Evergreen Walsh dreaming of glory
Veteran Cork handler outlines his concerns for racing’s future and the survival of small trainers ahead of annual trip to Listowel Festival
Thirty minutes into a riveting conversation with John Joe Walsh, the veteran Cork trainer chuckles "don't write too much s**t about me now", as he reflects on his remarkable 56-year training career.
As the saying goes, Walsh has forgotten more than most of us will ever learn and his equine passion still burns bright despite turning the ripe old age of 80 next year.
His Kilbyrne Stables in Doneraile are etched in racing history with the first recorded steeplechase run in 1752, between Buttevant and Doneraile in the north of the county, where the start and finish were marked by the church steeple in each town.
A lot has changed since Walsh took out his training licence in 1962 - he rode and trained his first winner the following March in a Clonmel bumper aboard Grub Stake - but he is still thriving with "45 to 50" horses in challenging times.
Walsh feels smaller trainers are being further marginalised from the game, however, and has frank advice for those aspiring young trainers hoping to make ends meet and cut their teeth in the business.
"I'd say you couldn't do it. I believe you couldn't do it if you were to just set up now. You'd have to spend too much money now to get set up even before you get the horses, it couldn't be done," he responds when asked if he would think about starting out in the current climate.
"If you look at all the lads that only got into racing in the last five or six years, there aren't too many of them left now. They're not there. It's not profitable and if you have a contrary owner, you'd be gone quick."
The possibilities for "the ordinary Joe Soap" are no longer there in his opinion and with powerhouse stables like Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott continuing to expand their considerable operations and target smaller race meetings and tracks, he fears for the future of humble operations.
"The thing now is to look after the big owner and the big trainer, that's the way it is and I can see in another 10 years that there'll be no small trainers left. They're already going as they are. They get no chance of winning a good prize. The owners will go to where the big trainers are," he says.
"The interest is going out of racing because if you look at some of the races, there's two or three trainers who have full control of everything. One trainer or one owner can have 10 runners in big races and that keeps the ordinary fool out of it.
"A lot of them pull up halfway around and that's no way to be running racing, some of them are just filling spaces. Often then because they have the numbers, it's one of the ones that you think has no chance will come out and win. If you're not in, you can't win, but they keep out the ordinary Joe Soap.
"I know a lot of lads who just won't buy a horse anymore and pay €40,000 when they have no chance of winning a good race or getting their money back. They're living a dream, but the dream isn't there anymore."
Without the input of his sons, Brendan (who organises the travel of the stable's runners) and Martin (who keeps the show on the road at home), Walsh admits he "wouldn't be working at it", but the self-taught trainer continues to strike a blow.
His impressive stables boasts a sand gallop, a wood chip gallop, a grass gallop and schooling ground, while he recently came away with 10 horses at last month's recent Fairyhouse sales hoping there'll "be a good or middling one amongst them".
He attributes his longevity to loyal owners, but is quick to note that he feels Horse Racing Ireland don't have their priorities right in this respect, while he believes falling attendances at race tracks coincides with a refusal to take significant wagers.
"Horse Racing Ireland are wrong looking for new owners. They should look after the ones that they have. The new owners mightn't stay six months, you should always look after what you have," he says.
"And while some of the new regulations are good, they're tormenting the small man and he can't afford all those fines - €350 if there's any irregularity with the horses passport, the owners won't stay at it with that type of craic, people don't want the hassle.
"No one goes racing now. There's no such thing as punting anymore. You couldn't get nothing on a horse now, they won't take it. I remember you could get a grand at 20/1 back in the day with a bookie, Jaysus if you tried to do that now at 2/1 he'd run you."
One place where attendances stay strong is at the Listowel Festival, however, and the Kerry track holds a special place in Walsh's heart having plundered the Kerry National many moons ago. Things have changed there too - some for the better.
"I remember in Listowel when you'd come in after a race. With the mud and the rain, the lads that were looking after the horses wouldn't know the horse nor the jockey when they'd come in, they'd be covered in that much muck," Walsh recalls.
"It was later in the year and a different type of weather. You'd have storms and rain which we haven't now and we're looking for good ground. The harvest would be finished and all the farmers and the locals would be there.
"That was their only holiday for the whole year, a few days down in Listowel. The local schools must've been closed as well because there were kids everywhere. Listowel is a different kettle of fish altogether."
Celebrating their 160th anniversary this year, thousands will flock to Listowel for their week-long Festival and while the big hitters are likely to dominate and take home the lion's share of the €1.3m prize money, Walsh hopes to get his slice of the pie.
He will be represented in some bumpers across the seven days, but Davids Charm is his leading chance having suffered some misfortune when one of the fancied runners in last month's Galway Hurdle.
Owned by Tralee doctor Tom O'Brien, the €100,000 Ladbrokes Ireland Handicap Hurdle on Thursday is the seven-year-old's port of call, with Ambrose McCurtin (left) set to take a valuable 5lb off the top-weight and Walsh hopeful of a big run.
"He's in good form, he'll run a good race, you couldn't judge him on Galway. I thought they'd all get a fair start and shouldn't be let go unless they're all facing the right way, but he was turned backwards. He lost 20 lengths and if you have to go on the outside at Galway, you might as well stay at home."
Should he prevail, it would be yet another famous feather in Walsh's cap.