Weld's loss of dominance adds to mercurial mystique of Ballybrit
Richard Forristal on changing times and an increase in quality in the west
A certain mystique underpins the magic of the Galway races. This week the Tribal City, with its nocturnal street performers and cobbled walkways, sways to its own inimitable beat as hordes of revellers descend on a city that is otherwise renowned for its art and cultural scene to indulge in, well, pretty much everything bar art and culture.
For the next seven days, racing, gambling, food, drink and harmless low-brow jollity are the order of the day in the west. Racing aficionados and the general public converge to embrace the festival for what it is - a medley of merriment, maidens and handicappers.
Among a forecast crowd of 150,000 the great and the good, from political heavyweights to average Joes, will congregate for a bit of escapism on a relentless jaunt that rolls from one day to the next. Racing is the fulcrum on which it turns, yet in ways it isn’t really about racing at all.
Few can articulate why the Ballybrit gala has proved such a phenomenon for 148 years, although none got closer than John B Keane, who famously referred to the Galway races as “a state of mind”.
Yet if there is something mercurial about the city and the people, for many years there was at least comfort in the knowledge that one element was decidedly predictable.
Weld's superiority threatened
For nearly four decades, one component has been reliably reassuring: Dermot Weld’s Galway supremacy was a seemingly unshakeable constant.
In 2015, the Curragh maestro plundered the trainers’ title for a 29th time. However, that didn’t tell the full story. Although not outpointed, he was comprehensively outplayed by Willie Mullins and Tony Martin, both of whom saddled more winners than the Galway colossus.
It was a sign of things to come. Increased prize-money, better ground conditions and improved standards in the summer programmes have served to dramatically increase competition at a festival at which many of Weld’s elite peers had tended to turn up their noses.
Some trainers still stay away, but the record 17 winners saddled by Weld at the 52-race extravaganza in 2014 is a peak that might never again be scaled. The terms of engagement have changed.
Last year, forewarned of the points system that had lain redundant for so long, Mullins exacted revenge for the injustice of 2015. He departed with the scalp of the king of Ballybrit, his haul including what was then the most valuable jumps race in the land.
Mullins’ nemesis Gordon Elliott secured the Plate with Lord Scoundrel, but Clondaw Warrior's Hurdle coup would prove more important than any that would follow for Closutton on home soil last term. The €180,000 prize constituted the lion’s share of the perennial champion’s final €200,000 margin of victory over Elliott in their title dust-up.
Increase in quality
If it seems incongruous that a handicap hurdle run in high summer should have such a significant impact on the jumps championship, these days at least the quality of the race is more reflective of the purse on offer. The same is true across the board.
Last year, the subsequent Investec Derby hero Wings Of Eagles was beaten on his career debut in Friday’s maiden, and the Irish Derby victor Capri beat Rekindling in the mile contest the following day.
In Tuesday’s fillies’ version, Eziyra and Hydrangea were first and second before confirming themselves Group 1 players, and Penhill scored the same day en route to Cheltenham Festival glory. More trainers are now willing to embrace Galway’s quirks, something that has doubtless contributed to Weld’s diminishing dominance.
In times past, subdued form from the Weld team in the weeks preceding the festival wasn’t an undue concern. This term, though, the Rosewell horses have struggled to shake off the effects of a virus.
Weld could still pull the rabbit out of the hat, but contrast his running tally of 20 wins this term with the surge of Joseph O’Brien, who has saddled 22 winners in July alone.
The betting on the leading trainer award reflects the current reality, as does the field for Monday's juvenile maiden, a race Weld has landed 24 times and one either he or Aidan O’Brien have won in each of the past 11 years.
Neither man even has a runner this time, but the latter’s son will saddle likely odds-on favourite Medal Of Honour.
Nobody shall sleep
Speaking of fathers and sons, the Willie and Patrick Mullins combination is among those vying to thwart Joe Murphy’s 2016 winner Swamp Fox in the feature Connacht Hotel (QR) Handicap, while the fascinating Nessun Dorma will look to get the stable off to a flyer in the opening novice hurdle.
Having come close to being put down after fracturing a bone in his foot at the sales as a yearling, the choicely bred son of Canford Cliffs is carving out an increasingly promising career as a hurdler.
He is on a hat-trick here under Ruby Walsh and success for a horse whose name translates as nobody shall sleep would be a fitting way to get proceedings started. Party on.
The ground at Galway on Sunday eased to yielding, yielding to soft in places on the Flat course following five millimetres of rain overnight. The hurdle and bumper course was good to yielding.
More rain was forecast for Sunday night with between six and eight millimetres expected. The weather for the start of the festival meeting today is forecast to be cloudy with showers.
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