Galway races, but not as we know them
The bets may not be of the proportions seen at Ballybrit, but tensions can run high in the final race against the tide at Omey island’s annual meetingBOB DYLAN tossed his head, forever young, stamping impatient hooves. The sound of rhythmic pounding, the spray of sand and sea, was just too tempting, and this handsome animal wanted out, even as a haphazard queue of humankind wanted in.
For an empty horsebox, or a portaloo, or the canopy of a “gig rig”, is a handy shelter during an August bank holiday shower.
“Lads, lads, come on, come on!” came Dingle Tom’s urgent tones over the public address system. “This race has to be run off pretty quickly, ’cos the tide is coming !”
No arguing with that. Even funerals to the island graveyard have to bow to the lunar cycle at Omey, and so the annual horse and pony festival on the mile long strand separating the island from Claddaghduff is a tightly scheduled affair.
This year, high spring tides would make it even more challenging for racecourse manager, organiser and host Feicín Mulkerrin and his committee of many. Mulkerrin, who was instrumental in reviving the festival in 2001 with Triona Sweeney, Tom Delap and Malachy King, needs a cool head for several days before.
“We use a digger to put down the fencing stakes, but you can’t lay the course too soon,” he explained. “Sometimes the stakes won’t go down that easy, and they pop up when the tide fills again.”
“So then I’m out in the boat that evening, picking them up, and putting them back in again on the morning ebb . . . ”
The programme is another ordeal – although such words are not part of Mulkerrin’s softly-spoken vocabulary. “We raise the sponsorship locally, so I have enough information for the sponsors, the amount of money in each race and the distance – but that’s all”.
When the horse lorries and boxes and bookies and the Midland Horse and Pony Association officials arrive, everything falls seamlessly into place.
Sponging down one of his horses with a bucket of seawater, Joe McNamara was hoping for a good day. Roundstone-born and living six miles away from Claddaghduff, he first came to Omey when he was eight.
It wasn’t long before he was in the saddle himself. His daughters Kate and Emer are third-generation trainers.
“We always had working horses and ponies on the farm, and it was Connemara ponies that were raced here originally,” McNamara recalled. “Before pony shows and football took off, the racing was so much a part of everyone’s life.”
Back then, the festival involved a bicycle race around the track, and currach contests just off the shoreline. McNamara ponies won three years on the trot – or gallop – at Omey, and a horse named Renaldo, now grazing in the field nearby, was Joe’s first thoroughbred to win.
“There were no bookies in those days,” McNamara explained. “We had a long bar made from a beam of wood laid on two barrels, where the men drank bottles of stout and we had orange and lemonade, and the only gambling was when we threw pennies onto chequered lino for the laugh.”
Tom, or “Dingle Tom”, O’Callaghan, who has been compere since 2001, was calling everyone to order again as the bookies cleaned whiteboards or typed on keyboards the runners for the next race.