Last Monday was like my first day back at school, I was finally returning to work! March 2020 was the last time I set foot on an Irish racecourse. When a person is used to doing 140 days a year racing, an enforced break like the one we have had to endure comes a shock to system.

Packing the van the night before was a pleasure. I will never again curse the heavy equipment we have to carry the length and breadth of the country! Seeing it stacked away in our office while big meetings were taking behind closed doors was far more painful than lugging it into the back of a van. Double and triple checking that I had everything packed was my biggest concern. The last thing that was packed was the credit card machine. Best not to forget this piece of equipment as we emerge from the Covid pandemic. It’s always better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!

I was up good and early on the Monday morning to look after the farm. Like humans, horses aren’t used to this weather so it’s very important to keep an eye on them. I find the foals stretch out snoozing in the heat and it’s important to get them up every few hours and make sure they drink rather than getting dehydrated.

Home for a shower and get ready to head for Ballinrobe. I passed the first test of the day when my suit pants still fitted! I pick up Dad at his house and we set off. I never thought driving through towns like Castlerea, Ballyhaunis and Claremorris would give me so much pleasure. Along with being a business, this game is a way of life. These journeys are all part of it and I was in my element. Getting stuck behind slow tractors and farm machinery on these bad rural roads were not even going to put me in bad form. Next stop Ballinrobe for a low grade flat card, but I didn’t care. I was going racing in glorious sunshine, what more could anyone wish for.

Three bookmakers were working for a crowd capped at 500 people. Frank Finnegan and his son David were first in the line. Frank is a highly respected old school bookmaker that has forgotten more about racing and betting than most of us will ever know. When Frank talks, you just listen. His stories are fascinating and it was great to see him and David again. Justin Flood and Raymond Mulvaney were in ‘trap 2’. Flood possibly the biggest character in the betting started the slagging as soon as he arrived and it was like we were never away. Mulvaney, a character but also a serious business man and very forward thinking bookmaker knew exactly the buttons to press to get a reaction! We were back alright and my sides were sore from laughing before the racing even began. It was so good to see colleagues and my customers again. It’s been a long time between drinks but not a lot appeared to have changed.

I wasn’t long re familiarising myself with work and getting into serious mode when the first bet I struck was €250 EW, McNallys horse in the claimer at 33/1. Some trainers horses I tend to respect more than others and he’s definitely one of them. Next up came a grand at 5/4 for the favourite and I suddenly realised that today may just be better than I anticipated. As the day went on the bet size dwindled and it turned out the first race was our busiest, but there was enough business there to keep the 3 bookmakers ticking over. We crept out ahead for the day and drove home as content as could be. The next few months while crowd restrictions are as tight as they are will not be about making any fortune. It’s about just getting back on track, re-establishing ourselves and building for the future.

Oh… and the only action the credit card machine saw was being turned on and off, not a single bet struck using a card! It looks like cash is still king in the west…for young and old.

The most important week of the whole year in normal times for on course bookmakers is Galway. It generally decides the year. A good Galway carries you. A bad Galway leaves you with an uphill battle for the rest of the year. I, like most other reasonable people couldn’t believe it when it was announced that crowd numbers were capped at 1,000 spectators per day.

As I type this blog the Connacht football final is being played in Croke Park in front of 18,500 spectators. The pubs are re-opening INDOORS tomorrow, yet Galway can only have 1,000 spectators at the racecourse.

The city will be wedged, the pubs and restaurants will be packed, there is not a hotel room to be got yet the racecourse will be basically empty. It is farcical and I worry that if people get used to not going racing, it may not be straight forward attracting them back. It’s very concerning.

I have absolutely no doubt Michael Moloney and his team did everything they could to get a larger crowd. They leave no stone unturned in Galway in everything they do. Somewhere along the way they were let down very badly. Soccer, GAA and Rugby have had large crowds at their events of late yet horseracing appears to be getting the short stick. Quite obviously, the other sports have better representation at government level. Someone somewhere isn’t doing their job and the silence from the powers that be in horse racing says all we really need to know. It’s a bitter blow to Galway Racecourse. Loyal race goers who never miss the Galway races, and anyone who relies on a crowd at the races to earn a living. Finally, to close the topic it was interesting to see Clare Senator Timmy Dooley tweet that the minister for sport responded positively to his request to raise attendance at the hurling match on Saturday from 500 to 3,500. Where are Galway’s politicians when they are needed?

Next week, Ballybrit will not be the Galway races we know and love but it will be better than last year, that’s for sure. I’ll be there on Wednesday, alongside 7 other on course bookmakers as there is only 8 permitted to stand each day. It will be lovely to be back and I am sure those fortunate enough to have tickets will really enjoy themselves. Galway have a habit of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and I’ve no doubt they will make the occasion a memorable one for all despite the challenges they have to face.

If you are racing, come up and say hello. It’s always nice to meet new faces and don’t forget to look for that bit of extra value off an on course bookmaker! Many will oblige. You certainly can’t ask a phone app for bigger odds on your selection!

3 horses I will keep a close eye on next week are Hook Up, Quaker Island and Valentia Lady.

Next stop for the van is Ballybrit and it can’t come quick enough!

Enjoy the week and best of luck with your selections.

All the best,