By Pierce O’Reilly
A wee boy once came home after a day out with his father at the zoo. "Did you enjoy yourself?" his mother asked kindly. "We saw loads of animals and Daddy said he’d never forget the one that won the 2:15 race either," the boy said excitedly.
This anecdote is probably true for many fathers whose first love will always be the equine family and their maneuvers on the racetrack. Sitting prettily on my father shoulders I remember distinctively cheering on many a Galway Plate-winning mount as the Galway races went into overdrive. It’s with a tear in my eye that I look ahead to this year’s fabulous summer festival, which takes place later this month.
Galway race week was the one week of the year that we were always guaranteed a holiday. The car and trunk packed, we’d battle our way to the Ballybrit. "Any tips?" was the regular cry from the relatives who knew little or nothing about the importance of the day. We knew better, though, or so we thought.
The Racingpost and racing pages of every daily newspaper had been collected religiously for a reason and a season — now it was time for motion.
Regarded by all as Ireland’s premier and most colorful racing festival, Galway Race week lures home thousands of Irish racing fans from every corner of the world. Many of them have their cards already marked; others travel more in hope than happiness.
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This year’s festival, which runs from July 30 through Aug. 5 offers everyone the chance to experience not only a great sporting event, but also a unique occasion filled with atmosphere, passion and craic. Couple this with panoramic views from the new £7 million millennium stand and the best of Irish food, music and drink, and, sure, you likely won’t want to leave.
"It’s the one thing that I miss from home," Galway racing fan Tom Naughton said in Manhattan last week. "When the horses turn the bend at the bottom of the track, I feel tadpoles jumping up and down my spine."
Naughton, like many others, wouldn’t miss the racing mecca in Galway for all the tea in China.
"We go home every year and don’t leave the track for the seven days of racing," he said. "It’s a great holiday and all the family enjoys it."
Records of organized race meetings in County Galway go back to the middle of the 18th Century. According to local tradition, steeplechase races were run annually at Kiltulla, east of Ballybrit, for many years before 1868.
When this course eventually flooded in the winter months, the meetings were moved to Bushfield, beyond Oranmore, where the original Galway races are reportedly to have taken place. Other sources, however, say that there was an attendance of approximately 40,000 on the opening day at Ballybrit, on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1869, and that 35,000 people turned up on the second day of the two-day meeting. It is reported that the park in Eyre Square was used as a camping site to accommodate the huge crowds that had arrived on that occasion.
This first meeting was an overwhelming success, and the Galway Races have gone from strength to strength since the early days. Since then the races have increased in popularity, becoming a meeting place for the rich, the famous, and the infamous, as well as wannabes over every stripe. Attendances from both tourist and locals alike have outdone all predictions. Indeed, the horses have also come out in force.
"You always get the best horses and races at Galway," Naughton said. "To win in Galway is like winning the All-Ireland: you know then you’re the best."
The famous and the not-so-famous horses have all run at Galway at one time or another, and the meeting is no stranger to Grand National winners.
Most companies and commentators realize the importance of the festival to their future. Guinness, Aer Lingus, Bank of Ireland and many more have implemented such activity into their marketing mix. The Galway Races provide the ideal format for backslapping and client clinches. Business is mixed with pleasure and everyone thinks they are on a winner.
The chairman of the Galway races, Tom McDonogh, said that a Céad Míle Fáilte would await every exile on his return trip to Galway.
"This is the biggest and greatest of all Irish racing festivals and this year will be no different," he said.
A visit to the Galway races is a must for all with a taste for life. For others like me, paddypower.com will have to do for now.