Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake tees us up for the 2018 Galway Festival - a seven-day marathon - while also putting forward his fancy in the Galway Hurdle on Thursday.

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THE LURE OF THE GALWAY FESTIVAL

The Galway Festival is upon us and the world of race goers and punters, both social and serious, are chomping at the bit to make the annual trip to Ballybrit. The meeting really is a phenomenon, attracting in the region of 140,000 attendees over the course of the seven days of festivities.

Galway already has a well-earned reputation as being one of the best cities in Ireland to enjoy a night out in, but the Galway Festival brings this to another level entirely with a party atmosphere dominating the city for the full week of racing.

While some racing purists may scoff at the notion of a seven-day mixed meeting consisting of mostly average-at-best contests with a few valuable handicaps and Listed races thrown in being so incredibly popular, in many ways, that is the true beauty of the Galway Festival on a racing level.

With both Flat and National Hunt racing in Ireland now being dominated by a small number of world-class operators, the Galway Festival represents an excellent chance for the working man of the Irish racing industry to pursue a genuinely high-profile and potentially career-altering success. After all, where else could a trainer, jockey or owner look forward to being interviewed on RTE Racing after winning a humble 50-70 handicap?

Such is the attraction of having a winner at the meeting, it is commonplace for trainers and owners to gear a horse’s entire campaign around Ballybrit and as a result, identifying potential Galway plots has become an art form amongst punters. Not to mention the fact that, given the betting markets are so strong and the racing so competitive, if a trainer or owner is inclined towards having a punt on one of their horses, the Galway Festival boasts one of strongest betting markets anywhere in the racing calendar.

However, while getting a good bet on is that bit easier at Galway than elsewhere, achieving a profit over the course of the seven days of the Galway Festival is arguably the toughest challenge of all for Irish racing punters. Not only do the plots have to be deciphered, but the unique characteristics of the track and the influence that luck in running and the draw can have on results makes the meeting notoriously tricky. In fact, this year has the potential to be even more difficult, as with the rain having finally having arrived after one of the most prolonged periods of drought in recent memory, punters will be faced with the additional challenges presented by changing ground conditions.

Galway racing festival
The Galway Festival is one of the much-loved weeks in Irish racing

In terms of the big-gun trainers at the meeting, Dermot Weld earned the unofficial title of the King of Ballybrit having been crowned leading trainer at the meeting on a remarkable 31 occasions. However, his dominance at the meeting has been challenged in no uncertain terms by Willie Mullins whose increased focus on the festival has seen him claim that crown in the last two years.

Of course, while the well-publicised illness that Weld’s string were battling all of last season was a mitigating factor in his non-performance at the last Galway Festival, his bounce back in 2018 hasn’t seen him return to the electric success rates he enjoyed in the years building up to 2016. In contrast, Willie Mullins has been in simply scintillating form. 2017/18 saw Mullins make his fastest-ever start to a National Hunt season by saddling 38 winners up to the end of July. Remarkably, he has already saddled 51 winners thus far this season. With that in mind, it seems likely that Mullins will be exceptionally hard to beat in the race for leading trainer.

Mullins looks to have a particularly strong hand for the Galway Hurdle and his contenders along with a number trained by Joseph O’Brien are dominating the market for that race. However, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the John Joe Walsh-trained Davids Charm strikes a blow for the smaller trainers.

The seven-year-old has improved dramatically since entering handicap hurdle company, winning three of his four starts in that sphere and being unlucky not to win the one he lost. Amongst those wins was a facile success in a two-mile five-furlongs handicap hurdle at last year’s Galway Festival and he went on to prove his effectiveness at the minimum trip when bolting up in a two-mile handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse in December.

On both occasions, he showed a notable tendency to idle and wander when in front, suggesting he had loads in hand on both occasions. The handicapper has very much had his say, raising him an eye-watering 49lb for those four runs, but there is every chance that there is more to come from him.

His very shrewd trainer has given him two runs in maidens on the Flat in the last month and one can be sure that he has done so with a view to having him in peak condition for this race. A well-run big-field handicap hurdle such as this should very much play to his strengths, as he has plenty of pace and should thrive on being ridden with confidence and delivered late.

The main concern outside of the usual givens such as luck in running is that his trainer hasn’t had a winner since March, but there is sure to have been no stone left unturned in getting David’s Charm to Galway in tip-top shape.

Whichever way the results go at the Galway Festival, one can be certain that even inclement weather will not dampen what is always a wonderful occasion. 

Kevin Blake
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