Danny Mullins holds the Goffs Thyestes Handicap Chase trophy after Total Recall’s win at Gowran Park last year Picture: Patrick McCann/Racing Post
It’s the biggest day in the Kilkenny horse racing calendar, but in 2021 it will be all a bit surreal.
Thyestes Day at Gowran Park is usually met with much fanfare and a packed crowd but none of will exist tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon when the tapes go up for the historic race that has been ran since 1954.
Covid-19 has thrown everything into chaos throughout Ireland, but horse racing has managed to continue to put the show on the road. Gowran Park will take centre stage in that regard this week.
General Manager of the Kilkenny racecourse, Eddie Scally, knows precisely the challenge they have had in getting the track ready.
“With everything that is going on in the country it is going to be a much changed Thyestes Day,” he said. “It will be very different but we are still very excited by the challenge of it all.
“We have worked hard to get the track up to scratch and, as it stands, we are on proper National Hunt ground. We will be hopeful of it staying that way.
“It’s a bit strange this year as the meeting is a week later than normal as a result of the Cheltenham Festival in March being a week later and the Irish National Hunt calendar is based around when Cheltenham takes place.
“That has made things a bit different but we are ready. It’s our biggest day of the year so we are looking forward to it all.”
The Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Ireland last March. Thyestes Day two months previous proved to be one of the last major sporting events with spectators present.
It all means a much different Gowran Park will be on view this week. Despite this Scally and his team have done all they can to make the racecourse as safe as can be although it hasn’t being a straightforward task.
Gowran Park's General Manager Eddie Scally in conversation with champion jockey Paul Townend
“There is no getting away from it that it’s all change for the 2021 version of the race,” he said. “It’s hard to believe it’s only a year ago since the glaring fog took over the track at Gowran as Total Recall raced to success for Danny and Willie Mullins but that is the way it has worked out.
“Things took a bad turn shortly after that. We know what it has been like ever since but although there is no attendees at least the racing is still taking place behind closed doors.
“The sport is one of the lucky few to keep going and we know we are very much in a privileged position and so it is about doing everything right,” Scally admitted.
“Getting Gowran Park Covid ready, so to speak, is a big task. In some ways it’s more challenging than getting thousands in and out of the gate on a Thursday afternoon in January but that’s what we have to do as we have to take every precaution possible.
“We are lucky in a way as up to now our meetings on the flat and over jumps have been relatively small so we’ve been able to watch on at some of the bigger meetings like Limerick and Leopardstown at Christmas and take pointers on what is needed to keep everyone safe and healthy at such a big race meeting.”
The lack of any crowd will naturally be a huge blow for the track but with RTÉ Sport offering live coverage over recent years there is still an opportunity to showcase everything that is good about Gowran and Kilkenny on a big raceday.
“It’s really disappointing that we won’t have any spectators at the track this week as they really make the day and it’s a major part of why it’s such a special occasion,” Scally said.
“For many in the region it’s the standout social event of the year but that won’t be the case in 2021. As a result we have to ensure that we put on the best show possible in their absence.
“They come to Kilkenny in their droves for this meeting and if anything it has got even more popular over the last few years after it’s returned to free to air coverage on RTÉ. We are so grateful to them for covering the day.
“The station has been down with us over the last few weeks in preparation. We’ve had discussions with them on what camera angles to use and how to best show Gowran Park in all its glory so that’s something we are excited about portraying on the day.”
"Gowran is the same to Willie Mullins as Nowlan Park is to the Kilkenny hurlers - he always tries to win there"
It’s known nationwide as the race that stops the county and while that is a cliche it is very much true as it’s Kilkenny’s marquee racing day and it’s Gowran Park’s as well.
Kilkenny’s big day
“Along with Red Mills trials day in February, our two biggest racedays arrive within weeks of each other so this is the most important time of the year for ourselves,” said Scally.
“The Thyestes especially resonates with a lot of people and it has a huge tradition in Kilkenny.
“I’ve been at Gowran for over 10 years now and in that time I’ve seen the day rise in popularity,” Scally reflected.
“When I first started we wouldn’t have got much traction from in or around Kilkenny City and I can remember my first year where there was only two buses coming from the city but that has changed completely now as last year we had 12 and we had to use an extra car park on site such was the interest.”
“We won’t have that this year and it’s a huge blow but an even bigger miss will be the local economy in around Gowran and Thomastown as people used to make a day out of it and stop off for breakfast or lunch in some of the areas on the way to the track and the same going home so it’s unfortunate that Kilkenny as a whole will miss out on that this week.”
Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins were delighted after winning the Thyestes Chase with Invitation Only in 2019. The victory was Mullins’ seventh time to lift the Cup PICTURE: PAT MOORE
Although the crowds will be missing from the Kilkenny track, there is still a huge opportunity for horse racing to open up to a new audience with a lot of people stuck at home as a result of the current circumstances.
As a result the Thursday afternoon slot is an advantage as the meeting will have no competitors and the chance for Gowran Park to stand out will be of utmost importance.
“Something we pride ourselves on in Gowran Park is that we feel we are one of the most picturesque racecourses in Ireland or the UK,” he added. “In this of all years we hope to portray all of that in the TV coverage.
“We’ve a rare opportunity where a vast majority of the country are stuck at home and we’d be hopeful a lot of those people will tune in to the racing.
“Maybe some people who have never watched before will tune in so that’s why we need to pounce and show Gowran and rural Kilkenny in all of its glory.
“Having RTÉ on board means more people are going to be able to see the race and the day as a whole,” continued the general manager of the racecourse. “We are very grateful for their support and we are looking forward to showing all the positive aspects of Gowran Park on the day.
“In these tough times people are desperate for something to watch for a bit of positivity. We saw that with the GAA championship before Christmas and the joy it gave to people even for a brief period of time.
“Obviously it didn’t go to plan on the hurling side of things for Kilkenny, but overall that wasn’t really the point as the games took people away from the doom and gloom with all of the games being televised.
“That is something we are hoping to achieve at Gowran for Thyestes Day,” Scally added. “Even if it is only for a few hours we hope to take people’s attention for that time. It’s about putting on as big a show as we can.”
On the big race itself, the contest has been dominated by Kilkenny trainer Willie Mullins and the multiple champion National Hunt trainer is bound to have a number of chances in this year’s equivalent of the Thyestes.
Gowran is the local track for Mullins and he has enjoyed huge success at the venue in the last few years.
“When you think of Kilkenny and Gowran Park the name Willie Mullins always comes to mind and he treats the track as a home game,” said Scally.
“To him Gowran is the same as Nowlan Park is to the Kilkenny hurlers so he always tries to win there and you’d expect no different this year either.”
The 2021 edition of the race brings together a number of top class entries and looks a very open affair.
With the recent bad weather it’s sure to be a real test and the manager of Gowran is confident the winner will go on to bigger and better things in the future.
“The race hasn’t really changed much down the years, it’s still a huge challenge at three miles over fences on soft ground.
“It brings together some of the best staying handicap chasers in the country and looking at this year’s entries the race is as competitive as ever.
“Willie Mullins has dominated the race over recent times and he again looks like he has the artillery to succeed with Acapella Bourgois topping the weights.
"I’ve been at Gowran Park for over 10 years now and in that time I’ve seen Thyestes Day rise in popularity."
“The ratings to get into the race are constantly going up year on year and again we are expecting a hugely competitive affair as it’s hard to find a stand out horse as it stands.”
While the Thyestes takes centre stage and hogs the headlines, the card as a whole always delivers.
The Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle tends to produce an impressive winner whereas there is other races of note including the concluding bumper and a decent beginners chase.
The action kicks off at 1.15pm with the Langtons Kilkenny Handicap Hurdle going to post over two miles.
The Goffs Thyestes Chase is the fifth race on the card and it will commence at 3.25pm.
“As well as the big race it’s also a hugely informative card with a traditionally good maiden hurdle taking place as well as the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle which has seen previous big winners of the likes of Presenting Percy and Benie Des Deux,” said Scally.
“The concluding bumper nearly always brings out a good horse with the winner then going forward to Cheltenham so all in all we’ve a lot to look forward to,” he confirmed as he looks ahead to a big day’s racing.
All in all a strange day’s racing awaits Gowran Park - but, most importantly, the show is still on the road.
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