Top tip of the day - pack a poncho for the rain


The Fianna Fáil tent has been confined to the dustbin of history but the champagne tent stands defiant against the downturn – and the downpours

DURING RACE week almost everyone in Galway has a tip to share but, as seasoned festival-goers know well, most are as worthless as a Fianna Fáil membership card in Ballybrit. The only useful tip yesterday came from a taxi driver who suggested punters pack ponchos for the third day of the festival.

He was right on the money. Shortly after the fourth race, the heavens opened and rain lashed down on the frocks and the fascinators of those unable to make it to the shelter of the bars on time.

While the frequent downpours made the going heavy for the horses, the relentless economic gloom meant the going was almost as ponderous for celeb-watchers.

The ripple of excitement that spread through the press tent after (former government minister) Tom Kitt was seen placing a bet at the Tote was a depressing sign of how the races have changed since the bubble popped four years ago.

There was no Bertie Ahern glad-handing the locals, no ministerial Mercs, few helicopters and few bubbles being quaffed by the well heeled and the well known throughout the day.

While the Fianna Fáil tent has been confined to the dustbin of history, the champagne tent is still there, standing defiant against the downturn. Until it started raining, however, it was half-empty, with most racegoers choosing instead to swig €5 beer from plastic cups.

The skies-over-Saigon feel of the city has also disappeared and the buzz of choppers over Ballybrit yesterday was barely loud enough to wake a sleeping mare.

Tuesday evening’s meeting was dreary and damp but the sun was there for much of yesterday, unlike Enda Kenny who, despite the rumours, steered clear of the festival again.

Maybe he’s waiting for Ladies’ Day today.

Wild horses couldn’t have kept Kilkenny trainer Paudie Barron away. He was nervously stroking his Padre Pio medal outside the parade ring minutes before the first race as he waited for his horse Excellent As Usual’s moment in the sun in the third race of the day.

“He’s got a great chance,” Barron said. “We had him running last year but he fell three jumps out. It is not easy to compete against the big boys with all the money but hopefully the medal will give me the edge,” he said.

It didn’t. Excellent As Usual was anything but and was nowhere to be seen at the end.

There was some drama in the day’s first race when favourite Too Scoops and long-shot Gold Ability went head to head. It was a family affair that came good at the death. Gold Ability is owned by Tracy O’Hare, wife of bookmaker Barney O’Hare, and it was trained by his son Michael.

The bookie’s family came to the rescue of the bookies on the course: his 8-1 win after a stewards’ inquiry was greeted with audible relief from those who avoided a hefty payout on the 11/8 who was pipped at the post.

Bookies smiling was the story of the day – with each passing race their grins grew wider while punters grew glummer as fancied horses faltered and long-shots came good.

“My man just took the umbrella and ran. There were obviously more exciting things here than his wife,” said Anne Marie McManus with a laugh as she sheltered from the driving rain under canvas in the winners’ enclosure.

“I really hope he comes back or I’ll be stuck here all day,” she said, looking mournfully at the sheets of rain and the retreating back of her husband Kieran, who had done a runner moments after the JP McManus-owned Bob Lingo romped home in the Galway Plate.

“What odds was he – 16 to 1? That’s my hat for tomorrow sorted so,” she added before stepping on to the podium with JP’s wife Noreen and her husband to accept the €120,000 prize for the day’s feature race.

Galway hurler Joe Canning is a man who knows a thing or two about upsetting favourites. He was on fire last month as he spearheaded Galway’s astonishing demolition of Kilkenny in the Leinster hurling final but he admitted to some nerves as he handed over a newly minted Galway Plate to the McManus clan.

He expressed concern that he would fumble the new-look plate, which is more like a tray than a plate, as it happens, but there were no slip-ups. After he presented the McManus family with their latest piece of silverware he was phlegmatic about the Leinster final win. “That’s history now,” was all he would say.

Niall Rooney, from a well-known Galway family, knows a thing or two about the history of the races. His father Ray set up an auctioneering and insurance firm in the city in the 1960s and was a big supporter of the races until his death three years ago. As his son stood in the rain and looked to the heavens, he noted the absence of helicopters.

“I think I’ve only seen one today, while a few years back there might have been 30 or 40 coming in.

“Things have changed, that’s for sure, but the atmosphere is still fantastic here. People come from all over for the races. It’s like nowhere else in the world.”