'We backed him here and there at 66s and 50-1 for fifty or a hundred quid'
When Alastair Down met forthright Ted Walsh before the 2013 Grand National
Published in the Racing Post on April 2, 2013
A man of strong views often pithily expressed without fear or favour, Ted Walsh cuts a charismatic figure and is no stranger to dividing opinion. But that is what you would expect from a man driven by the twin passions of family and the sport he loves.
You wouldn't find him listing diplomat as an alternative career, but more than once I have gone to Walsh at a fork in life's road and come away with good advice that has been carefully thought out, although usually accompanied by a well-chosen epithet or two.
Walsh is a great man with the spoken word and you never end a conversation without acquiring a new phrase, such as the description of one of jumping's leading players being "cleverer than a pet fox".
He says: "Look, sometimes I put my foot into it but that is part of what I am. I don't like to insult or hurt anyone but I always give my own opinion. I have been on RTE for 30 years now and I think you have a responsibility to call it as you see it."
It is 13 years since Papillon won the Grand National and landed one of the all-time day-of-race plunges under Ruby Walsh. He had been backed all through the morning – partly fuelled by a Pricewise steer – from as long as 33-1 down to 10s.
Ted remembers: "Papillon had finished second to Bobbyjo in the Irish National two years before, but then he lost his way a bit. In the run-up to Aintree we got a really good back man to look at him and on his run before the National he was a decent third in a hurdle race at Leopardstown.
"The main problem was convincing his owner Betty Moran to run, but we eventually persuaded her.
"I was anxious for Ruby – it was his first ride in the race – and I was nervous that both horse and man would come back having enjoyed it. We had no mad aspiration of winning, but we backed him here and there at 66s and 50-1 for fifty or a hundred quid. JP [McManus] invited Betty up to his box and we watched it from there, with me standing on a chair while they jumped the Chair."
'It looked as if the race was dead'
Ted was a cracking amateur but rode only once in the National, in 1975 when his mount Castleruddery "jammed on one before Becher's". But he has clear memories of making the trip to Aintree in 1973 when Red Rum beat Crisp.
He says: "There was no-one there that year. You could have played a football match in any of the enclosures and not got in anybody's way. There was talk of the place being sold and it looked as if the race was dead. Red Rum and Mike Dillon started the process of rescuing it.
"People think that modifying the course is a relatively recent thing, but they have been doing it through every decade since the 1950s. Personally I think they have succumbed too much to a very small minority and the people who make up that small minority won't be happy until there is no Grand National."
But there is one this Saturday and Walsh is double-handed, with last year's third Seabass back for more under a "mad excited" Katie Walsh and JP McManus's progressive chaser Colbert Station, for whom a jockey will need to be found if AP McCoy is swung towards Sunnyhillboy out of loyalty to Jonjo O'Neill.
Walsh says: "I am not as anxious about Katie as I was last year because there were an awful lot of eyes on her and it is a place where things can go wrong. AP, probably the best we have seen, got dropped on the way to the start, and just think of the reaction if that had been Katie.
"But other than winning it, last year's race couldn't have gone any better. The fact that you have won it already doesn't mean you don't want that great feeling of winning it again, but everybody has a slice of good fortune and perhaps I have had mine. Katie is a very cool rider and knows Seabass very well, although if Ruby suddenly became available then he would ride him.
"Last season Seabass took himself to the National winning five a row, having started off from a mark of 114. This time he has been trained with the National in mind and had just two runs. He was good when third last time out in the Bobbyjo.
"He did a piece of work on the Curragh gallops Sunday a week ago that showed he was as good as he was last year – not better, but certainly as good.
"Colbert Station's main target was the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown's big Christmas meeting, which he won well. I backed off him for a bit after that to freshen him up and he won a 22-runner hurdle at Punchestown in early February.
"He is a gross horse and you have to keep him ticking over or he'd get heavy on you as he is a good doer. He's basically not as good a work horse as Seabass on the flat, but he is equally as good a jumper and I'd say he was definitely quicker through the air.
"If you let the two of them go round Naas and jump ten or 12 fences Colbert Station would come out best. But without the fences it would be Seabass."
Having two of your children riding in any race is a strain and the National can only ratchet up the concern for Walsh and his wife Helen.
He says: "Helen is a mother above all else and the welfare of her children is her first concern. She just wants them healthy and happy.
"And if you want a reminder of worry you only have to think of JT McNamara, which we all are. Ruby and Katie are young and think it won't happen to them but it does happen – think of Shane Broderick and Kieran Kelly.
"Ruby can come over as a cold fish but that is because he is a total realist, and so is Katie in her way. They both know what it can be like with horses.
"I can remember when they were kids and there were tears when a pony broke a leg or died. Commanche Court was very important to all of us – a pet of the house really and the kindest and gentlest little horse. Four years ago he got colic and was in pain, so we took him to the veterinary hospital but they could do nothing for him. There was just one thing we could do and we were all there."
'Milk doesn't come out of a cow in a bottle'
Walsh's voice trails off into silence and he sits, eyes full of tears, the pain of recall dulled not a jot by the passing of a few seasons. A racing family's deep affection for a horse: nothing complex about it, but a reminder of the degree to which those we grow to love lie forever under our skin.
Walsh regains his thread and continues: "As a family we have always had labradors but there comes a time when you have to do the decent thing by them. You can never let an animal suffer, you have to be a man and do the decent thing.
"Milk doesn't come out of a cow in a bottle and when you have a piece of beef on the table you know an animal has given up its life."
In the coming days there will be a frenzy of media attention around Katie Walsh, but she is a veteran of the Aintree media scrum. Last year she was nervous of the media but after one big press conference she had hardened hacks eating out of her palm.
The Walshes are a close family welded together by blood and common experience, and neither Ted nor Helen has ever treated Ruby any different to their other three just because he could ride a bit.
Walsh says: "Ruby and Katie know what they are doing. The real pressure has been getting the horses to Aintree because so many things can go wrong. They can get cast, pick up a bug, twist a shoe or get a serious injury and then all those months of work can go out the window.
"And it's an exciting week because the National is simply a national treasure. Lots of other races carry the word National but this is the only one and frankly it is what it's all about."
We smile in recollection of another big raceday, this time at Cheltenham when a bad mistake two out may well have cost Commanche Court victory in Best Mate's first Gold Cup. An hour after the race Ted came into my Portakabin having a high-spirited rant because someone had said to him "poor old Ruby".
Off Ted went on an unprintable stream of consciousness along the lines of "Poor old Ruby! I'll give 'em poor old Ruby! Poor old Ruby is 22 and can win another ten Gold Cups but I'll never get another shot like today."
After five minutes blowing off steam a cup of tea brought him back to something close to normal and he managed a laugh about the Gold Cup that had just slipped between his fingers.
Eleven years on he says: "I was right. He's won two Gold Cups, Champion Hurdles and God knows how many King Georges. I told you it should have been poor old Ted!"
Walsh is already in the Aintree record books as trainer of Papillon. To be sire of two Grand National-winning jockeys would indeed be unique. Just like he is.
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