Michael Moloney has been living and breathing Galway Racecourse for many years now. When he was knee high to a grasshopper, he used to cycle around the course, while his father John, looked after the running of the course. Now, so many years on, Michael still thinks of Ballybrit as a back garden rather than a workplace, such is his passion for that patch of ground that heaves mightily every year and reverberates the Galway economy.
This weekend, it holds its final race meeting of the 150th year — and it brings its own changes with Race Committee chairman Peter Allen stepping down, to be replaced next year by new chairman Anthony Ryan. It has been a special year for Mr Moloney and his team, one that he had been looking forward to since he took over some years ago.
“I have five summer festivals done now. It was a big project that I was delighted to take over at the time. I had grown up with it and had watched it grow. I had cycled around this racecourse since I was four years old, so it was a passion of mine. Leading it into this year, the 150th anniversary was something really special for us all and something that we started thinking about two or three years ago.
“We put a lot of effort into it. There were a lot of different projects, the sculpture by John Behan, the song competition, everything, the vibe around the racecourse was special this year. Perhaps the best atmosphere that we have ever had for a summer festival, and obviously the weather played its part.”
But there is no resting on the laurels and the team at Ballybrit have more plans for the years ahead.
“Racing is a big spectacle, but unfortunately the general racing punter is in decline so we are trying to appeal to a wider audience and get as many people as possible into the racecourse and hope that some of them will latch onto racing.
“We are working 10 times harder than we ever did to get people to come racing. There is so much competition out there now for that leisure spend so our product needs to appeal to a wide range of markets.
“We are looking at targeting different nights to different markets. When I came here first, there were 19,000 attending Friday nights. Now this year we had 32,000, so this is an incredible increase.
“But I suppose everyone is changing and their habits are changing; how we go about our daily lives, and how we socialise and entertain ourselves. People are working now Monday to Friday and they know they are off for the bank holiday weekend, so we make it more convenient for people to experience racing and Ballybrit.”
One of the aspects they are focusing on is the nostalgia aspect — to reignite the fun experience many racegoers might have had when they first went to Ballybrit holding the hands of their parents, peering through the fences, eating an ice cream, in awe at the wonder of it all.
“One thing over the last couple of years that we have lost a bit of sight of is the family market and that is something that we want to reinvent next year and target that market. We have to look at how we will facilitate families when they come racing.
“A lot of people have memories when they are coming here with their parents and their families, and that has declined over the last while for a variety of reasons, so it is something we want to reinvest in,” he said.
“We are very fortunate have such a talented team here in all areas. I am here five years but we are coming to the stage now where if I’m here or not, the place is well able to run at full pelt. Now we have a confident team off the course which is happy to promote a strong product and likewise on the track, we have a product that is up there with the best.
“Gerry Broderick always has the ground in perfect condition. Eight nine years ago, the ground was not in the same condition that is is now. A huge amount of money was invested in new drainage and that has made a massive difference.
“The ground is so consistent now right around the track and providing that consistency and the higher prize money means that we are getting a lot better quality of horses than you would have seen here in the past.
“Horses that go on Aintree, Cheltenham, you see that quality coming here and reappearing later on in the winter which is great to see. Likewise with the committee, they are all Galway city business people who have a pride in the city and a pride in the racecourse and they have a desire and a passion and a commitment to drive the racecourse forward,” he said.
So what goes on at Ballybrit when the horses troop home?
“People would be surprised if they knew just how much goes on up here. The racecourse has external people in it around 150 days in the year, outside of racing and July. In December last year alone, we had park and ride, ElfTown, we had Drive-In Cinema and all of that which resulted in about 60,000 people passing through the gates in that month alone.
“We had MedTech lately, and a big event for Boston Scientific, and then we have exams throughout the year. There is a lot happening. At the end of the day we are not a hotel, so if you are looking for a small meeting room, we are not suited to that, but for the large scale events, it certainly is an ideal location.”
He acknowledges that people have an affinity with the racecourse.
“We try to work the best we can with the city. The whole of Galway is aiming to put on a show for Race Week, when we get all those visitors, and ensure that everyone is well looked after, their food, accommodation, hairdressers, taxis. It is a real economy driver. We can only thank the people who put that effort in to be part of the races as well,” he added.
There is a lot in the pipeline for Galway Racecourse. if you think it has changed in the past few years, then wait for the next phase.
“We have done a huge amount of work over the past 24-36 months on plans that are sitting out there at the moment. We are waiting to see what happens with the bypass and if that was to progress, we are looking at new facilities from a horse welfare point of view.
“Outside of that, we are looking at revamping the eastern side of the course, around the parade ring. A new parade ring, new saddling boxes, a new grandstand looking into the parade ring with a restaurant on the south side of it; and revamping the first floor of the Millennium Stand with new owners’ and trainers’ restaurants.
“We will have new offices too, and will relocate to provide extended facilities from a welfare point of view for jockeys, first aid, saunas equipment, to give them a bit more room. This is all dependant on funding from HRI and is also dependant on Government funding. As soon as that happens, we are ready and waiting to progress those facilities,” he said.
Last year Galway Racecourse approached The National Breast Cancer Research Institute to host a dedicated fundraiser for them as October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. The event was such a success and received a huge ground swell of support, that it went on to raise €95,000 for the charity.
This year both organisations have teamed up again for their ‘Race in Pink’ fundraising day on this Sunday October 27. The National Breast Cancer Research Institute is an Irish charity that raises funds in support of the breast cancer research team led by Professor Michael Kerin based at the Lambe Institute, NUI Galway. There are lots of ways to support this day including ‘Win a BMW’ raffle with tickets just €20 for entry, plus an auction led by local auctioneer James Heaslip from DNG Maxwell Heaslip & Leonard.
“Outside the summer festival, this is our main opportunity to give back to the people who support us every year. When I worked in the UK, we held a small charity event for Moorcroft a racehorse welfare facility, and we used to raise £40,000 every year and that was after 10 or 12 years, so when we were starting this, in the back of my mind I thought if we raised €30,000 or €35,000 here, it would be really good.
“We were blown away last year when it ended up being €95,000. So it’s something special, and brings a difference to the October Festival. There is a lot on in Galway at this time of year, so this three-day festival gives everyone another opportunity to get to Ballybrit and experience the facilities when it is not packed.
“There is a nice atmosphere and you are seeing some good quality racing. About 600 people are booked in for hospitality for the Racing In Pink. So many people want to support the work done by Professor Kerins here in Galway. We will be delighted if we can raise the same amount of money as last year.
“Monday sees the return of the annual ‘Student Race Day’ in conjunction with NUIG Rugby Club and Voluntary Services Abroad [a medical aid charity run by the fourth-year medical students of NUI, Galway]. This is always a popular day with advance tickets sales very strong. We sell the students the tickets at a discount and they sell them with a mark-up to raise funds for their charities and every year they are selling about 4,500 tickets and it’s a fantastic day. They come out here in good form and get dressed up and it’s a great day out,” he said.
National Hunt racing on Saturday kicks off at 2.05pm with racing Sunday at 1.05pm and Monday at 1.10pm. Adult admission on all three days is €15 with children under 16 years of age, accompanied by an adult, free.
For Michael and his team, another year comes to an end, but you can be sure that 2020 holds more surprises. The boy who once cycled around the course in short pants is on a roll and with a strong team and a driving board behind them, the best of what is available in every other course is being looked as he drives Galway Races into its fourth half-century. The white flag is being raised...