Masses missing as Galway races begin without the din

Top handler Willie Mullins out to be leading light at Ballybrit for a fifth straight year

Galway prepares for a week of racing without racegoers at Ballybrit. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Galway prepares for a week of racing without racegoers at Ballybrit. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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The Galway races, perhaps Irish racing’s most social event of the year, will be distanced from its core appeal when beginning behind closed doors on Monday.

A national institution normally drumming to the beat of 130,000 people packed into Ballybrit over seven days is instead reduced to an eerie exercise in a sport and industry running at its bare minimum.

It is a unique scenario in the 150-year history of Galway race week – one that punches a €50 million hole in the local economy – and a stark illustration of the continuing devastating impact of coronavirus.

The comparatively frivolous issue of racing without spectators always must be kept in a much broader context. In many ways racing’s progress since resumption on June 8th has kept it ahead of other sectors.

But the Galway races without crowds is like Connemara without ponies.

Rather than the din of a raucous scrum of humanity the famous holiday week will be a workaday exercise in presenting opportunities to both race and bet.

Despite inevitable prizemoney cuts, up to €1.6 million will still be on offer over the seven days, including Wednesday’s Tote Plate and Thursday’s Guinness Hurdle, which are worth €200,000 each.

Monday evening’s feature, the Connacht Hotel Handicap, Irish racing’s ‘amateur Derby’ is now worth €75,000.

The shape of the week’s action is altered too with the traditional mix of flat and jump racing dispensed with.

Monday and Tuesday are all flat action along with the coming weekend. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be exclusively National Hunt.

Some things appear unchanged however, including how Willie Mullins is targeting another big week.

Jump racing’s most dominant figure has been top trainer at Galway for the last four years. In 2019 he saddled 10 winners. He had a dozen victories in each of the two previous years and nine in 2016.

Mullins has 10 declarations on Monday alone, having saddled just a dozen runners in all over the last three weeks.

Mullins’s Aramon is among the favourites for Thursday’s Galway Hurdle while bookmakers anticipate his rival Gordon Elliott having the favourite for the Plate in Galvin.

Champion jockey Paul Townend is favourite to again be top jumps rider this week.

“It will be strange as Galway is known for atmosphere but once you get up on the horse and out on the track you don’t see or hear, so the racing itself will be as competitive as ever,” he said on Sunday.

A handful of Mullins’s runners on Monday are in the big race as he pursues a fourth win in a row in the opening day feature.

He also has a significant third reserve in Foveros, who will be ridden by Aubrey McMahon if getting into the race. McMahon won in 2017 and 2018 on Whiskey Sour and Uradel respectively.

Last year’s winning partnership of Great White Shark and Jody Townend return for another crack at a handicap not won back-to-back since Gamekeeper in 2000-01.

However, the stable number one appears to be the top-class hurdler Sharjah who will bid to finally give Patrick Mullins an elusive first success.

The most successful ever amateur jockey has been unlucky 13 times before in Ireland’s ‘amateur Derby’ and is desperate to put that statistic right in a race his father won as a rider all of 35 years ago on Pargan.

Another father-son team with a major chance is that of Charles and Philip Byrnes, who team up for Run For Mary, while another of Ireland’s top amateurs, Jamie Codd, tries to break his race duck too on Dermot Weld’s Dalton Highway.

The German import Princess Zoe has nothing like the profile of some of her rivals but could hardly have won easier on her second Irish start at the Curragh.

She is up almost a stone in ratings as a result, although even that might be enough to stop her progress.

Mt Leinster will try to give Mullins a fourth win in a row in the concluding amateur maiden where Codd and Weld again team up for the three-year-old Ciel d’Afrique.

Many Galway punters are likely to rely on Wembley to set them on their way for the week in the opening maiden.

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