Contemporary records show that a staggering forty thousand people turned up to attend the race meeting. To cater for the crowds who arrived into the city in the lead up to the festival, the public park area in Eyre Square was set up as a campsite. The Chairman of the Stewards at the race meeting was Lord St. Lawrence, then M.P. for Galway and a main contributor to Punchestown racecourse. His fellow stewards were also involved in the tradition of hunting and steeple chasing – men like the Marquis of Clanricard, Lord Claremorris, Captain Blake Forster, Henry S. Persse, Pierce Joyce, George Morris and Valentine Black.
The land at Ballybrit was donated by Captain Wilson Lynch of Renmore. The racecourse, measuring one and a half miles was laid out by a civil engineer, a Mr. T. Waters. The Galway Vindication described it as “covered with herbage or moss and excelling any course in Ireland for good going.
There were eight events, four on each day, but the main attraction was the Galway Plate “ .. of 100 sovs., an open handicap steeplechase of 2½ miles…” Eight jumps had to be negotiated, two of them stone walls. The races generated a large amount of advance publicity. Tenant farmers were permitted to race in the Glenard Plate (£50); and there was a Visitors Plate for all gentlemen riders. Provided they had run in a race, The Midland and Great Western Railway agreed to carry all horses to and from the course free of charge. This was a great concession and a sure encouragement to entrants. Specifically commissioned trains came to Galway from all over the country. The Lough Corrib Steam Navigation Company ran a special service from Cong for the two days racing. A mounted official watched the racing on both days and jockeys were warned that “if found guilty of sly practices in riding that they would be disqualified”.
Local papers and media described the first day as, “a magnificent success, with all honour to Lord St. Lawrence. “R. Bell’s Absentee won the Galway Plate in a field of thirteen runners. Mr. John Ussher’s Ishmael won the Ballybrit Plate and the Renmore Stakes. In terms of social success the meeting was a winner. The Vindicator commented: “The Galway Races promise to advance in the future equal, if not superior, to any other provincial races in the country”.
Many improvements were made for the 1870 race meeting.
A new hunter’s course with a “rattling double bank similar to the Punchestown bank” was constructed and additional fly fences were erected. As the years rolled on the pattern and quality of the meeting improved. In 1879, Mr. Garret Moore’s Liberator, ridden by Mr. Moore in Ballybrit, went on to win the Grand National in the same year. In 1898, another well known Galway horse, Drogheda, won the Grand National from a field of 23. The greatest Galway Plate runner was undoubtedly Tipperary Boy who won the Plate three times – in 1899, 1901 and 1902. The only horse to come near this record was Clonsheever, who won in 1923 and 1924 but finished third in 1925. The classic performances of East Galway, in the late twenties and early thirties, are still recalled by many enthusiastic Galway patrons. Having been successful in 1928, with 12 stone 7Ib, this horse was given 12 stone 10Ib the following year. He was narrowly beaten into second place. Again in 1931, with 12 stone 7Ib, he came fourth. When competing in the Blazer’s Plate in 1933, East Galway was still rated as one of the finest chasers in Ireland.
One family kept up an amazing tradition with the Galway Races from the very beginning. The Ussher Stables turned out seven Galway Plate winners, and in 1920 Harry Ussher trained the winners of all the races on the opening day – except for the Galway Plate itself. A tradition which unfortunately died along with Harry Ussher in 1957.
Galway Races has always attracted fine steeple chasing bloodstock. Winners of the Irish Grand National like Fair Richard and Red Park have been tested on the course. Ballybrit has also seen winners of the Ulster Grand National.
In 1929, radio broadcasting of horse racing commenced. In the same year, the Curragh Derby and Galway Plate were broadcast by radio, and in 1963 television broadcasting begun. Corporate sponsorship of races and race days began in 1959 when the Galway Races was extended to a three-day meeting.
In over one hundred years of racing at Ballybrit, the Galway Races has gone from strength to strength. The Galway Race Course Committee pays tribute to Lord St. Lawrence, the man who started it all.