Goodbye, Galway Races - John Moloney, outgoing manager

When John Moloney became manager of the Galway Races in 1989, racegoers ate picnics on the grass. In the boom years, they arrived by helicopter for €400 dinners. He retires as the event emerges from its ‘rough years’

John Moloney, who is to retire as general manager of Galway Racecourse. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

John Moloney, who is to retire as general manager of Galway Racecourse. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

The tiny grey tower just down from the winning post bears a heavy symbolism. It was erected in the bacchanalian year of 2007 to manage the swarm of helicopters clattering into Ballybrit and its four landing pads, saving tigers and cubs the ennui of the seven-kilometre road trip from Oranmore, and for the trifling sum of €350 return (or €200 one way). Golf buggies waited to ferry them to the stands.

There were 2,000 helicopter landings that year in Ballybrit. The social diarists back then wrote of Irish men and women – not all bankers or builders – arriving by chopper after a lobster lunch in Clifden, or flying in for the €400-a-pop lamb or halibut and essential ministerial shoulder-rubbing in the Fianna Fáil tent.

John Moloney is still the shrewd Munster farmer who arrived in 1989 to manage the Galway Races, after a few years on the much smaller course in Tipperary. His face is inscrutable for the most part, but the helicopter phenomenon clearly baffles him still.

“Well, you’d look out there in the sky, and there were so many of them it was like bees coming at you. Even after the races, people would stay sitting in the stand and just watch them coming in. Imagine being over in the Corrib and having to get a helicopter to come two miles,” he says with the harrumphy laugh of a countryman who’s seen everything now. “But that was the way it was, sure. If you didn’t arrive in a helicopter you weren’t doing well at all.”

They were the years when Ireland had more helicopters per capita than the UK, most of them privately owned, and attendance at the Galway Races soared, peaking at 217,000.

“We were on a mission,” Moloney says. “We never thought we were going to see a poor day again.” Did anyone see the crash coming? “We had one committee member who did – Tim Naughton, who passed away this year. He was the only one I can remember. Did we listen? Not really, including myself.”

Nor, it seems, did the developer who got almost three storeys of a retail block built across the road before the bubble burst. In its unfinished state it lies grey, ugly and exposed, tarnishing all that surrounds it, a reminder of the party that would never end.

Bank guarantee

They went through some “rough years” then, he says. “The helicopters went very quick. Two or three years ago there were only about six of them, and they were really people within the industry who needed to move quickly.”

Come 2013, attendances were back to 130,000 or so and, some would say, the kind of likeable, countryish meeting Galway used to be. But they’re climbing again, says Moloney, mentioning a surge of interest from the UK, probably because of the strength of sterling, with online bookings up 25 or 30 per cent on last year. “We’re probably talking 2,500 to 3,000 UK people.”

As he retires to his Co Limerick farm with his wife, Noreen, after 26 years on the job, he and succeeding race committees leave a substantial legacy to the 146-year-old national-hunt festival, an event that has held its own – and its 158 precious acres – against a plethora of competitors and speculative noses. Figures compiled by UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School suggest that the festival’s contribution to the local economy is worth €54 million.

Moloney commissioned the study this year as part of the Galway Races’ defence against plans for the new Galway city bypass, which, he says, “will take out 40 houses and a big skelp – 15 acres – of the racecourse. It’s going to be underground, but all that will be dug, a massive 30 metres wide, and all that has to be carted out, covered over, and we won’t be allowed to build on it.”

Moloney talks about the good and bad years as “waves”. He knows about waves. He was still working on his father’s farm in the bleak mid 1980s when there was a dip in farming and he took the assistant manager’s job at Tipperary Racecourse.

By the time he arrived in Galway he knew nearly everyone in the business, and the job was a simple one. “Paint the place up, open the gates and let the people in through the turnstiles. The entrance was across the course, on a narrow country road. The old Corrib stand had no roof on it, and the west stand, built in 1973-74, was fairly ordinary, with no facilities. There was the tote building, with a corrugated-roof tea rooms and lunch halls. And that was it.”

Since then a new restaurant has been opened, an owners’ and trainers’ bar, a rebuilt Corrib stand and the fine, Brendan Phelan-designed Killanin stand, constructed by Bernard McNamara and opened in 2007, with panoramic views that embrace Black Head in Co Clare, the Aran Islands, Kinvara and Lough Corrib. Underpasses have been built for traffic and pedestrians. Total investment: about €50 million, of which the committee had to find 60 per cent, in good years and bad.

It’s a different place now, but some stout Galway traditions prevail. “There are no special areas, no boxes,” Moloney says proudly. “We have hospitality facilities for 1,300, but they take tables, not boxes. That was deliberate policy. Everybody’s the same at the Galway Races.”

Michael Lynn, the now former solicitor who fled Ireland with bank claims of €80 million against him, paid €10,000 for hospitality here in 2006 – barely a third of his corporate expenses that year. Clearly, there was something in the hopped-up Galway air that suited his mission.

Ready for the races

The races were often the place where locals got their first summer jobs, selling racecards, manning the turnstiles, painting the stands or working on the track. Moloney reckons about 40 students still get up to two months’ work out of it.

We pass a truck and trailer with its daily delivery of about 400 barrels of beer. The champagne area – one brand – is huge. The small size of the hot-beef-rolls tent belies its phenomenal sales.

The owners’ and trainers’ bar, the place to be seen next week if you’re anyone, is a haven of space and seductive little gilt chairs that nobody – tragically for those in deranged stilettos – will be able to find, never mind sit in, next week because the place will be heaving with bodies.

Another tradition maintained is what they call the free area. It’s a way of going to the races without paying admission. “The amount of people who say, ‘The first time we came to Galway Races was in the free area, and we had a picnic and saw the races.’ It’s a prime position, south of the stands, with bookies and a big screen, and you can drive in and pay the €2 to park or walk in from the city.

“You’d have 7,000-8,000 people out there when I came first. You might get 2,000- 3,000 in it now.”

The lean years mean having to work harder to find sponsors (who fear being seen to be flaithiúlach with their money). So Monday’s races, at the start of the course’s week-long Summer Festival, will have multiple sponsors, including hotels, a pub and a car dealer, although Guinness takes over on Thursday and Friday, sponsoring the Galway Hurdle, the richest national-hunt race in Ireland.

It points up the challenge for Moloney, the race committee and Moloney’s successor – his son, Michael, fresh from managing Plumpton Racecourse, in England, for four years. Is anyone muttering about nepotism? “Not yet,” Michael says. “We don’t know the meaning of that word,” John says with a resigned shake of the head.

Outside Moloney points to the house 50 metres from the track where he and Noreen reared their sons and that now also passes to Michael. Moloney is happy to be going back to the house and farm in Knocklong. “It’s a young man’s job; the week is pretty onerous,” he says.

As we look back at the track he points out the last two fences in the straight, the last two fences in the Galway Plate and “the two closest fences in the world”.

And then he points to the famous hill where the horses are nearing home. “When you hear the roar of the crowd when the horses come up that hill, it’s really a huge feeling. Yes, it does touch me,” John Moloney says in a tender tone that he rarely reveals to strangers.

Galway Races Summer Festival starts on Monday

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