All set for another Ballybrit Bonanza

7/28/2006 - By: Daletta

Hold your holt, Sweet Marie. If you bolt, Sweet Marie,

You’ll never win the Galway Plate for me.

Every daisy in the dell ought to know me mighty well,

For at every fence we fell, Sweet Marie

Percy French

THE festival meeting in Ballybrit is the Mardi Gras of holiday racing - the Glastonbury of the summer circuit. And it just gets bigger and better --easier access, greater facilities, massive prize money and more difficult to win each year as the standard of racing consistently improves. Dermot Weld cheerfully contends that his Ballybrit bonanzas have passed. If it took a two-year-old of Grey Swallow’s class to win his maiden there, Dermot may have a point.

While any winner at Galway is a triumph, one race stands supreme - the Plate. ‘Borrowed’ from the struggling Londonderry course and successfully retained in the west, the Galway Plate was first run in 1869, the inaugural year of Ballybrit. The £100 prize went to the Absentee, owned and trained by Dick Bell and ridden by William Bell. The Bells repeated that success with another mare, Belle, in 1872.

Laid out by Thomas G. Waters, who also designed Punchestown, the course comprised eight fences over a one-and-a-half-mile circuit, “covered with herbage and moss”, including two stone walls. The siting of the final two fences - in the Moneen - is unique, so short is the space between them.

A crucial factor in the success of the new fixture was, “the unbounded liberality of the Midland Railway Company who, in carrying horses free to and from the meeting, have struck the keynote of success.” The racecourse promoters left nothing to chance, laying on ferries across Loch Corrib.

Curragh trainers monopolised the Galway Plate for fifty years, notably Eyre Linde of Eyrefield Lodge, successful seven times in twenty years. The Cullen brothers, Willie and Fred, likewise trained on the ‘short grass’, but acknowledged their Galway roots by carrying off a further seven Galway Plates, the last being exactly a century ago, when Willie won with Strategy. In the preceding few years Tipperary Boy, trained by Fred Cullen, had written himself into the record books as the only triple winner of the Plate. Now Ansar, already twice successful for Dermot Weld, is poised to emulate the great Tipperary Boy.

Those early Curraghtrained winners all travelled by rail - the making of Galway Races - and were stabled all over the city. Maxie Arnott, based in Castleknock, and Harry Ussher, beside Dublin Airport in Brannockstown, copied their Curragh brethren. Maxie sent down six winners, while Harry, a native of Loughrea, trumped even that with nine Plate victories between 1910 and

1945. For good measure he rode the first of those, Ashbrooke.

Galway’s popularity with the racing fraternity was viewed with alarm in some quarters: witness this extract from Dr Browne’s Episcopal letter, August 1944.

“The scenes of rowdyism and drunkenness, to mention no worse, which took place in this city in the last few days have offended and alarmed all decent and God-fearing Christians.

“As Bishop of Galway I must protest very strongly against this ancient Catholic city being dishonoured by such scenes. They are due to three main causes -

“Firstly, the influx into Galway of a large number of undesirable persons, including many prostitutes.

“Secondly, to the notion among visitors and some residents that they can abandon all restraint during race week.

“Thirdly, to the violation of the licensing laws by many bars and hotels.”

Paddy Sleator of Grange Con got his Plate focus by riding Reviewer to victory in 1934. As a trainer Paddy lifted the Plate a further nine times, shading Harry Ussher for the honour of being associated with the greatest number of Galway Plate wins.

Of all Paddy Sleator’s Galway Plate winners, two stand out. Exactly 50 years ago Paddy sent out Amber Point to justify favouritism, ridden by his cousin C. ‘Noel’ Sleator in the colours of glamorous Ann Biddle. Paddy Farrell was on board when Amber Point scored again two years later. Perhaps convinced that lightning can strike more than once, Ann Biddle had bought Amber Point’s younger full-brother, Knight Errant. He then justified favouritism when Bobby Beasley brought him home in front in 1957, despite it being his first run in handicap company. Better still, twelve months later Knight Errant and Bobby Beasley mocked conventional wisdom in these matters when reverting to the smaller obstacles to win the Galway Hurdle.

Happily still with us, the most elegant owner of her era and multi-lingual daughter of wartime American Ambassador to Russia, George Bullitt, may become an enigma to racing historians. In her brief reign as Queen of Ballybrit she raced under three different names. Amber Point won in 1954 as the property of Ann Moeran Bullitt Biddle. He won again in 1956 owned by Mrs Roderic More O’Ferrall. But when Knight Errant continued the good work over the next two years he did so for Mrs Ann Bullitt Biddle. Confused? When Ann became the first woman in Ireland to own and train a winner in her own right (1966) it was as Mrs D. B. Brewster.

Ann’s National Hunt triumphs preceded memorable achievements on the Flat. Sindon won an Irish Derby, Zenobia an Irish Guineas, Partholon an Ebor, plus feature races with Atlantida, China Clipper, Jongleur, Le Prince, March Wind, Milesian, Mississipi, Mystery, Sarissa, Scissors, Tragedy, Western Wind, and a host of other good performers in her unvarying ‘Navy blue, white hoop, navy blue cap with white hoop’.

A. S. ‘Phonsie’ O’Brien took over as uncrowned king of Ballybrit, carrying off the Plate four years in a row. English ace Fred Winter won for him on Carraroe in 1962, Bobby Beasley on Blunts Cross the following year, while Stan Mellor, another record-breaking English champion jockey, took the next two on Ross Sea. Phonsie’s brother Vincent had previously put his name on the Galway Plate with Alberoni in 1952, completing the big Ballybrit double initiated with Wye Fly (Martin Molony) in the 1951 Galway Hurdle.

Ross Sea’s attempt to emulate triple Plate winner Tipperary Boy came to nothing behind the outsider Cappawhite, trained in Tipperary by George Spenser - Jamie’s delightful dad - and one of 20-odd mares to win the Plate since Absentee flew the flag for the fairer sex back in 1869.

In contrast to his record ten Irish Grand Nationals Tom Dreaper won the Plate just once, with Keep Faith in 1946. His son Jim followed up with Leap Frog in 1973, under a postwar record 12st 7lb. Jim’s second Plate winner, Bold Flyer (1989), set another sort of record, being the first Plate winner ridden by a woman - Sarah Collen.

Willie O’Grady won the race as a jockey on Brighter Cottage in 1937 and then as a trainer with St Kathleen II in 1951. His son Edward did even better, sending out Shining Hope, Hindhope and Rugged Lucy to win in the space of four years and may not have completed his harvest yet.

Dermot Weld led in his father Charlie’s 1959 winner, Highfield Lad (Johnny Lehane), while still in short trousers. Five years later he was back to take what had already become billed as the Irish Amateurs’ Derby on Ticonderoga. Dermot then doubled as trainer and rider when winning that race three years out of four on Spanner. Spanner also gave Dermot a Galway Hurdle, as did Strathline and Ansar. In recent times, from the handful of chasers under his care, Dermot seized two Galway Plates with Kiitchi and General Idea for Michael Smurfit, before Ansar added another brace. Small wonder he’s obsessed by Ballybrit!

Paddy Mullins had won every other worthwhile jumping prize, only for the Galway Plate to evade his grasp. His luck finally turned with Boro Quarter in 1986. Son Tony, in stark contrast, won the Plate at his first attempt as a trainer with Afford A King in

1988. Paddy subsequently trebled his own score with The Gooser (1992) and Nearly A Moose (2003).

English raids on the Galway Plate over the years had traditionally been frustrated by the absence of summer jumping in Britain. As soon as that changed Philip Hobbs seized his opportunity to make it a British first with Amlah, game winner under Brendan Powell in

1998.

The Galway Hurdle - an even more cutthroat contest - was instituted in

1913. The first six runnings must have been doubly hair-raising, being staged over a mile and a half. Maxie Arnott won the inaugural Galway Hurdle with Red Damsel. His tally of three was equalled by J. J. Parkinson, Dan Moore and John Cox. Barney Nugent went one better in the 1940s, only to be equalled in recent times by Paddy Mullins, with a similar foursome to his credit, the best of those being Pearlstone in 1980.

Apart from the famous racing families already mentioned, the Taaffes have made their present felt in the thronged enclosures of Ballybrit down the years. Tom Taaffe may have been inspired by the wartime successes of his brother-in-law Barney Nugent. But he did his own thing when saddling Gallant Wolf to win the 1953 Galway Plate ridden by his son ‘Toss’. Son Pat had a closer call two years later when adding to his Irish Grand National success on Umm for trainer Georgie Wells.

Pat Taaffe may have achieved renown over fences, but he was equally adept over the flights, landing the Galway Hurdle for four different trainers, while brother ‘Toss’ made the 1964 race his swansong on Extra Stout. Tom, Pat’s son, gathered Galway laurels for the third generation when landing the 1990 Galway Hurdle on Athy Spirit for Willie Fennin.

Among jockeys now training none should have a better idea of the qualities needed to win both the Plate and the Hurdle than Jonjo O’Neill. Jonjo landed the big Ballybrit double for Edward O’Grady with Hindhope and Hard Tarquin in 1979 before collecting consecutive Galway Hurdles on that smashing grey Pinch Hitter for Noel Meade in the ‘eighties.

Another facet of the Galway Crystal reveals that of those currently training the longeststanding honours belong to Kevin Prendergast, who won the 1966 Galway Hurdle with Warkey (Frankie Carroll). Kevin took his third McDonogh Handicap with Eklim in

2003. Jeremy Maxwell is the most enduring of those to have won the Plate, with Persian Lark (John Harty) in 1972. Jockey turnover, though increasingly rapid, is stabilised in this instance by Fran Flood, who won the Hurdle as an amateur on I’m Confident in 1989 and Philip Fenton, who did likewise on Sagaman two years later.