In a little over two weeks, the madness will begin. But already there is an air of effort and industry as Michael Moloney and his team are counting down to July 31, and the opening day of the 2017 racing festival. Take note of the date: a festival we usually associate with the last week of July will this year begin on the last day of July, the latest possible start date, and end on Sunday August, 6.
As we approach what will only be Michael’s second festival in charge, he has the demeanour of a man who has been doing this all his life, and, in many ways, he has. Moving up from Limerick at just four years of age, as his father, John, took on the role of racecourse manager in Galway, this famous Ballybrit landmark has been home to Michael for as long as he can remember. Whether learning to ride a bike as a young child, or mowing the lawns from the age of 12, the famous oval shaped track has provided the backdrop to many of his childhood memories.
After qualifying as an accountant with Deacy Gilligan in Galway, John spent two years as financial controller with The Connacht Hotel. But the lure of the racetrack was always in the background, and when the opportunity came to take on the role of financial controller at Plumpton racecourse in the U.K., Michael seized it. Two years as financial controller at Plumpton was followed by another two years there as CEO, and then the call from Galway came. Michael was contacted by members of the Galway racecourse committee, and a return to Galway was discussed over the following months. The outcome was his appointment as general manager of Galway racecourse in April 2015. He was perfectly positioned to take on the role. ‘I had obtained invaluable experience while at Plumpton, and was very happy to be offered the position in Galway,’ Michael says with the confidence of a man who was totally familiar with anything the new role could throw at him. It is a responsible position in Galway’s sporting life, but those responsibilities do not weigh heavily on the shoulders of the young man who feels at home in this environment.
The 2015 festival was Michael’s first, and his father, John’s last, as general manager of the racetrack. ‘It made sense that we would overlap for my first festival,’ Michael says, as his father was, and remains, a great sounding board and someone with whom he can discuss any aspect of the racetrack. While still very involved in the Irish racing scene at many levels, John has been banished back to Limerick as Michael has taken up residency in the house where he grew up and which comes with the position of racecourse manager.
A TEAM EFFORT
Michael is quick to give credit to the team who work at the racecourse: the 10 employees are divided equally among those who run the office and the administration and marketing side of the business, and those who look after the track. Michael is proud of the work done by Gerry Broderick and his team, and is confident the track will be in excellent condition for this year’s festival. The benefits of the drainage work carried out five years ago are plain to see, and the expectation is that the course will ride as well as it has done for many years. The addition of Sinead Cassidy to the team as sales and marketing manager is also testament to the determination to continue to push forward in all aspects of the racecourse development.
Michael is first and foremost a racing man, and that is clear as he regularly refers to the importance of the condition of the course and what awaits the horses. While embracing all the other aspects of what makes Race Week in Galway such a success, from Ladies Day to the best dressed competition, and from corporate hospitality to the provision of a tented village, Michael does not lose sight of what brought people here in the first place. He will spend most of the next three weeks with the team on the course itself, as all around them, from 7am to 9pm everyday, the marquees and catering facilities are put in place.
The value of Race Week has been estimated at €54m to the local economy. It is a significant contributor to businesses throughout the city and county, and Michael acknowledges the role played by many of these local businesses in sponsorship at the track. Tote Ireland, Guinness and the Irish European Breeders Fund are among the main sponsors throughout the week, but many local businesses also play their part. Colm Quinn, the Galway Shopping Centre, and many of the local hotels and other businesses are among those who support the festival through their annual sponsorship.
FULLY SUPPORTIVE COMMITTEE
Along with Michael and the team based at the racecourse, another vital element of the success story has been the racecourse committee. Chaired by Peter Allen with Anthony Ryan as Vice Chairman, Michael describes the committee as ‘very supportive and very positive’ and he feels the racecourse has been lucky to have had such a dedicated group of people always looking for ways to improve the facilities and the experience that help make the Galway Races one of the most successful festivals in the country. ‘Progressing the track’, Michael says, ‘is the focus of the committee’s work’, and every year seems to bring improvements that bear this out.
2017 is set to be a very successful festival for all involved with the racecourse. ‘Corporate Entertainment is almost fully sold out for the first six days, ticket sales are up and sponsorship is up’, is Michael’s optimistic summation of where things stand with less than three weeks to go to the opening of the festival. As always, there will be improvements to the customer experience for this year’s festival. Having had a sneak preview, I can advise racegoers to turn up early on the Monday and to gather around the parade ring before the first race. A special performance by Galway tenors Frank Naughton, Sean Costello and Alan Greaney is sure to get the week off to a pulsating start. In addition, the new Festival Village will be located beside the Killanin Stand, and will offer racegoers a shopping village, a big screen, betting facilities, live music and craft beers.
Though the racing at Galway has always been fiercely competitive, in the past it has not been noted as a course that attracts Group 1 performers. However, this year the winners of both the Investec Epsom Derby and The Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, Wings of Eagles and Capri respectively, both ran at last years summer festival. Capri won his maiden, but Wings of Eagles, winner of this years Epsom Derby, could only finish seventh in his race. Certainly, there are no ‘easy’ races at the Galway Festival.
NEW TOTE HALL
‘A new tote hall is to commence construction, once this year’s festival is over,’ according to Michael. The €6m investment will replace the old tote building near the parade ring. The new building will provide a tote hall and Ladbrokes betting office on the ground floor, and a champagne bar on the first floor. ‘There will also be a balcony overlooking the parade ring,’ Michael adds. This provides further evidence of the progressive attitude that is clear when one looks at the development of the racecourse over the decades. ‘Up to €50m has been invested in the track over the last 20 years, and we are already planning on what the next twenty years may bring’, says Michael, with the air of a man who will be around to see it all happen.
‘Seven straight days is a long time to ask people to work’, Michael replies when asked whether the bank holiday Monday may be added to give us an eight day festival. Assuming that is not on the agenda for now, what about the addition of a few days in the spring or later in the year. Again returning to the theme of his concern for the horses and the track, Michael elaborates, ‘maintaining the track in the best possible condition is a priority and the addition of more race days in advance of the July festival would not help with this.’ There would also be the not insignificant matter of securing additional racing days, which are in very short supply as each racetrack guards its own patch.
As for other uses for this superb facility, these will be looked at in the future. Again, Michael’s focus since his appointment has been on the track and the races; ‘in the future the racecourse will certainly look at options for non race day events, and this is a potential growth area,’ he added.
FOR ALL THE FAMILY
With a certain sense of nostalgia I remark on the disappearance of the carousels and the bumpers from the inside of the track in recent years. ‘We are very committed to providing entertainment for families’ ,says Michael, ‘and they will be very well catered for near The Mayors Garden part of the inside track, with a particular emphasis on family entertainment at the weekend’. There really is something for all the family when you visit the Galway Races.
‘Arrive early and enjoy it, soak up the atmosphere, travel safely, have a good week and look back with happy memories,’ is Michael’s advice to all who are attending.
And on Sunday, August 6, at 8pm, when all has quietened down and the punters have returned home, how will he feel?
‘Hopefully, it will all have gone well, so a bit of sadness really: racing and the festival is what we are all about, we wait 358 days for this, so you are a bit sad when the week finishes, though you look forward to the following year.’
This institution of Galway life, the Galway racing festival, is in safe hands.