The Galway Festival: Stone walls, steeplechasers - and future flat stars

Dermont Weld at Galway

With most in European racing focused on Glorious Goodwood this week, the centerpiece festival in Britain’s racing summer won’t be getting much attention from the Irish. They’ve got their own meeting to go to, and it will attract bigger crowds and more on-course betting than the famed five-day festival across the Irish Sea. For today sees the start of the Galway Festival, a seven-day jumps-dominated jamboree that has become an annual pilgrimage for most Irish racing fans - and also has a history of producing an astonishing number of top international flat runners, as Donn McClean reports.

Think Galway Races, think stone walls and rugged west-of-Ireland landscape, think Irish craic and pints of Guinness and meeting old friends, think jumping hurdles and jumping fences and a betting ring that turns over more money than a small Second World economy. Think all that if you will, but don’t forget to look for the diamonds that are under cover, buried in the frenzy.

Dermot Weld has been riding and training winners at Galway for five decades now. For exactly five decades in fact. When this year’s festival kicks off today (Monday), it will mark the 50th anniversary of Weld’s win on Ticonderoga in the big amateur riders’ handicap, a day before his 16th birthday. Now do the math.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Galway is a numbers game for Weld. His remarkable numbers will do that to you. He is leading trainer at Galway every year. It’s a given. As reliable as a Swiss timepiece. Eleven winners at the 2010 festival was a new record for the week, a notable feat even by Weld’s own lofty standards, but his 17 winners in 2011 blew that one out of the water, and it is difficult to think how that total will ever be surpassed.

But it is not just all about the numbers for Weld. His perennial Galway team is laced with class, even if it may be only with the benefit of hindsight that we mere lay people can see it.

When Weld took a once-raced Be My Guest colt to Galway in July 1989, you could never have known what that colt - called Go And Go – would go on to achieve. Even when he won that Galway maiden by two and a half lengths, stepping up markedly on his sixth-place finish on his racecourse debut at The Curragh four weeks previously, you could never have imagined the heights that he would go on to scale.

Perhaps the trainer could, because he aimed high. Weld took Go And Go to Laurel Park later that year to land the G2 Laurel Futurity, and he took him to Belmont Park the following June to land the third leg of the American Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. That was an astonishing achievement, up there with Weld’s best. Go And Go remains the only European horse ever to win a leg of the American Triple Crown.

But the Dermot Weld connection with America through Galway does not end with Go And Go. In 1991, the trainer took another Moyglare Stud horse, the filly Market Booster, back to Galway to win the same maiden that Go And Go had won two years earlier. Winner of the Pretty Polly Stakes at The Curragh as a 3-year-old, the Green Dancer filly went on to win the G1 Bayerisches Zuchtrennen in Munich as a 4-year-old, then went to Aqueduct Racetrack as a 5-year-old to land the G2 Long Island Handicap.

Three years later, it was Dance Design’s turn to win that maiden on her racecourse debut, another Moyglare Stud-owned, Dermot Weld-trained filly. The daughter of Sadler’s Wells did not manage to win stateside – she did finish third in the G1 Beverly D Stakes at Arlington Park as a 4-year-old – but she proved herself as a top class filly. She won seven of her 13 races in Europe, including the G1 Irish Oaks, the Tattersalls Gold Cup (then a G2) and the Pretty Polly Stakes (also a G2 at the time), and she never finished outside the first four in Europe.

Grey Swallow was different in that he was not owned by Moyglare Stud, but he looked high class on that Monday evening 11 years ago when he came through the mist to land that Galway maiden on his racecourse debut by 10 lengths. And sure enough, the Daylami colt won the Irish Derby the following year before going on to land the Tattersalls Gold Cup (by then upgraded to G1) as a 4-year-old, and the G1 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park as a 5-year-old.

Other Dermot Weld Galway winners include Casey Tibbs, who went on to finish second in the G1 Secretariat Stakes in 1997, Unaccompanied, a listed race winner on the flat and a G1 winner over hurdles, and top stayer Pale Mimosa, subsequent winner of the Galtres Stakes and Saval Beg Stakes (both listed). Then last year, Weld sent this year’s Irish Guineas third and G3 Jersey Stakes winner Mustajeeb to Galway to win his maiden, accompanied, as he was, by Tarfasha, who would go on to land the G3 Blue Wind Stakes and to finish second in the Epsom Oaks this year.

This Galway phenomenon is not the sole preserve of Dermot Weld, mind you. John Oxx sent out Caradak to win his maiden at Galway in 2004. A dual G3 winner and beaten a head in the G1 Prix de la Foret for Oxx as a 4-year-old, the Desert Style colt won the G2 Celebration Mile for Godolphin as a 5-year-old, then went one better in the Foret back at Longchamp on Arc de Triomphe weekend.

Aidan O’Brien is not averse to sending a high-class individual west. The master of Ballydoyle sent Treasure Beach to Galway’s late August meeting in 2010 to win a nursery, and the Galileo colt was beaten just a head in the Epsom Derby in 2011 before going on to land the Irish Derby three weeks later and the G1 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park six weeks after that.

Moreover, O’Brien’s Galway Festival winners include Aristotle, subsequently second in the Singapore Derby, Hemingway, who won York’s Listed Acomb Stakes on his only subsequent run, Mikhail Glinka, subsequent G3 Queen's Vase winner at Royal Ascot, Magical Dream, subsequent G3 C. L. Weld Park Stakes winner, and The Great Gatsby, second to Kris Kin in the 2003 Epsom Derby. Also, his latest Ascot Gold Cup hero, Leading Light, was beaten in a maiden at the Galway Festival as a juvenile in 2012. That maiden was won by Sugar Boy, who went on to win the G3 Classic Trial at Sandown last year.

So it is not all about the stone walls and the craic for the thousands who descend on the town for the racing this week (total attendance is expected to be in the region of 140,000 over the seven days). There will be serious business to which to attend at Ballybrit. It might be good to keep an eye on proceedings – you never know what sparkling new talent will be uncovered.

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