Sunday 26 May 2019

Walsh is showing no signs of slowing down

Now into his 70th year, the trainer's passion remains undiluted, writes

Ted Walsh with Irish National hope Any Second Now at his yard in Kill. Photo: Tony Gavin
Ted Walsh with Irish National hope Any Second Now at his yard in Kill. Photo: Tony Gavin

Daragh Ó Conchúir

A lot of people like listening to Ted Walsh because of his impatience for pandering. For me, though, it is the light dancing in his eyes and the energy that fills him with animation when he is reminiscing about the horses and riders of yore that brings the greatest joy.

In a flash, he is transported back to his youth, long before he was the fearless 11-time champion amateur jockey who recorded 545 winners under NH rules and a further 142 in point-to-points, before his four Cheltenham winners that included a Champion Chase, and his two Aintree Hurdles.

He is back to when he was a boy, the son of Ruby Walsh, a small trainer from Fermoy who relocated to Kill.

Of course he is a trainer himself now, first and foremost, and a good one at that when he gets the artillery. Think Papillon, Commanche Court, Rince Rí, Southern Vic, Seabass and Foxrock. The Aintree/Fairyhouse Grand National double, two Cheltenham Festival wins, 32 graded prizes and a host of major handicaps including the Thyestes, Paddy Power, Troytown and Leopardstown Chases. It's a mightily impressive CV.

He celebrated his 69th birthday last Sunday and is not a good advertisement for those of us who would love to retire early. He bounces around the place, full of intent, of things to do and more often than not, full of devilment.

Any Second Now is one of the favourites for tomorrow's BoyleSports Irish Grand National, having claimed the Kim Muir Chase at Cheltenham last month - a race Walsh won as a rider on Castleruddery 45 years earlier. Walsh's previous victory as a trainer at Cheltenham came thanks to Commanche Court in the Triumph Hurdle in 1997. Three years later, he claimed the Fairyhouse feature.

But before the business of the future, let's treat ourselves to the sepia-toned nostalgia of the 1960s.

"That was a particularly good time for a young fella to be involved in racing," he says. "There were some great superstar horses. Arkle and Flyingbolt are two of the horses that stand the test of time. Like a fella reared up with Kauto Star and Desert Orchid, those sort of horses . . . Dawn Run. That was a great time to be a young fella, 12 or 13 years of age.

"Remember then Pat Taaffe, who was riding them, was living down the road here. On Easter Sunday, when you went to Mass in Kill, it was more important to meet Pat Taaffe than it was to think you were going to meet God. A lot of people might think they were going to meet God but I was making sure I was going to meet Pat because he was going to be riding Arkle or Flyingbolt on Monday."

He has mentioned before having a sneaking feeling Flyingbolt might have been better. "I've no feeling," he interjects in correction. "I firmly believe Flyingbolt was a better horse than Arkle. That's only my opinion. But it'd be like a young fella growing up and having Messi and Ronaldo playing in the local league. We had Arkle and Flyingbolt. There were lots of other good horses but them two were my childhood idols."

Later on, he would be a regular in the Irish National as a jockey, falling at the penultimate fence in 1980 when "I looked like winning", and finishing second 12 months later. He also rode Brown Lad in the race, though not in any of the three years Jim Dreaper's chaser claimed the spoils. So he retired and became a trainer.

"Other than the English National or the Gold Cup, I don't think there was ever a bigger ambition in my life. The Gold Cup and English National were dreams. This was a dream as well, but it was a little more realistic and to win it was magic. When Papillion was good enough to run in it, he got beaten by Bobbyjo in 1998. I was so pleased that he ran so well, but so gutted that he got beat. I was commentating on the radio and had to do the re-run. I was delighted for the Carberrys, for Tommy and Paul. But at the same time, fucking gutted for myself."

Papillon went on to Aintree success two years later. Within a fortnight of that, Ted was on RTÉ duty when his son Ruby steered Commanche Court to glory. He was on camera too when daughter Katie rode Thunder And Roses to victory in 2015.

"When Katie won it, it was a marvellous feeling to be commentating on it. When Ruby won it, and when I won it myself with Commanche Court, I was doing the work on television. I could see from a long way out that he was travelling well. It was a great feeling. It was only 10 or 12 days after Papillion had won the English Grand National.

"When Jack High got beat by Ruby (on Numbersixvalverde in 2005), it was for Martin Brassil who is a friend of mine. It was hard as well but it wasn't as hard because Ruby was on Martin's horse, taking a bit of the sting out of it.

"I don't pretend it's easy (doing TV on those days). I would like to think I do a good, professional job and I don't get lost with it. But it's not easy. I would be telling lies if I told you it was easy. I was doing it when Desert Orchid won (in 1990). He was coming down to the last, and he hit it, and I would say there was only six or eight people who would have liked him to tip up and I would have been one of them. My father's horse was second, Barney Burnett.

"Desert Orchid put up a great performance with 12 stone. Our fella was coming on behind him with Brendan Sheridan on him, and if he ended up on the floor we would have won. They are all the different twists and turns."

Walsh has gone viral on countless occasions for a variety of witticisms and scathing commentary in the 35 or so years he has taken to analysing racing. He combined both to good effect in a television interview in which he bemoaned the draconian response of the Cheltenham stewards that meted out a 10-day suspension to Declan Lavery for not pulling up his horse Jerrysback, which finished third in the National Hunt Chase. It was a ruling that was overturned subsequently on appeal.

"If you don't like racing, go watch Peppa Pig," was the famous line, revealing some of his TV viewing habits when with his grandchildren, as well as his scorn for what many in racing believe is excessive scrutiny and pandering to that scrutiny.

"Racing is in a good enough position. I am all for improvement and moving with the times and a lot of good things have been done in recent years and the benefits of them are there to be seen. But there were 60,000 people every day at Cheltenham. If they didn't like it they wouldn't be there. Millions of people watched the English National and great crowds watched the three days at Aintree. No matter what the sport, you will find negative aspects. The people who run it, some of them overreact to the media. You can't sanitise things completely."

So what are the prospects of Any Second Now emulating Commanche Court? Right now, there is no certainty the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old will line up.

"If the ground is safe he will go. When I say safe, good or good to yielding, he will go. He's declared to run and we'll see. He has had a good five or six weeks since Cheltenham, he is in good old nick. The only worry I would have is ground. He mightn't be good enough but he is going there in as good a shape as he was going to Cheltenham. He has seven pound more on his back and it is probably a more competitive race.

"Things worked well for him at Cheltenham. I am under no false illusions that everything has to go well for him and he has to jump as well, and travel as well, and get as good a run with seven pound more on his back."

There was a time when Any Second Now was expected to be a graded horse. Walsh admits that his campaigning of his charge in exalted company, that he turned out not to be worthy of, means that he has nothing up his sleeve with regard to exposure to the handicapper.

"I thought he was better than he was. I ran him in Punchestown, I was sure he'd win and Monalee kicked him out of the way. Then I took him back to Navan because I thought he had improved and Invitation Only beat him. He got a rating then of a horse that is not quite the top but not far behind it. If I knew then what I know now, he would have a stone less on his back."

Even this year, the son of Oscar has disappointed on occasion when Walsh thought he might win at Fairyhouse and at least make the frame in the Paddy Power at Leopardstown.

"He has tried every time he has run but he's not as good as I thought he was. I am delighted to have won the Kim Muir, I am over the moon to win a race at Cheltenham, but that was a weak enough contest. He will have to be better to do it now with more weight. Bar the extra trip brings it out of him, bar he is just generally improving along the way, but he has nothing in hand. Not an ounce."

Whatever unfolds, when you want the story told, Ted Walsh is your man.

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