7 January 2001
They may have a small operation but the Walshes are giving the big boys a run for their money
Happiness is home-made. Ted Walsh stands on the land his late father bought, in front of the two Grand National winners he himself has trained to be ridden by the son whom he has reared to become Ireland’s champion jockey. If it wasn’t for me sitting on Papillon it would be a perfect family picture.
Mind you, of all the privileges in sport, it’s hard to think of a greater one than to be legged up on the 17 hands of gleaming bay muscle which is Papillon. This is the horse whom 21-year-old Ruby Walsh drove home after 4 ½ unforgettable miles at Aintree last April. He is big, tall and handsome and doesn’t he know it. On Friday morning he squealed with well-being as we filed out into the mists of County Kildare. He had won his comeback race last week, over just two miles. He is chuffed to bits with himself.
So, too, should be Ted and Helen and the rest of the Walsh family, but hustle and humour, not swagger, is more their style. To follow Papillon’s English Grand National by taking the Irish equivalent with Commanche Court a fortnight later, to double Papillon’s comeback victory on Dec 27 with Rince Ri’s triumph in Leopardstown’s £60,000 Ericsson Chase on Sunday would be achievement enough for a 100-strong stable. For a 20-horse operation, run almost as a sideline by one of the most distinctive voices in Irish broadcasting, it is nothing short of unique.
“But I love it, just love it,” says Ted, who at 50 has become the ultimate Irish racing pundit with as much energy crackling out of him on TV as when he took 11 Irish riding titles and a world-record 600 winners as an amateur. “My father originally had horses behind his public house in Fermoy. When he moved here, [opposite the Goffs Sales arena in Kill, 20 miles down the N7 from Dublin] we had about a dozen boxes and would be doing a fair bit of dealing as well as training a few. He died, God bless him, 10 years ago on New Year’s Day and, while, because of the dealing and the TV work, I am now financially secure, we have kept it a family affair.”
Most famously with Papillon at Aintree. As Ted and Helen embraced American owner Betty Moran in the stands, the three other children were legging it to greet Ruby in a professional as well as sibling capacity. Katie, 16, had the leading rein, 23-year-old Jennifer had the rugs, and 20-year-old rugby-playing Ted, the muscle to get them through to hug their brother as the tears ran down.
“It was great that they were all there together,” remembers Ted, going misty-eyed himself. “It was like it was 10 years earlier when they were only nippers. They all flew home that night and the pub here was open till three in the morning. People came from all over. They will remember this time for the rest of their lives.”
But sentiment and good talking are not enough. Ted Walsh is blarney with a base. We go out into the functional concrete block yard to see the great rotating branches of the automatic horse walker. “Three reasons why this is the best worker in the yard,” quips Ted. “To start with it always turns up on Monday morning, it never answers back, and it doesn’t put its hand out on Friday.” Then he goes serious.
“I think walking is the most important exercise of all,” he says. “I set it for six miles an hour and these horses do an hour and a half a day. Every one of mine does 10 miles in a morning. Even in the summer, Papillon, Rince Ri and Commanche Court will go out in the paddock in the afternoon, but they will walk 10 miles first. I don’t want them getting soft.”
At the huge risk of giving hostages to fortune, it’s worth noting that in an era of breakdowns these top three horses have now collectively done 12 seasons uninterrupted by major leg trouble.
Although not without other problems, a year ago Papillon had Ted close to despair. “His last two runs had been bad. He seemed to be losing interest,” says the trainer, before climbing on to his tractor. “So I changed everything. Changed his feed, the time of day he went out, and where he went, too. We even ran him over hurdles to sharpen him up. Vincent O’Brien once said to me that the most important thing with old chasers is to keep up their confidence. Look at him,” he added, nodding proudly at the swanky brute beneath me, “he’s a very confident yoke now.”
Which was just as well as the fog was so thick that you could barely see the horse in front of you. Fields were passed, a river was waded, large logs and banks over which Ted regularly jumps Papillon and the rest, were mercifully bypassed. There seemed to be only half a dozen of us. Ruby Walsh tried to be reassuring as he rode the smaller, lighter chestnut frame of Commanche Court alongside. “You will be all right,” said Ruby without much conviction. “We’re going on the sand. He will know the way.”
The Walshes’ sand gallop is apparently six furlongs round. As we lapped it blind on Friday it was better to measure by the minutes taken and arm sockets stretched. Papillon doesn’t pull in the runaway sense but he is a big, powerful, beautifully balanced horse right on top of his game. After five minutes and two lengthened arms the possibility of ringing up Mrs Moran back in Pennsylvania and telling her we had got tanked off in the fog had been a bit too close for comfort.
“He looks a lovely ride,” says Ted afterwards, “but in a race he can just hang the latch. He is a leary old bugger at times and if he starts lugging right and putting his head up, you need to be in the whole of your health. He’s given all his jockeys problems but Ruby is his master now and he could just be one of those horses that loves Liverpool.”
Rince Ri, a chestnut in a rather more powerful mode than Commanche Court, is aimed at the Gold Cup – “he may not be good enough but he is still improving” -while Commanche Court will be trying for a repeat win in the Irish National and the continuation of the extraordinary big-race run he began for his trainer by winning the Triumph Hurdle in the colours of tycoon Dermot Desmond in 1997. “That was when it all started,” said Ted, “and to think that Ruby was just leading him up that day, now he is a major player.”
The compliment is a careful one from a father who admits to sometimes being “worried out” when his already grey-streaked son is riding. “But I would not have encouraged him to turn professional if he hadn’t been such a good amateur, he was champion at 18 and 19. He’s a lot better than I ever was. I was only a mollicker. He is getting to be the finished article. He has four or five years of improvement in him. He could be exceptional. But as with the horses, at my stage in life, I don’t take anything for granted.”
Which winds the camera back 15 months to Velka Pardubicka day in the Czech Republic, Ruby Walsh on the floor his leg snapped by a splintering rail. “I ran as quick as I could,” said Ted, “and although he is 20 years of age he could have been seven with his head in my lap and me saying `jaysus Ruby, it couldn’t be broken.’ Then he is coming back in December and we have a school over hurdles and doesn’t he turn over at the last and reopen the fracture. A year ago, Rince Ri won the Ericsson and Ruby was beside him on crutches. Last week he was riding again, and all the family were there.”
He thinks back. “I remember when our oldest, Jennifer, began to climb out of the cot. The thump as she landed on the floor and Helen and I would then hear the feet pattering, and, oh the joy of the two of us when she came around the corner and not a bother on her. All those little things you get with kids growing up. It is that great sense of pride with your own doing it. I just couldn’t describe how I felt at Aintree.”
Ah Ted, you just have.