Tony Keenan looks ahead to the amazing Galway marathon
Tony Keenan looks forward to the craziest weekend of the racing calendar
The 149th iteration of the Galway Races begins as tradition dictates on the last Monday in July and runs for seven days, a marathon of sorts for everyone involved. With a prize-fund of €Euro300,000, the Galway Hurdle is the richest hurdle race in Ireland and, while no entries are available at the time of writing, given the value of the race it seems sensible to start with the top 100 rated hurdlers. That list of horses – among other useful resources – is available on the excellent Horse Racing Ireland admin site (www.hri-ras.ie) and should be in every reader’s web browser bookmarks.
A look at the top 100 hurdlers list tells you plenty about the current state of the Irish national hunt game with Willie Mullins having 45 horses on it and Gordon Elliott 19; those numbers reflect well on Elliott and how he managed to compete for the most recent championship as quality horses are needed to win valuable race and while he has his share of them, he is not the same level as Mullins, yet.
The Galway Hurdle has never been about big yards however, a race with its own rich and distinctive fabric that adds the overall story of the meeting. Horses like last year’s runner up Swamp Fox (sadly absent from this year’s meeting with injury) have always been able to compete with the major operations here and even recent years have thrown up a number of memorable winners like the Paul Nolan trio Say Again, Cloone River and Cuan Na Grai, an all-the-way English success for Overturn and backto-back wins for Mick Winters with Rebel Fitz and Missunited.
Mullins has won the race twice, in 1996 and 2016, and Elliott is without a win to date and hopefully it won’t descend into the domination we saw in similar races at Punchestown; for instance, in the 24-runner two-mile handicap hurdle there, Mullins had six runners and Elliott five while in the 24runner two-and-a-half-mile race, Mullins had 13 runners (a record for a single trainer) and Elliott two. In last year’s Galway Hurdle, Mullins ran four and Elliott two and I suspect their numbers this time will fall somewhere between those figures and the Punchestown ones.
With all that in mind, the Mullinstrained WHISKEY SOUR has to be close to the top of any shortlist. A graded novice during the winter albeit extremely fortunate to win a Grade 1 over Christmas, he went on to finish third in the County Hurdle when coming from a bit further back than ideal. Like so many in the yard he was kept busy in the spring, running twice at Punchestown, but any concerns those quick runs may have taken something out of him were
assuaged by a fine fifth in the Ascot Stakes. The key to his claims however is his status as a course specialist, winning not one but two feature flat handicaps at the meeting last year, and there is a sense that while he had plenty of racing since Galway 2017 this has always been the main aim.
Mullins has plenty of other options for the race not least Ascot Stakes winner Lagostovegas who placed twice at Galway last year along with the likes of Sharjah, Meri Devie and potential topweight Wicklow Brave. Last year’s fourth Joey Sasa seems sure to run having won the Grimes Hurdle at Tipperary last time, that race a traditional trial for the Hurdle itself. He has a similar profile to 2017 winner Tigris River who built on a placed effort the previous year and that horse shaped with some promise in the Tipperary race himself; after a winter in the wilderness he is now four pounds higher than when winning last year and would be suited by good ground.
The final horse I would put in the mix is DAVIDS CHARM. A wide-margin course winner at the Races last year, he was touted a Cheltenham hope following a win in a valuable Fairyhouse race last December but his trainer decided that test wouldn’t really suit such an experienced horse. Absent for the first half of this year, he returned on the flat in late-June for a run that looked a prep for this race and could strike a blow for the smaller yard of John Joe Walsh – provided there is still space for them here!
Most recent renewals of the Galway Plate have fallen below the quality of the Hurdle though last year was an exception with the winner Balko Des Flos finishing the season a Grade 1winner and the joint-top-rated chaser in Ireland on 169 with Sizing John. The Plate is hardly a piddling affair in value worth a quarter of a million euro in total prizemoney though the Wednesday card it features on has dwindled over recent years; the course executive have attempted to reverse that trend this year by moving it to an evening meeting and I suspect that will work despite the usual moaning from the change-resistant.
Again, the top 100 chasers seems a sensible place to start any search for potential runners with gap between Mullins (31 of the top 100) and Elliott (22) not quite so marked here. A rating of 137 was enough to get a horse into the Plate last year though I do wonder if quite so high will be needed this time; the chasing scene in Ireland this summer has been quiet, perhaps because the ground has been consistently fast with one track (Roscommon) even having to cancel the chase portion of a card, and some trainers may be reluctant to risk their horses on such ground.
One likely runner that relishes fast ground however is KAISER BLACK and this summer he has won both a Mayo National and Connacht National; any sound-thinking reader should at this point be questioning why both races are in existence and the only answer I can give is that there are too many nationals. In that period he has gone up from a mark of 123 to 147 and it is worry that is more of a summer rating that will be brought into stark light when he meets winter types but his effectiveness on the ground is a big plus.
TULLY EAST is another to keep in mind as he has looked a well-handicapped chaser since winning the novice handicap chase at Cheltenham in 2017, a race that worked out well. He was trained for the Festival Plate for much of last season but was taken out on the
day of the race due to the soft ground, proving the perils of long-term plotting in the process, but he remains on a good mark and there was something to like in his prep run in the Grimes Hurdle last time.
As to the more obvious Mullins runners, Kemboy is a possible and would be taking a tried-and-tested route to the race via the novice handicap chase at Punchestown, the same race Balko Des Flos was third in last year. The concern with him is that he won that race of 147 and is now rated 157 which could mean he is destined for graded races though the stable have other options in such events. Pairofbrowneyes is another possible and he seemed to improve massively for the move to Closutton last spring before falling early in the Irish National.
Mullins has been top trainer at Galway in each of the last two season and his 40 winners at the meeting since 2010 is second only to Dermot Weld. Of those 40 winners, 12 have been on the flat so it is worth monitoring his runners in that sphere too with LEGAL SPIN looking a ready-made maiden winner on debut when chasing home Victory Salute, that horse franking the form with a good run in the Curragh Cup since. LOW SUN is a trademark Mullins flat type, a decent but not top-class hurdler reverting to the level, and it wasn’t the greatest surprise he took well to the flat as the physical act of hurdling had given him some issues during the winter. Despite returning from a break at the Curragh last time, he won a two-mile handicap easily and can be expected to improve on that with the equivalent race for amateur riders on opening night an obvious target. Over hurdles, CAUSEY ARCH is one to note in novice races. Though a flop at Punchestown where he may have bounced, his three other efforts for the yard have been excellent and fast ground suits well.
Joseph O’Brien ranks eleventh in Galway Festival winners since 2010, no mean feat considering he only started training in 2016, and he had four winners at last year’s meeting to follow on from two the previous year. I thought he struggled a bit in the winter season proper against Mullins and Elliott – well, as much as an O’Brien can struggle – but this meeting sets up well for him, his stable having plenty of decent flat handicappers and summer jumpers. PALACE GUARD fits into the former group and was particularly eye-catching on his first run off a break at Leopardstown last time, all dressed up and nowhere to go in the closing stages, and he should improve from that. A rating of 76 means he can run in lower class races than he has often competed in.
Dermot Weld had his worst Galway (and overall season) for a long time in 2017 but things have gone much better this year; having had just 19 winners through the end of July last year, he is already on 28 winners for this season as I write on July 11th. Regaining the top trainer prize here will be difficult as doesn’t have any jumpers at this point but a much better showing on the flat at least can be expected. ESPOIR D’SOLEIL was fifth at the meeting last year on debut, an effort worth marking up because the stable was out of form and it is a difficult track to win at first time out, and has progressed into a decent handicapper since. Her second at
the Curragh in May was a fine run in a fast time and while only seventh at the same track last time, she never got a chance to open up in the straight and finished with running to give with her subsequent Leopardstown run suggesting 12 furlongs would suit. LIGHTNING AMBER is another Moyglare filly, this time from the family of Free Eagle, and she has shaped well in two maiden runs in June and her experience could prove telling against juveniles at Ballybrit.
Away from the major yards, punters should always be looking out for horses with proven form at the track. The tenyear-old TOP OTHE RA is hardly a nascent course specialist but his figures here are an excellent 3161 and he is relatively low-mileage for his age with 33 starts. He has been in good form on the flat this season and has the option of reverting to hurdles too with his trainer Tom Mullins being sneaky good at this meeting; he is sixth overall in terms of winners here since 2010 despite having relatively few runners.
Andrew Slattery has enjoyed plenty of success at Galway in the last few years and SPIORAD SAOIRSE won a maiden for him last year. He looked better than ever when winning at Limerick last time and the three-year-old mile handicap on the Plate undercard is his intended target. SEREFELI won on that card last year off 68 and is back down to same mark now and has been running ok this season despite the ground being a bit quick for him; perhaps we will still be racing on fast going come Galway but the last time firm appeared in a description there during race week was 2010 which is something to keep in mind for horses that have not had their ground this summer. One final horse that would like an ease is AVALANCHE who placed in a pair of seven-furlong races here last year despite finding the trip on the sharp side. A mile is more his thing and he is just the sort of hardened handicapper that can pop up at a price during Galway.
Balko des Flos