51 Races and Big Hats Too - Welcome To The Annual Galway Horse Races
The ages-old Galway racing festival attracts lovers of fashion, craic and ice cream. The horses are worth the trip as well.
Though born a Galwegian, Id be a poor source of tips if you wanted to put down a bet at the Galway Races. Over the years, Ive paid little attention to the actual sporting event. But Ive always enjoyed the highly charged atmosphere the races bring to the city.
For weeks in advance, the city streets and pubs are full of racing talk, as opinions and theories fly on all sides. Each horses form and forecast is researched intensely. Then, Galways crowded streets seem to change overnight as the annual arts festival makes way for the world-famous race festival. This years week-long program of 51 races added some 60 million to the coffers of the local economy.
It seems everyone can find something to love about the festival. Naturally, theres a large contingent who feel its strictly about the horses and the thrill of a gamble. But many in town have told me its not about the racing at all, but the craic and the buzz of the place. You need not be a horse fan to enjoy a trip out to Ballybrit Racing Park during the festival. The Galway Races are among the oldest in Europe. The first race day took place in Ballybrit in 1869, though racing in Galway can be dated back at far as the mid 13th century. When I visited the racing park this year, I found weathered bookies of all ages from all over Ireland, expertly tending to the betting process. Small blackboards everywhere advertised the hot favourites and odds for each race, while a chorus of racing jargon in various dialects rang out on the breeze.
I had come armed with a few tips, but neither my friend nor I had a clue of how to place a bet. The hand gestures and winks of seasoned bettors went over our heads like some secret language. Fortunately, we met a man amidst the chaos who took time to show us the ropes. We somehow won in the first race, and were immediately taken over by thoughts of quitting work to become professional gamblers. Three subsequent losses in a row brought us back down to earth, but we never forgot the joy of an unexpected win.
Galway natives see the event as a reunion of friends and family. Older people in Galway often tell you how they visited the races as children, recalling the ice cream their parents bought with the days winnings more vividly than the horse that crossed the finish line first. Many local businesses give half or even full days off on Wednesday and Thursday the main days of the event – so employees can take part. If youve grown up in Galway, Ballybrit can feel like second Christmas on these days. Wandering the grounds, youre sure to bump into people you havent seen in a while (of course, there are those who prefer to take a holiday out of town, to escape the nightmarish traffic the event creates).
Thursday is Ladies Day, the main event for fashion fans. This year, an inch of rain fell on Thursday morning. By, afternoon, things had dried up enough so that stilettoed fashion plates in flamboyant feathered hats could make their parade through a special little clearing at the grounds. The Best Dressed Man earns a mere 200 shopping voucher, while the Best Dressed Woman gets her photo splashed across the next days newspapers, overnight fame (albeit short-lived), and a 3,000 shopping voucher. This year, a record 37,437 people attended on Ladies Day, and over 5 million in bets were placed. 1 million of that was wagered on the Galway Hurdle, making it the biggest collective gamble on a single Irish horse race to date.
Galways skies hum with a continuous stream of helicopters bypassing traffic below to get their patrons to the track, and the phrase more money than sense seems to take on a renewed meaning. By night, the citys streets are thronged with people spilling out of crowded pubs into the cool evening air. Hotels can (and do) triple their prices, and extended licensing hours keep the party going on till the wee small hours with jazz bands in all of the bigger establishments.
Some find it a bit silly how much focus the event puts on whos who, how well you look and how much youve got to spend. But theres still something real going on at the track. Even a non-racing fan like me cant help but notice how the air at the track pulsates with tension. Sweaty palms grip tightly wound betting programs, and the shouting and cheering for hors can seem to have a life or death significance. Just watching peoples reactions is a sport in itself. Between the horses and the money, the characters and the fashion, theres little room for boredom. And if, by chance, you still cant find something you fancy, the ice cream is still pretty good.