Of all the winners at the 2021 Galway Festival, few were
roared home quite like Shanwalla, writes Paul Martin.
Chief among those living every moment as the seven-year-old surged up the hill to take Wednesday’s Handicap Hurdle was Mike Coleman, who is now able to reflect on the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition in owning a winner at Ballybrit.
Hailing from Ballinasloe, Coleman has been a regular at the Festival for three decades, with an involvement in ownership for around half that time.
A triumph at the track he calls home had proved elusive but having been quietly confident in the build-up, his faith was emphatically rewarded as the 25-1 shot relished the big occasion in front of the returning crowds.
“All my life I’ve wanted to have a runner in Galway, so to have one we felt had a live chance was special,” he said.
"He won at Kilbeggan in June, another tight finish, and we thought he’d have a chance at Galway if it wasn’t too firm.
“The thundery rain early in the week helped and things just fell into place.
“In the race itself, he got a bump and the favourite [Dalton Highway] tried to box him in but he’s a brave little horse.
“He saw the gap between two horses and went for it. Coming up the home straight was nip-and-tuck but he battled to the last.
“The feeling when he crossed the line is just something I can’t put in to words.
“It’s something I’ve never experienced before, the emotions were unbelievable.
“My wife was there, my friends were there… I got emotional and when the horse came back in, it was just a fantastic feeling.”
There is nothing quite like a local winner at Ballybrit and Shanwalla, who proved an understandably popular champion, fit the bill in more than just ownership terms.
He is trained by Paul Gilligan at Athenry while Gilligan’s son Jack was the man steering him home on Wednesday – the same father-son duo who teamed up to take the Blazers Handicap Chase with Born By The Sea two days later.
The owners, meanwhile, are the MNM Partnership, with Gilligan’s wife, Natalie, and Mary Corbett joining Coleman, who hopes Gilligan’s successful week could help the yard go from strength to strength.
“I love dealing with Paul,” he said. “It’s a real family thing down there, with the young lads riding out.
“It’s a small yard but he’s a really, really good trainer. I hope this opens the door for a few more owners to come in for him. He knows what he does and he knows how to do it.
“It’s a lovely set up. He’s local, 20 minutes from me, so we go in and see the horse a lot. It’s a big family thing for us.”
This was not Shanwalla’s first outing at Galway, where he finished fourth in a bumper on his first outing two years ago.
Victories at Ballinrobe and Listowel followed before a lengthy injury lay-off halted his progress, with his comeback arriving at Limerick in March – 402 days after his previous race.
The triumph at Ballybrit was just reward for the patience of both Shanwalla and his co-owner, who has endured plenty of testing days during his ownership journey only to see it all made worthwhile in style last week.
“I loved being around horses growing up, they are a calming influence and there’s just something lovely about them,” he said.
“In the mid-2000s, we got involved in a local syndicate but we never really had any luck, there wasn’t anything good enough to be competing in festivals like Galway.
“A lot of people got involved and thought it was going to be easy but horse racing is not like that. There are more bad days than good and a lot of people pulled out.
“But when this guy [Shanwalla] came along and Paul said he thought he was a good horse, I got involved and the rest is history.
“Hopefully we’ll have more good days with him as he’s a great little horse.”
September’s Listowel Festival could be next up for Shanwalla while longer term, Coleman has an eye on crossing the water to take on the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham.
But whatever lies ahead, there is a sense nothing will quite match the feeling of his first victory on home turf.
“The Festival was really well run and it was just lovely to see people back again,” he said.
“It wouldn’t have been as special if the horse had won at Galway without anyone there to experience it.
“Ownership has been very rewarding. You have to take the good with the bad and be prepared to be in it for the long haul.
“You can’t be in and out, you have to stick with it, but days like that are so rewarding. You can’t describe the feeling you have.
“It has been a week we’ll never forget.”
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