Johnny Ward: How beautiful Ballinrobe became one of Irish racing's success stories

Johnny Ward celebrates the Mayo track as it prepares for its first meeting of the year.

Ballinrobe: 10 meetings at Mayo track this year.
Ballinrobe: 10 meetings at Mayo track this year.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

PORTLAND MEADOWS’ MEET that wrapped up in early February will be the last, gates shut forever for a track that opened 74 years ago.

Sadly, track closures are a pretty regular thing in the United States, despite the Tote’s monopoly over there. Many of these relics from a different world survive as a racino – a racetrack dependent on the casino within its grounds to survive.

Race meetings by and large attract derisory attendances in France, where crowds are an aside as the pari-mutuel effectively funds everything. In Ireland, thankfully, we have neither a racino nor a Tote monopoly, but we do have pretty paltry attendances (in terms of paying customers) at many meetings, including those taking place at weekends. Simply, media rights money keeps the tracks alive.

It is not easy, bidding to lure people – with dwindling attention spans and addicted to smart phones – to attend a sporting event in which the actual sport may only take up less than 10% of the time spent there. You are, some of the most passionate racing fans will insist, better off betting at home; you can flick between the racing and other sports, whilst your cup of tea is free.

John Flannelly was born within the scent of Ballinrobe racecourse and one of his earliest memories goes back to the late ’60s, his father hauling him on his bicycle to the races as he “hung on for dear life”. He probably knew then he was never going to be a jockey.

“Little did I think I’d be at this either,” he laughs now.

Flannelly is in his 21st year as racecourse manager at County Mayo’s only race meet and one of only six in the provinces of Connacht and Ulster combined. Today, the first of 10 meetings at Ballinrobe will draw another bumper crowd and this is something to be celebrated.

There are many reasons why this track in a racing backwater has thrived whilst others have lost touch with their locality. However, as the late ’80s met the ’90s, things appeared grim and it seemed that Connacht may lose one of its four racetracks.

Jonathan Mullin, now with Horse Racing Ireland but having worked as Irish editor of the Racing Post, grew up a few miles from the track. “It has completely overturned its fortunes as in the early ’90s, it was heading towards closure and the big change they made then was the building of the stand.

“However, it is a sign of the way this place has progressed that the that stand is the now the only thing that remains from that era: everything else is new. Every year, people from all over the west of Ireland travel to the races pretty much knowing that the following year it will be better. People thus keep coming back.”

Much has changed since I visited Ballinrobe first in the mid-90s but what really strikes you when you go racing there is the atmosphere. Some of the biggest tracks in Ireland can offer a vibe as lively as a month’s mind on certain days. Ballinrobe is never like that.

“When I was waiting at the carousel for my bags coming back from Cheltenham last month in Dublin Airport,” Mullin recalls, “two bookmakers told me they couldn’t wait for Ballinrobe to start again. People still have a bet there.”

For Flannelly, this scenic racecourse has been treated as another member of the family, such that the abandoning of a flat fixture there last August at the behest of a select number of jockeys would have hit him hard. Speaking after the abandonment, clerk of the course Lorcan Wyer went as far as to suggest that the decision “put the future of flat racing in Ballinrobe into serious question”.

Given the colossal money the committee has invested in drainage and improving the two bends down the back straight, it seemed incredible that there was any doubt at all. “The flat riders called that off, it was nothing to do with the track,” a defiant Flannelly says on the morning of the return of racing for 2019. “I stayed out of it.”

The consistency of the underfoot conditions must rate as one of Ballinrobe’s finest achievements. People who live in Dublin have no idea how much it rains in the west and, with justifiable pride, Flannelly recalls: “A trainer who brings a lot of horses here said to me last year: ‘Beautiful ground as usual’ – and that meant a lot.”

He expects them to arrive “by the bus load” for this evening’s meet when the first of 71 races this year will take place, with purses now coming to over seven figures for the calendar year. Their two main races are worth €50,000 apiece – and a newly named event will certainly catch the attention of many.

“People might forget that it was at Ballinrobe that Tiger Roll had his first win over fences, back here in May of 2016. So from the race this year onwards, 28 May, the race will be known as the ‘McHale Tiger Roll Beginners’ Chase’.”

He notes McHale for good reason. Every race at Ballinrobe this year will be sponsored – very much the envy of far bigger venues in the East, some of whom have meetings without a single sponsor.

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“We’ve made improvements year on year and bigger things are coming down the road that we can’t announce yet,” Flannelly adds. What he wants to complete the year, he adds, is Mayo to win the All-Ireland.

Another thing I love about Ballinrobe is the predominance of 16-runner handicaps, such as tonight’s fourth race (6.30), though non-runners are likely to hurt the each-way terms here. Betway goes 14-1 about Gagas Horse, who is worth a small wager.

At Dundalk on Sunday, Heir Of Excitement looks worth another chance in the LMFM Dual Race Night Friday 3rd May Handicap (5.20). He probably has a better chance of taking this than Mayo do of winning Sam.

Just don’t mention as much in Ballinrobe this evening.

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