Galway Races Summer Festival is one of dozens of events having to adapt to the new normal – but staff at the racecourse are working round the clock to make sure this year’s bonanza still captures its famous old magic, writes Will Jennings.
The storied seven-day showpiece stands tall as one of the quintessential staples of the Irish racing calendar, being run behind closed doors this summer for the first time since its inauguration in 1869 as the coronavirus crisis continues to affect the sporting world.
But Michael Moloney and his team at Galway are striving to replicate that idiosyncratic joy the Festival provides for so many people, finding innovative solutions to the combat the absence of the almost 150,000 punters who usually flock to Ballybrit each year.
Thursday’s Ladies Day and Friday’s Most Stylish Competition will now be run in virtual form, while the traditional Sunday Mad Hatters Day will similarly seek to capture the hearts of children from afar by using the power of social media.
Moloney succeeded his father, John, as chief executive of the course back in 2015 and says while this year’s event will be different, it won’t stop him and his team putting on the show that makes the Galway Summer Festival such a landmark event.
“It’s certainly very, very different this year,” Moloney, 36, said. “In the five or six years I’ve been here, the worst part of the job has been pushing the button to send the press release to say the Festival will be behind closed doors.
“Ever since then it’s been a very different build-up and everyone has had to learn new ways of doing things and had to adapt to the times that we’re in.
“We sat down very early and realised we’ll still have the same great racing, and while Galway’s very much a social festival, the horse racing has always been the centre of it.
“We need to promote that this year, so we’ve got lots of initiatives in place to relay our content to the public that support Galway year in, year out, but this year will be watching from their homes.
“It’s very different on course, but for us it’s always been about how we relay the content to supporters who normally loyally come here.”
A solution-based mentality has swept all around Ballybrit since the announcement this year’s Festival would be run behind closed doors, as Moloney and his team looked for creative initiatives to combat the absence of fans.
Results and footage will be relayed to the public via the course’s range of social media platforms, while the unique off-course atmosphere will seek to be recreated on the Festival’s flagship days.
Staff at Galway have been working closely with broadcasters RTE and Racing TV to find the optimum ways of disseminating content in the most visible forms possible, while local radio station Galway Bay FM have also been consulted to help maximise output.
Galway Plate Day on Wednesday sees website joe.ie run a competition to win a luxury VIP party in fans’ own backyard, while Thursday’s Ladies Day, Friday’s Most Stylish Competition and Sunday’s Mad Hatters Day will emulate the usual fun and games but in virtual form.
The Festival’s fabled fashion will still be showcased across all the course’s channels and while nothing can beat being there, Moloney is confident his team will deliver an accessible service for all.
“There’s going to be lots on offer, lots of information and you’ll still get a Festival feel from our social media channels,” Moloney added.
“We want to give people the opportunity to partake in the social side – we’ll still have our Virtual Best Dressed Ladies competition on Thursday, the Most Stylish Competition on the Friday, as well as the Mad Hatters Day on the Sunday, which is really important for engaging children as those kids are the future of Galway Racecourse.
“It’s very different on course, but for us, it’s always been about how we relay the content to supporters who normally come here.
“We still think there’ll be a huge interest in the best dressed competition – behind closed doors, people have still been having their hats designed!
“It’s about giving those people the opportunity to still be part of it – they’ll have to do what they’d normally do at Galway from their home this year, but we’ve had loads of positive messages from people saying they’re looking forward to doing that.
“We’re all just trying to strive to make the Festival feel just as special.”
Moloney knows just how much the Festival means to Galway and the surrounding community, having first moved to the course with his father back in 1989 when John assumed the position of chief executive.
And Moloney Jr has gone on to follow in his dad’s footsteps, enjoying a spell as CEO at England’s Plumpton Racecourse before assuming the role at Galway – and living at the course himself – back in 2015.
This year will mark Moloney’s sixth Galway Summer Festival and the brains behind the event has seen it all, usually preparing for thousands of Irish families descending on the course to reunite every summer at the week-long fiesta.
Moloney has many fond memories of Galway and while that sense of community will be absent next week, he is backing this year to be just as successful and lay the foundations for the biggest Festival yet in 2021.
“I’ve grown up watching the Festival get bigger and bigger and develop into the spectacle it represents today,” he said.
“The summer in Galway is defined by race week and that’s a centre point in the calendar – people refer to it throughout the year, and everybody reunites there, so it’s a real family occasion.
“The buzz that’s here from 6am on the first day unfortunately won’t be here this year, but we’re going to try and produce as great an atmosphere as we possibly can.
“Hopefully, we can keep our fans interested and they’ll retain their interest in the Festival and want to come back, bigger and better, next year.
“We’re very hopeful, and are planning for, a bigger and better Festival than ever in 2021 – it’s over 12 months away, but that’s what’s keeping us going and what we’ll hopefully be heading towards.”
We’ve got lots of initiatives in place to relay our content to the public that support Galway year in, year out, but this year will be watching from their homes. We’re all just trying to strive to make the Festival feel just as special.
– Michael Moloney