Ballybrit Racecourse can boast something that neither Cheltenham, Punchestown nor even Royal Ascot racecourse has – a horse racing festival that lasts for an entire week!
The Galway Races held from the last Monday in July to the first Sunday in August make Ballybrit of huge interest to the equine world for that period. Both Flat and National Hunt horses compete on the level or over jumps in a series of events each afternoon and evening of the festival.
Some of the most valuable horse races staged in Ireland take place in Galway during this illustrious summertime meeting. This is an in-depth look at those feature events on the track at Ballybrit.
There are four Premier Handicaps run on the Flat during the Galway Festival. Just to put that into perspective, that is the same number as during Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown and The Curragh in mid-September.
Galway’s competitive and valuable handicaps test horses over different trips. While there isn’t currently a dedicated sprint holding Premier status at the meeting, the Ahoonora Handicap usually run on the final day is over the somewhat specialist distance of seven furlongs.
Milers go in for a Premier Handicap on the Tuesday of Galway Races, while the opening day tests Flat stayers’ stamina over an extended two miles. Middle-distance handicappers’ race at a mile-and-a-half towards the end of the festival.
Ballybrit’s most prestigious and historic race is the Galway Plate. This Grade A handicap chase over a trip of extended two-and-three-quarter miles is second only in significance to the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday for jumps races of its type.
First contested in 1869, the Galway Plate is the centrepiece of the entire festival. It takes place on the Wednesday evening, it is common for British National Hunt horses to come over to Ireland and try their luck with Paul Nicholls raider Black Corton just beaten by Gordon Elliott’s Borice in 2019.
Even racehorse trainers better known for their exploits on the Flat, such as Aidan O’Brien and Dermot Weld, have saddled Galway Plate winners. There are 14 fences to cross in the race, which is relatively few, given the distance covered.
The Galway Plate has thrown up useful staying steeplechasers in recent years such as Carlingford Lough, who went on to Irish Gold Cup glory for John Kiely and owner JP McManus. It has also produced a subsequent Cheltenham Festival winner in Balko Des Flos, who later scored Ryanair Chase success over in the UK.
Sticking with ultra-competitive handicaps, the Galway Hurdle over two miles is the main event in Ballybrit on the Thursday of the festival. Like the Plate, this holds Grade A status – the highest level of handicap race in Ireland. Although it doesn’t date quite so far back, there is still more than a century of history attached to the Galway Hurdle. First run in 1913, it is the highlight of Ladies Day at the track.
Like many Galway Festival races, this one enjoys sponsorship from Guinness – arguably Ireland’s best export other than racehorses. Tudor City enhanced shrewd trainer Tony Martin’s fine recent record in the Galway Hurdle with victory in the race in 2019 – a third for his handler since 2014.
The best horse to have won it in recent times, however, is Sharjah. Since his victory in 2018, he has gone on to win three Grade 1s in Ireland and finish runner-up to Epatante in the 2020 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. As of 2nd July, Sharjah is a 20/1 chance in the with Betway to go one better next year.
Sharjah’s trainer, Willie Mullins, could have another Galway Hurdle contender on his hands this year in the form of Aramon. He carried top-weight of 12 stone to victory in a Grade 3 at Tipperary recently, and the Cheltenham County Hurdle second is one to watch if going to the Galway Festival this year.
Ballybrit Novice Chase
In 2017, the organisers of Galway Races moved the Grade 3 Ballybrit Novice Chase over an extended two miles from its regular slot in the autumn to during the festival. It has added another top-class event to the week.
Mullins has done very well in this race with four winners since 2012. He targets some of his older horses that go over fences later in their careers, like Rathvinden and most recently Wicklow Brave last year, at the Ballybrit Novice Chase.
Another of the Galway Races to benefit from sponsorship by Guinness, it is well worth keeping tabs on whichever horse wins this contest. There is so much to enjoy at Ballybrit during the week, especially if you love racing