greater numbers at events since initial pilots, including Irish Derby day.
There will be 18,000 spectators at this weekend's Leinster hurling final at Croke Park – a venue that can hold 82,300 – with GAA president Larry McCarthy outlining his desire this week to have 36,000 at the All-Ireland hurling and football semi-finals on the two weekends that follow the Galway festival.
Hanlon, who regularly targets Ballybrit, was perplexed by the government's decision to limit the festival's crowds considering how other sports are welcoming back greater numbers.
"It's very important that the owners are there but I can't understand how other sports can have bigger crowds at events than racing does at the minute," he said.
"How can there be 18,000 in Croke Park this weekend, whereas you wouldn't see 5,000 people in Galway? I'm very disappointed because I was hoping there'd be the 5,000 they'd planned for, maybe even more. Only allowing 1,000 people is madness."
Roche, a native of Tuam, County Galway, added: "It's the one place where the crowds really add to the atmosphere and without them last year it didn't even really feel like Galway.
"They have a great team there from top to bottom – they do an unbelievable job – and it's unfortunate for them that they haven't got the crowds they should be getting. At least with 1,000 a day there will be some positive move from last year.
"Whether you wouldn't know a horse if it kicked you or if you followed the sport closely, everyone around Galway wants to be there for race week. It's unfortunate but I'm sure Eyre Square will still be bouncing."
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