Racing: Irish cultivate a festival fever: Richard Edmondson on a circuit of racecourse revelry

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THE IRISH have a neat phrase for the successful marriage of punting, shouting home a horse and celebrating at race-day's end. The call it 'the crack'.

When the Irish travel to Britain, the only occasion at which they enjoy 'the crack' over a sustained period is at Cheltenham in March, but in their homeland such revelry is available throughout the year in a programme of festivals.

These amalgams of horse-racing, horse-trading and roistering have their roots in the horse fairs of old Ireland, and are perhaps best represented today by the summer festival at Galway, where horses have raced since the middle of the 18th century.

'Galway is the biggest and most important festival of the year,' Ted Walsh, a multiple champion amateur rider and trainer in the Republic, says. 'There's a great atmosphere there, the Galway buzz, and it's probably the most successful betting-wise and biggest attendance-wise in the whole year. It's a lifeline for the Racing Board because if they have a good Galway, it's like shopkeepers having a good Christmas. It can swing the year for them.'

And it can destroy the wealth and health of the unwary, as Galway in July is a place of excesses. The crowds are bolstered by expatriate Irishmen returning from Britain, as well as foreign visitors, all helping to generate huge business in the betting ring, which is just a precursor for further action. A variety of indoor pursuits which together form a sort of drinking man's Olympics.

'The crack in Galway means staying over,' Walsh says. 'Pubs get extensions for the week, people stay up late, there's dancing and card games. And of course there's plenty of drinking going on.'

There is serious business as well of course. The west coast track stages Ireland's second most prestigious chase, the Galway Plate, and may have also played a part in securing the GATT deal, as Ray MacSharry, the EC Agriculture Commissioner, entertained his American counterpart, Ed Madigan, at the track earlier this year.

The official 13-strong festival calendar has just Leopardstown and Limerick remaining this year, but the purists will tell you the season has already ended. For many, the true festivals are those which necessitate an upheaval to the west coast from metropolitan Dublin.

Next year, the schedule begins on the fringes of the capital with Fairyhouse and Punchestown. The former is the home of the Irish Grand National, a race won by such as Arkle and Desert Orchid, while Punchestown's festival sits tidily after Liverpool's main meeting and attracted Cheltenham horses such as Flown, Muse, Staunch Friend and Duke Of Monmouth from Britain last year.

Among the obstacles on the course are banks, one known as the 'Big Double', and a stone wall evolving from the day in 1752 when Mr Blake and Mr Callaghan challenged each other to a race between the steeples of Buttevant and Doneraile in Co Cork and so founded steeplechasing.

The east coast course of Laytown, although it does not stage a festival, is also memorable as it is the only recognised beach meeting in Europe. While many of the nation's best-known participants regularly attend a meeting which is determined by tide patterns, the only permanent building at the track is a concrete toilet.

The festival programme proper effectively starts in May at Killarney, which is notably low-key and uncompetitive but still attracts top trainers and jockeys to Ireland's most picturesque racecourse.

Similarly, there is a definite theme and character to the other festivals. Tralee is a less competitive, if equally riotous, follow-up to Galway, while Listowel in the autumn aims for the sport's diehards.

'Listowel is the real racing man's festival,' Walsh says. 'It always used to be considered the farmers' festival because at that stage of the year all the harvest should be in and the farmers should be able to take a few days holiday.'

All these gatherings are conducted in an atmosphere peculiar to Ireland. To its detriment, racing in the Republic can be expensive and lacking the grandeur of some British courses. It is, however, not stricken by class, and when admittance to a course is delayed it is done by eager vendors and not bowler-hatted offenders.

The Irish themselves naturally prefer their brand of entertainment and their festivals, from which many go home with a headache. And some with a horse.

'I think racing's much more fun in Ireland,' Walsh says. 'All the festivals are like Cheltenham if you like. In England you only get that once, but in Ireland we have a Cheltenham about four or five times a year.'

FESTIVAL MEETINGS - 1993

Fairyhouse 12 - 14 April; Punchestown 27 - 29 April; Killarney 10 - 12 May; Gowran Park 18 - 20 June; Bellewstown 6 - 8 July; Killarney 12 - 15 July; Galway 26 - 31 July; Tramore 12 - 15 August; Rose Of Tralee 22 - 27 August; Galway (Autumn) 6 - 8 September; Listowel 20 - 25 September; Leopardstown 26 - 29 December; Limerick 26 - 29 December

PRINCIPAL RACES

NATIONAL HUNT

9 Jan, pounds 60,000 Ladbroke Hurdle (Leopardstown); 14 Jan, pounds 25,000 Thyestes Chase (Gowran Park); 31 Jan, pounds 50,000 Irish Champion Hurdle (Leopardstown); 14 Feb, pounds 75,000 Hennessy Gold Cup (Leopardstown); 12 April, pounds 100,000 Irish Grand National (Fairyhouse); 27 April, pounds 40,000 Motor Import Handicap Chase (Punchestown); 28 April, pounds 50,000 Woodchester Bank Gold Cup (Punchestown); 29 April, pounds 50,000 Guinness Champion Juvenile Hurdle (Punchestown); 28 July, pounds 40,000 Galway Plate Chase (Galway); 29 July, pounds 35,000 Galway Hurdle (Galway); 26 Dec, pounds 20,000 Dennys Gold Medal Chase (Leopardstown); pounds 35,000 Findus Handicap Chase (Leopardstown); 28 Dec, pounds 50,000 Ericsson Chase (Leopardstown).

FLAT

16 May, pounds 200,000 Irish 2,000 Guineas (Curragh); 22 May, pounds 200,000 Irish I,000 Guineas (Curragh); 27 June, pounds 600,000 Irish Derby (Curragh); 10 July, pounds 200,000 Irish Oaks (Curragh); 8 Aug, pounds 150,000 Heinz '57 Stakes (Leopardstown); 29 Aug, pounds 150,000 Tattersalls Breeders Stakes (Curragh); 11 Sept, pounds 150,000 Irish Champion Stakes (Leopardstown); 12 Sept, pounds 150,000 Moyglare Stud Stakes (Curragh); 18 Sept, pounds 150,000 Irish St Leger & pounds 150,000 National Stakes (Curragh)

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