Omey races: horses compete in Connemara windy weather

Over 2,000 people attend the rugged annual race in the west of Ireland

Horses and jockeys pounding the sand at the Omey races in Connemara on Sunday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Horses and jockeys pounding the sand at the Omey races in Connemara on Sunday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

White horses on the near-Atlantic, wild southeasterlies and Wellington boot weather might make any racecourse manager want to roll over in bed. Not Feicín Mulkerrin, who was up just after dawn on Sunday for the Omey races in Connemara.

Dozens of volunteers rose with him, and more than 2,000 spectators turned up later for the 14th annual festival on the strand between Claddaghduff and Omey island.

And if it didn’t quite feel like the feast of Lúghnasa, it didn’t seem to matter to those who had made the effort – with dozens of French, Italian and North American visitors and Ballynahinch Castle Hotel owner Denis O’Brien among them.

“I know what it’s like to be on the other side, trying to run something like this,” Galway Arts Centre director Páraic Breathnach said, cheerfully wearing shorts in defiance of the elements.

Out on the track, just before the first race, Enda Mulkerrin was on his father’s tractor, clearing away any rocks and stones that might emerge. His sister Sharon, and impending sister-in-law Marie Gallagher, were busy marking up details of the runners in the Omey grandstand – a “gig rig” or articulated trailer.

“Yes, it’s a bit of a family effort,” Feicín Mulkerrin acknowledged.

Race commentator Tom O’Callaghan had strapped his microphone to his anorak, prepared for all conditions. “I wouldn’t miss it – it’s the nursery for serious jockeys, events like this,” O’Callaghan said.

“Omey gives them great discipline in race-handling, pace-making, dealing with stewards, and it’s a beacon in terms of community involvement.

“Just look how jockey Jack Kennedy won on Clondaw Warrior for Willie Mullins in the Guinness Handicap at Ballybrit on Friday,” O’Callaghan continued.

“Kennedy came through this system, and of course next weekend will be the Cheltenham of horse and pony racing in my home town of Dingle, ” he added.

“You have to commit when you come to Omey,” Clare bookmaker Hugh O’Neill said. From Granahan near Newmarket-on-Fergus, he is a third generation practitioner and one of eight bookies setting up stalls.

“It’s not like you can go into your betting shop or turn on your telly, and there’s no internet for this,” he said. “That’s what makes it better than a lot of the proper racing, and the amount of champions who start here is phenomenal, just phenomenal.”

Over at the amusements, it was too wild for bouncy castles. Several ice-cream van owners scanned the skyline for a ray of sunshine, knowing full well it was a hot-dog day.

Miriam Crehan, secretary of the Midlands Horse and Pony Racing Association, was delighted with the turnout, as she confirmed that Co Galway jockey Sinéad Lohan had won the €1,500 Omey Plate on Dancing in the Dark.

It was a Crehan day in more ways than one. Ms Crehan’s 17-year-old son Mark had a ride in every race and had two wins, while two of her horses came second and third.

The final race of the day was one on which no bets were taken. Feicín Mulkerrin periodically checked his watch. There would be many runners in the “Omey Skedaddle” for Claddaghduff, as a high tide would burst through the sound at 5pm. There was no need for a stewards’ inquiry as cars, trucks and horse boxes made it across the strand, to the apocryphal whisper on the wind of “Winner alright.”