Walsh aiming high with Cliff House
'One good horse would do a lot for you,' says wily handler with an eye for a valuable prize
If betting is anything to go by, Sunday's inaugural running of Leopardstown's €100,000 handicap hurdle under the Coral banner is destined for the big guns, but John Joe Walsh will lead the romantic resistance for the less well-heeled with Cliff House.
A total of 32 entries were yesterday left in the prestigious two-miler. The first 10 horses in the market represent one or both of Willie Mullins, Rich Ricci, Gordon Elliott, JP McManus, Gigginstown Stud and Barry Connell.
As such, the market places a strong emphasis on some of the game's most influential figures, which is hardly surprising, with McManus holding nine entries, Mullins eight and Gigginstown and Ricci four apiece.
Walsh - based in the north Cork village of Doneraile from were the jumping game has its very origins - will endeavour to put the equal opportunities theory of these lucrative handicaps into practice. Bespectacled and genial, in his 77th year he has the look and demeanour of a doting grandpa, which he may well be.
However, he is as sharp as a tack, possesses a roguish twinkle and remains renowned for excelling with comparatively meagre resources. Having confirmed his intention to run Cliff House in Sunday's feature under Sean Flanagan, the anodyne "are you happy with him?" follow-up elicits a characteristically tacit response.
"I wouldn't be running him unless we were happy," he retorts of the 33/1 shot. Unfailingly likeable, Walsh is a man of few words who doesn't trade in vacuous soundbites or platitudes. He might be slightly reticent, but his curt responses are delivered with good humour. So, you venture that he must have been happy with the way that Cliff House ran at Thurles last time, when second to Sunday's Elliott-trained second favourite, Desoto County?
"I'd have been happier if he won!" Walsh volleys, before elaborating: "He ran well and is having a good season. He hasn't done much racing this year and will love the heavy ground."
Walsh may not be a household name, but he is one of the game's most respected small-scale handlers with a deft ability to plunder a decent prize when he has the right material. He has been doing the job since "the 1970s sometime".
In 1992, he saddled the mare Propunt to land the Kerry and Munster Nationals under Trevor Horgan.
This year he will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Lord Singapore's brilliant Troytown Chase success in the hands of David Casey, a vintage renewal of the Navan contest that featured evocative names such as Nuaffe, Heist, Johnny Setaside, Second Schedule, Love The Lord, Fissure Seal and Royal Mountbrowne.
It harks back to a time that saw jump racing's popularity soar thanks to the exploits of handlers of Walsh's ilk, skilled operators that trained principally for local owners of quite modest means. Walsh is still of that hue, heading a versatile, independent, family-run outfit uninhabited by any of the superpower owners that now dominate the landscape.
His most prolific horse this term has been the mare Wate And Sea, a sales reject that has won three of her last four and five times in all. With the help of Walsh's sons Brendan and Martin, the stable has hit the 14 winner-mark over jumps for a second time in a row and a third since 2012. The other two seasons in that period also saw the yard record double-figure tallies.
Previously, Walsh had done so just once, when he tallied 16 back in 1998, a career best that looks sure to fall.
Asked about the source of his mini resurgence, he is typically succinct. "I suppose a bit of hard work and no more," Walsh says dryly.
Cliff House, twice a winner on the Flat in 2014, will be considerably better off with Desoto County at the weights for his narrow Thurles defeat should both turn up on Sunday.
A proven mud-lark that scored twice over flights last year, he is earning his keep for Tommy Ward, a businessman from Mountmellick in Laois with "three or four horses" in training.
A bit like Ricci, Ward likes to sport a trilby and shades at the races and retains a similarly ready smile. In Danali and The Mulcare Rover, he has two other useful sorts, while Vinnies Time could make its track bow for the duo at Thurles tomorrow.
"The game has changed completely - for good and bad," Walsh replies when asked about jump racing's evolution in his time. "It is tough now, but it was tough back then, too - no-one had anything back then. It is competitive now and it is harder for the small man to keep alive - it is a bit one-sided.
"One good horse would do a lot for you. Propunt was a good mare and Lord Singapore was a great horse for us. Cliff House must have some kind of a chance on Sunday, so we'll see what happens."
Mullins' Ricci-owned Kalkir heads the market for the Coral.ie Hurdle after being backed from 16/1 into as low as 5/1. The insatiable champion also has the top-weighted Ivan Grozny, while he has Blood Cotil, Turban and Ballycasey to choose from in the equivalent three-mile chase, for which First Lieutenant is the highest rated of 22 entries.
The classy duo Killultagh Vic and Black Hercules are Mullins' contenders for the card's Grade Two novices' chase, with Alan Fleming's smart Velvet Maker and Andy Lynch's recent course winner Zabana also engaged.