In a world where each new day seems to bring increased uncertainty, we can be sure that Thomas Hardy did not have the Galway races of 2020 in mind when he penned the title of his 1874 novel, Far From The Madding Crowd, but that is the phrase that came to mind earlier this week when arriving at Ballybrit for the annual extravaganza that is The Galway Racing Festival.
This year, however, due to the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no festival. The Galway races still go ahead this week, but the event is barely a shadow of its real self, and those of us privileged enough to be here are struggling to reconcile the emptiness we witness with the excitement and colour of our usual end of July visit to this iconic Galway event.
Driving towards the entrance at the back of the stands, we are directed to the Covid-19 health screening area. None of the usual car park attendants are directing us down a road we don’t want to take, and encouraging us to part with the €2 parking fee. So, theoretically, I am up €2 and haven’t even passed through the entrance. Not a bad start to race week, and maybe it is a good omen.
In this Covid-19 world, it is only fair to say that the protections in place are exemplary, and from the pre-attendance screening to the safety facilities on the day, Barbara White and her colleagues from HRI have left nothing to chance, and the safety of all those in attendance has clearly been a priority.
It is also important to state it is vital race meetings, such as this week’s in Ballybrit, take place for the benefit of the racing industry. Thousands of jobs depend on these meetings going ahead, and if they can be held in a safe environment, then the show must go on. But it is not ‘the show’ as we know it. It seems like a dress rehearsal, and you must keep reminding yourself throughout the evening that this is the actual opening night, and not a rehearsal for the real event.
To ensure maximum safety and efficiency, Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday are entirely flat racing cards, with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the dedicated National Hunt days.
As ever, great credit is due to racecourse manager Michael Moloney, and his team, who present the track in superb condition and will receive the usual accolades from both jockeys and trainers. But as he walks through the parade ring, Michael reminds me of a chef who has prepared a beautiful meal and is just waiting for his guests to turn up. He is waiting for Godot. The familiar faces have been replaced by open spaces, and it is surreal. Jockeys have parked their cars where the bookmakers have always shouted the odds, and a lone security man stands guard at the track below the Mayor’s Garden. I think he will have a quiet day: at the different times I observe this area, there is no-one within three hundred metres of him.
There are no owners in attendance, and small squares are marked out in the parade ring where trainers and their jockeys can speak at a safe two metre distance. There will be no ‘whispers’ for anything this year, as with social distancing, only voices above a certain decibel level can be heard. Luckily, everyone is trying to win at the Galway races, so the lack of whispered instructions is no real inconvenience.
Racing just for me
As I watch the second and third race, alone, from the Killanin stand, it is almost as if the races are being staged just for me. The track looks magnificent, and all the usual protagonists are here including the top trainers and jockeys, but I am alone in the stand. It is almost eerie. Imagine sitting in The Hogan Stand for an All Ireland Final, or in The Kop for a Liverpool game, and you are surrounded by empty seats. It might seem a dream to some, but you quickly realise that sport is best enjoyed as part of the crowd. These occasions are most memorable in the company of fellow punters and I wont complain again as those around me cheer home another winner, as my horse plods along near the back of the field.
Con Houlihan used to wonder did Vincent O’Brien ‘ever miss the smell of the grass’ when he was in his private box at Epsom or Ascot, but this week shows that being too close to the action, if on your own, might not be the best option either.
What is so good about the Galway Races?
As a lifelong advocate, I have been asked many times, ‘what is so good about the Galway races?’. I now feel I know the answer to that question, and it is you, dear reader. You are what is so special about The Galway Races. Because, without you, a bunch of horses are running up the side of a hill in almost total silence. It means a lot to those directly involved, but means very little to anyone else. What makes the Galway races special is the old cliche, and like all the old cliches, it is entirely true. This main ingredient that gives the Galway races its true magic isn’t here. The annual meeting of friends and family, the winning and the losing, the excitement and the colour, the cheers and the moans, the food and the drink, the bookmakers and the tote, the three card trick men and the banana and toblerone sellers and whatever you’re having yourself. They all make the Galway races the magical experience it is.
Maybe there will be a silver lining for businesses in Galway, where money not lost on the horses will now join money unspent on foreign holidays, and will hopefully make its way into the local economy with people spending in the local shops and other businesses.
I leave the track as evening turns to night and, in the distance, a beautiful sun sets on Galway bay. The sooner the better it sets on this miserable virus.
I called in to my local betting office on the way home. ‘I thought you might be up there?’ a neighbour asked: ‘I was’ I replied. ‘Working in The Advertiser certainly has its perks’ he grinned, ‘It has, but this wasn’t one of them’. See you next year.