Galway Festival gets under way as Irish racing industry continues to feel the pressure

A crowd of 1,000 will attend each day at Ballybrit but mood set to be introspective

The Galway Festival is usually about more than racing, often serving as a barometer of much wider contexts.

The famous fund-raising tent became a symbol of Celtic Tiger Ireland. After being held behind closed doors last year, the fact that 1,000 spectators will be allowed at the festival each day this week reflects broader tentative steps being taken nationally towards a pandemic recovery.

This time, however, the coming week, with 52 races worth over €1.8 million, and estimated to generate €8.5 million in betting nationally, shapes as being a more introspective measure of sentiment within racing itself.

That’s because 2021 already has the stamp of being an ‘annus horribilis’ for the sport in Ireland.


So perhaps it is inevitable that even at the height of summer its most visible week of the year is unlikely to escape that dark pall.

Away from the racecourse an appeal by controversial trainer Stephen Mahon against a record four-year suspension received last month for breaches of rules relating to animal welfare will be held this Saturday.

At the weekend, and just a couple of years after Gordon Elliott supplied them Galway Plate glory with Borice, English owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede removed their horses from the trainer following details that emerged about another of their animals in last week's Panorama programme.

That uncomfortable BBC examination of what can happen to racehorses after they have finished racing came on the back of the lingering impact of Jim Bolger’s claims about doping and his lack of faith in racing’s regulator.

Even on Monday the first horse ever to test positive for an anabolic steroid in this country lines up in the third race.

The Denis Hogan-trained Turbine achieved that unfortunate and unwanted tag last year after a veterinary error resulted in the horse being administered a substance containing Nandralone by mistake.

For a sector that has taken such a reputational battering recently there is added into the mix an extra sense of grievance about just 1,000 lucky racegoers being allowed into Ballybrit.

Hopes for five times that number under an easing of Covid-19 restrictions were dashed earlier this month, leaving many to ponder how Galway city will be thronged this week while the racecourse’s wide-open spaces will largely be empty.

Admittedly the limited attendance means a tiny number of racecourse bookmakers will be trading at what was traditionally the biggest betting ring of the year. However, turnover will be minuscule compared to normal.

If it all shapes as a notably grim pastiche of a festival notable for its celebratory atmosphere, there could also be no avoiding echoes of other embarrassing headlines from earlier this year after Monday evening’s €100,000 feature.

The notorious case of Viking Hoard, and how the Charles Byrnes-trained horse was 'nobbled' with a sedative by an unidentified person at Tramore racecourse in 2018, ultimately saw Byrnes suspended in January for six months after being found to be negligent in his supervision of the horse.

Last month his son, Cathal, began training and will try to go one better than his father with Run For Mary in the Connacht Hotel Handicap.

The most coveted prize of the year in Ireland for amateur riders saw Run For Mary finish runner-up to Princess Zoe last year.

Considering the winner went on to prove herself a Group One talent it was an admirable effort by the Byrnes mare.

She is back for another crack at it now under jockey Philip Byrnes, on the back of a comeback win at Limerick last time, sporting first-time cheek-pieces, and on the same official handicap mark as last year.

A ‘car-park’ draw isn’t a plus but with a strong pace Run For Mary can sit in and finish strongly up the final hill.

Another horse donning first-time cheek-pieces is the English-trained hope Litterale Ci who was third to Great White Shark in this two years ago and could go close again.

It’s a very different Galway Festival now though, and a wider sector under very different pressures.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column