There are a few people for whom Galway 2020 was memorable – Tony Mullins, Adrian McGuinness and Gavin Ryan among them – but it is a meeting I want to forget. My lasting memory of ‘The Races’ this year will be that sole-destroying image of empty stands the camera captured every time a jumps races went out on its final circuit last week.
I appreciate that the meeting is not for everyone and there was a repetitious feel to some of the low-grade weekend flat handicaps and nor would I have made it west for a week though a day would have been nice. Instead, it is the harsh reality that no one without an essential role could attend and it sapped the life from the place.
No more than any other major meeting that has come and gone without crowds, Galway racecourse made aspirational noises about seeing everyone next year after the event but early summer has become late summer very quickly and still racing – at least away from the track itself – feels soulless.
This is not some sort of attack on restrictions about crowds and such in a COVID-altered world but rather an acknowledgement of an appalling vista of continued behind-closed-doors racing that no one really wants to consider.
Anyway, enough pessimism. As for the feature races themselves, the Galway Plate may not have been the strongest running, the Gordon Elliott challenge significantly weakened by the fourth fence at which point The Storyteller was done with the race, Three Musketeers had not gone a yard and the long-time favourite Galvin had been declared a non-runner.
There was also plenty of Gigginstown filler in the field with likes of Mortal and Sub Lieutenant but even so it was an evenly-run race in a decent overall time, clean in terms of fallers and hampering, though nothing got into it from off the pace.
EARLY DOORS did it well in first-time cheekpieces, overcoming a few minor errors along the way, and there is a chance he is a goldilocks sort over fences, lacking the pace for two-and-a-half miles and the stamina for three, this race ideal for him with its unusual distance.
That is a negative way of looking at it however as given his ownership there the suspicion this was a long-term plan and he would not be the first highly-rated JP McManus hurdler (Early Doors has no published hurdles mark at the moment but likely rates in the 150s) to be campaigned with valuable handicap chases in mind over fences. You don’t have to like it, but it is what it is.
Having not won a chase before last Wednesday, he has the intriguing option of reverting to graded novice chases, a route that proved highly successful for 2013 Plate winner Carlingford Lough. Form like this would make him competitive in a Drinmore and he is only seven with room for improvement in his jumping.
One side aspect to his success is that it comes against a backdrop of Joseph O’Brien having fewer jumps runners for McManus. Since the start of this curtailed season, seven McManus horses that were with O’Brien have run for other yards and while none are stars it does seem be a trend.
Of the Willie Mullins challenge, I was surprised how well Royal Rendezvous stayed the trip having looked a keen-going novice over shorter trips and he might have gone closer but for being tight for room early in the straight. Cabaret Queen bounced back to form reverting to front-running tactics not used since her Munster National win while Livelovelaugh seemed stretched by the trip, albeit not helped by having to do some running before the initial false start and in getting an early position.
Easy Game was disappointing considering the weight of late support for him but he is not a horse that does well fresh, beaten a long way the last three times he has returned from a break, so he isn’t one to give up on yet. In what was a clean race, Blazer was as close as there was to an eye-catcher, going well just behind the pace before The Big Lense fell in front of him at the tenth, his jumping faltering afterwards, but he failed to build on that in Friday’s conditions chase and is on a long losing run.
Most of the interesting stuff in the Galway Hurdle seemed to happen in the lead-up to the race and at the start. Injuries to Davy Russell and David Mullins meant that new riders were needed for their respective mounts Felix Desjy and Mount Leinster with Keith Donoghue and Brian Cooper taking over.
By most metrics – and the fact that neither had a ride in the race beforehand – these were jockey downgrades and nor where the late replacements taking over straightforward rides, both being just the sort of mounts they would ideally have wanted time to think over rather than less than an hour’s notice.
Whoever controls the late markets seemed not to weigh these late changes heavily – do they believe jockeys don’t matter? – as both shortened late on, Mount Leinster particularly so, even sent off a slightly shorter Betfair SP than Felix Desjy.
But jockeys do matter and Donoghue was open and honest after the race that he had got things wrong on Felix Desjy, relaxing him too much at the start for fear he would boil over and as a result finding himself in midfield rather than on the lead. The front-running tactics that worked so well for him previously could not be executed and he made a mistake at the first, found himself behind a wall of horses going down the hill, at which point Donoghue tried to get him closer to the lead only for him to fall at the second.
It was an object lesson in not getting too bogged down in pre-race pace predictions as nothing seemed surer than Felix Desjy would lead but it didn’t transpire. He remains one to look forward to over fences where his run style should be more suitable to the task.
The fall of Felix Desjy in turn hampered Mount Leinster who also made an error at the first hurdle past the stands and he found himself in a bad position down the hill in rear behind horses. From there, he made stylish headway out wide before understandably flattening out late and is the obvious one to take from the race, allowing that mistakes have been part of his make-up over hurdles to date.
Being up with the pace and out of this trouble suited the horses that were there but this race was run a in a decent time and was far from a mess as regards pace. The winner ARAMON should not be underrated, winning this with a bit in hand under top-weight, posting the kind of performance that puts him on the cusp of open Grade 1 hurdles.
He was a surprise improver having had plenty of racing as a novice hurdler, his campaign starting at Kilbeggan in August and nine runs long, but he only had three starts last season and was getting better at the end of it when runner-up in the County Hurdle.
I underestimated his Grimes Hurdle win, believing it had come in a race where most were using it as a stepping stone, but beating Petit Mouchoir two lengths giving him 11lbs was what it said it was and while the second doesn’t win these days, he had spent all of the previous winter competing with the best two-mile hurdlers off levels.
So the winner of the race might be the one to take from it, hiding in plain sight somewhat, but he obviously pays a significant compliment to the one that beat him at Cheltenham, Saint Roi, who to this point has had just five starts and a very high ceiling.