THE Listowel Racing Festival begins this weekend and is traditionally seen as the beginning of the national hunt season.
Unfortunately it will be run behind closed doors this year due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The Kerry National which is the midweek feature race has been won by plenty of equine stars most notably the Jimmy Mangan-trained Monty’s Pass who went on to win the Aintree equivalent in 2003 which sparked wild celebrations down in Conna way.
Racing photographer Pat Healy has taken over as chairman of Listowel Races this year and brings plenty of enthusiasm to the upcoming week.
Healy says: “It’s our 162nd festival and everyone is looking forward to it now. It’s seven days of brilliant racing and is a mixture of jumping and flat racing.
“We are lucky TG4 are broadcasting every day from 3pm to 6pm. The racetrack is in super shape, so it’s all systems go.
“Obviously, the meeting goes ahead behind closed doors this year and we know that racing fans are desperately disappointed they can’t attend. Unfortunately, this covid situation has affected everyone and our main priority at this stage is ensure that our festival runs off safely and all the guidelines have been adhered too.”
The highlight of the week is the Kerry Grand National which has attracted a high-class field.
Monty’s Pass famously won the race for Jimmy Mangan before going on to win the Aintree equivalent the following spring under a brilliant ride from Barry Geraghty.
Healy explains: “Our flagship race takes place on Wednesday and it looks like being another great Guinness Kerry National which is worth €150,000.
“All the big yards are represented and so many great horses have won the race including Monty’s Pass for Jimmy and the east Cork crew.
“We have a real bonus with the participation of former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John on Sunday. Jessie Harrington reports the horse to be in great condition so it would be lovely to kick off the festival with a real superstar of the game.
“Gordon Elliott may run Malone Road which is also very exciting. The jumping track is good, and the forecast is also for a dry week. Everyone knows it’s the unofficial start of the new jumping season and all the good horses are back in training a while.”
There has been a huge outpouring of grief following the sad passing of Jockey Pat Smullen, aged 43, a gifted rider who rode winners all over the world.
In his work as a photographer Pat Healy travels the world for all the big flat meetings every summer.
Healy says: “It’s raw and it’s very emotional. Everyone is just coming to terms with it. It’s a day we just hoped would never come.
“Pat Smullen won so many great battles on the track that he shouldn’t have but unfortunately this was one battle he couldn’t win.
“He was a top-class fella and a world class rider having been stable jockey to Dermot Weld for 20 years. They were some partnership around Galway and the Epsom Derby victory of Harzand will live long in the memory.
“When they talk about racing in athousand years time the name of Pat Smullen will be mentioned. At this stage our thoughts are with his wife Frances and his three children.”
Davy Russell hopes to back in action in time for the start of the Listowel Harvest Festival on Sunday. The Youghal jockey has been side-lined since the end of July with a back issue.
It’s a huge season for Russell who hopes to win a third Aintree Grand National with Tiger Roll in April. But the season begins here and the Youghal rider is looking forward to getting back.
Russell says: “I’m really looking forward to Listowel, hopefully I’ll make it there, I’m trying my best to get back there for it. Everything’s going okay at the moment.
“Ever since I was a young lad, Listowel was the start of the real National Hunt racing. Listowel is always a brilliant place, it has been very good to me over the years.”
Magical retained her Group One Irish Champion Stakes crown by outbattling Ghaiyyath over a mile and a quarter in a real thriller last weekend at Leopardstown.
It looked like a perfect prep run for the ‘Arc’ for this gifted filly. All-conquering Ghaiyyath entered the fray on the back of three consecutive Group One successes which earned him the highest rating of any racehorse in the world.
He went off 8/13 favourite. There was always less than a length between the pair, but it was Magical who overwhelmed her opponent racing into the final furlong. She took a narrow lead and grittily extended it to three quarters of a length at the winning post as Ghaiyyath had to settle for second.
Aidan O’Brien explained: “We were very happy after York, we saw what she was able to do. When she went by herself in York she just lost interest a little bit and then the others came around her and she started staying on after the race was over.
“What she always wants is to eyeball a horse and battle. Seamus (Heffernan) was happy to make the running on the day if William (Buick, on Ghaiyyath) wanted to get a lead and if William was going to go on Seamus was going to go with him to keep her interested and he gave her a brilliant ride.”