Donn's Articles » Galway/Goodwood


They assured us all week that it was actually the same sport that was taking place at Ballybrit in Galway as on Goodwood’s Suffolk Downs, but sometimes you had to do a double take. The contrast was stark: the annual gambling-frenzied ruaille buaille in the west of Ireland that is the subject of national focus, big enough to command vast swathes of column inches in the national press and a slot on the Six One news, versus the understated chic subtlety of Goodwood that passes by the majority of the British public. Glorious.

It is a function of purest race-planning delightful happenstance that these two race meetings have been scheduled to take place during the same week since forever. Your nationality usually determines which you attend. If you are Irish, you go to Ballybrit and cheer on the O’Brien horse in the Sussex Stakes on the big screen. If you are British, you go to Goodwood and speak wistfully of one year when you will go to Galway instead, just to experience it for yourself, see if all the stories are true.

If you are intent on watching the Galway Plate from Goodwood, however, don’t bank on seeing it on a big screen. You will probably have to find a little screen buried deep under the stands somewhere, on which the Galway Plate is afforded as much attention as the 4.28 at Crayford. We are sleeping under the same sky, but we are watching different stars. In Wednesday’s Sussex Stakes, a Group 1 test of sheer sustainable speed over a mile, the five-year-old Mia’s Boy was a veteran. In the Galway Plate, the six-year-old Roby De Cimbre was the young upstart. Indeed, the majority of the Panama hat-wearing, Pimms-drinking sunshine masses were barely aware that there was such a thing as a Galway Plate, to be fought for an hour after the steaming Sussex Stakes horses had been hosed down, a handicap chase, one of those things that is usually reserved for deepest darkest winter when the ground is heavy and the light fades at four o’clock.

Rip Van Winkle sprang from his sleepy start to the season with a performance in the Sussex Stakes that bulged with speed and class. We have always known that he was held in the highest esteem down in Cashel, but until Wednesday, he hadn’t managed to win a race this season.

The absence of Sea The Stars notwithstanding, this was one of the best Sussex Stakes fields assembled in years. Ghanaati, clock-breaker in both the 1,000 Guineas and the Coronation Stakes and the best horse that Richard Hills – self-proclaimed – had ever ridden, represented the fillies in a race in which the fairer sex have fared more than respectably from minimal representation, while Paco Boy, winner of the Queen Anne and a running-on fourth in the July Cup over an inadequate six furlongs, was the horse that you would have chosen to represent the older generation.

Rip Van Winkle did this the hard way. For starters, a split hind hoof meant that he was a doubtful runner during the morning. Ten out of 10 lame, Aidan O’Brien had said. Team Ballydoyle moved mountains to hold it together, but the first time he trotted in 24 hours was when he left the paddock and made his way down to the mile start.

Then there was the pace issue. Malibu Bay’s job was obviously to take his stable companion as far into the race as he could. As things transpired, however, that wasn’t actually that far. The pacemaker was flat to the boards and not going fast enough fully four furlongs from home, just half-way there. Murtagh really had no option but to go on on Rip Van Winkle.

When a horse goes out in front from early, and repels all challengers, we tend to say that he did it the hard way. Often that is not the case. If a horse is afforded an easy time of it up front, if his rivals sit in behind, lamb-like, and allow the jockey on the leader dictate a pace that suits his horse, it is actually the easy way. On Wednesday, however, it really was the hard way. All week at Glorious Goodwood, unusually, it was an advantage to be held up from off the pace, front-runners were being caught, so, ordinarily, it wouldn’t have been ideal to find yourself in front with four furlongs still to go. But this is no ordinary horse. The challenges of first Ghanaati and then Paco Boy crashed on the Rip Van Winkle rock, and the son of Galileo powered clear to at last show everyone what he had been showing only those closest to him on the Ballydoyle gallops.

This result opens up a myriad of possibilities for Team Ballydoyle for the remainder of the season. They have Mastercraftsman for the Juddmonte International on 18th August and they have Fame And Glory for the big Sea The Stars re-match in the Irish Champion Stakes on 5th September. O’Brien spoke afterwards about possibly running Rip Van Winkle in the QE2 at Ascot at the end of September. He reportedly came out of the race fairly sore, so it is unlikely that we will get to see him before then. You have to hope that we will get to see him again then.

Back at Ballybrit, it was a horse that cost €2,000 who was making the headlines. Contrasting fortunes. While Johnny Murtagh was clocking up his third Sussex Stakes and O’Brien his fourth, Andrew McNamara was, quite remarkably, riding his first ever Galway Festival winner on Ballyholland in the Galway Plate, thus providing the gelding’s trainer Colin McBratney with the biggest win of his career by far.

The concern beforehand was about the ground. Common consensus was that the rain that had pummelled Ballybrit at the start of the week had done it for Ballyholland. He had won the Galway Plate Trial at Down Royal on his previous start, but that was on good to firm ground, and all of his five wins before Wednesday, both on the track and between the flags, were achieved on good or fast ground.

He certainly didn’t give the impression that he didn’t like Ballybrit’s easy terrain, however. Travelling well the whole way for McNamara, around the outside and up with the pace, he took it up off Washington Lad after jumping the last double in the dip, and stayed on really well up the hill to post an emphatic win. McBratney, who is based in Crossgar in County Down, and who was becoming the first Northern trainer to win the Galway Plate since Jeremy Maxwell won it with Persian Lark almost 40 years ago, now has an eye on the Aintree Grand National for the son of Tiraaz. And why not? He jumps well, he stayed this trip well, he now seems to handle any ground, and he is improving. The Becher Chase at Aintree in November is already on his radar. It’s dream-inducing stuff.

It was dream-fulfilling stuff back at Galway on Thursday, when the Pat Flynn-trained Bahrain Storm, under 22-year-old Stephen Gray, ran out an emphatic winner of the Galway Hurdle. Davy Rusell had ridden the Bahhare gelding when he had won at Cork on his previous outing, and was effusive in his praise of the horse afterwards, but decided to ride Time Electric for Tom Mullins in the Hurdle instead, the combination of soft ground and a big weight persuading him that it would be difficult for Bahrain Storm. Russell did suggest that Flynn use a claiming rider, so in stepped 5lb-claimer Gray, who rides out for Flynn once a week. Right time, right place.

As it turned out, Bahrain Storm probably didn’t need the 5lb allowance, such was the magnitude of his superiority on the day. Gray kicked him on rounding the home turn, and he stayed on well over the final flight and up the hill, clear of a final flight melee that probably added a little to the winning distance. While Pat Flynn is no stranger to big-race success, it was the trainer’s first Galway Hurdle and it was by far the biggest win of Stephen Gray’s career. It was the rider’s 27th winner in all. Three more and his 5lb claim is reduced to 3lb. He should have no difficulty reducing it further.

Flynn said after the Galway Hurdle that he might allow Bahrain Storm take his chance in the one-mile-six-furlong Guinness Race on Friday night, just over 24 hours later, which he duly did, and which he duly won, under another 5lb-claimer, rising star Gary Carroll, who was riding his third winner of the week.

These things can happen in other places, but they don’t tend to. They are commonplace in Galway.

Glorious week.

© The Sunday Times, 2nd August 2009