The morning line with Ted Walsh
IN 1970, Ted Walsh paid his first visit to Cheltenham. Remarkably, he’s never missed a festival since. This week, however, will be somewhat different to many that have gone before. Walsh usually went as a rider, trainer or working for television, but there will be no such pressures this time.
Where once he played a major part in Channel 4’s coverage, they no longer hold the rights to the meeting and have been replaced by ITV.
Walsh said: “I worked for Channel 4 for 15 or 16 years and was a regular on their Morning Line programme. In the early years, I was also a regular through the day, but later on only made occasional appearances.’’
It will very much be a Cheltenham Festival with a difference then, but Walsh says he won’t miss having to be committed to Channel 4.
“No, I won’t miss it, I’ve run my course, I have had my day, you move on. It will be nice to see fresh faces.’’
ITV took over terrestrial television coverage of racing in Britain on January 1 and Walsh confesses to being impressed so far.
“I like it, it’s different’’, he said. “I like Oli Bell and Alice Plunkett is great. I don’t know Ed Chamberlain, but he’s very good. I’m not mad about the Luke Harvey I see on Attheraces, but his serious and knowledgeable side comes out on ITV and I like that.’’
Walsh has spent some 30 years, or more, at the forefront of RTÉ’S coverage of racing and explained how that came about. “The then head of sport, Tim O’Connor, wanted people who were involved in various sports to get into broadcasting and he went with me for racing, probably because I was mouthy.’’
But back to 1970 and the first brush the then 20-yearold had with a festival that was to subsequently play a big part in his life and of his family, especially son Ruby, and, to a lesser extent, daughter Katie.
The late and legendary Tom Dreaper asked Walsh if he would ride a horse called Dropit for him in the Kim Muir.
Dropitwasn’toverlyfancied and cut little ice, but it merely whetted Walsh’s appetite.
“Cheltenham was everything and more that I expected it to be, I was the same as a child on his first visit to Disneyland,’’ revealed Walsh.
Dreaper, and Vincent O’Brien in the 50s, were the trainers who largely decided whether Ireland enjoyed a good festival or not.
“I was too young to remember Vincent training National Hunt horses, but would listen to my father (Ruby) and my uncle Ted talking about him,’’ said Walsh. “Vincent and Tom were mystical figures, almost god-like. If they had a bad Cheltenham, chances were that Ireland had a bad Cheltenham.’’
Following the O’BrienDreaper era, however, there were many years when the Irish had what could be best described as disastrous Cheltenhams, with most of our good young horses being sold to owners in Britain, almost as soon as they indicated a modicum of potential.
Walsh said: “The 80’s was particularly bad and there was a lull for a long time.’’
But, of course, the face of National Hunt racing has since completely changed and last year Ireland had 15 winners to Britain’s 13.
Walsh is a big fan of the relatively new dynamic that drives the game here at home. “I recall when Martin Pipe would run 35 or 40 horses at Cheltenham and thinking: ‘My God there are trainers in Ireland who don’t even have that many horses.
“When Tom Dreaper sent horsestoCheltenhamitwould only be maybe seven or eight. But Willie Mullins changed everything and will be sending a big team, as will Gordon Elliott, and there will be other Irish trainers with plenty of runners as well.
“The fact that so many English owners want to have their horses in training here is fantastic. You have the Wylies, the Potts’ and Simon Munir and Rich Ricci, of course, is American. Willie and Gordon have a good few English owners and those peopleseem to like coming to Ireland, whether it is to Leopard- stown, Punchestown, wherever. And then you have our own owners, such as Gigginstown, JP McManus and Barry Connell.
“Tom Dreaper had English owners, the likes of Anne Duchess Of Westminster (owner of Arkle), but they were living in Ireland.
“I know you can argue that trainers in Ireland down the line are being squeezed, but you have to raise standards. I’m a small trainer, but do not begrudge those at the top anything, they are so focused.’’ Walsh is possibly a trifle bemused, as so many of us are, at the manner in which the National Hunt game has so dramatically altered with the Irish now capable of taking on the best Britain has to offer. That represents a massive seachange and, of course, Irish jockeys, both home-based and across channel, are in a position of preeminence.
Walsh said: “Three of the best amateur riders this country ever produced are Connie Vaughan, Bill McLernon and Francis Flood and none of them ever rode a winner at Cheltenham.
“Frank Berry (10-times Irish champion) was a great jockey and rode his share of winners at Cheltenham, including Glencarrig Lady in the Gold Cup and Bobsline in the Arkle. But, in my opinion, he never got the number of rides there his talents deserved.’’
So, onto more pressing matters and the winner of the Gold Cup? I’m half expecting him to respond with Djakadam, who will be ridden by Ruby. But no, he heads in a different direction.
“I think whatever beats Native River will win, he jumps and stays. Djakadam goes fresh and has a great chance, but he’s had great chances before and I was a bit disappointed with him at Leopardstown at Christmas. I can’t see Cue Card winning, I think three and a quarter miles will stretch him.’’
Walsh is on the side of Yanworth, for what he considers “a wide-open’’ Champion Hurdle. “When it comes to the nitty-gritty, he won’t be found wanting.’’
I point out that, in the absence of the injured Barry Geraghty, Yanworth will now be partnered by Mark Walsh, who has never ridden a winner at the festival.
“Mark is as good a rider as you will get, Yanworth will
lack nothing from the saddle. And, anyway, most of the horses Mark has ridden at Cheltenham up to now MahatmaGandhiwouldn’thavewon on!’’
Ted is somewhat unconvinced by the credentials the talking horse Melon brings to the table for the festival opener, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. “He’s no Douvan or Vautour. They (the Mullins camp) are bullish about him, but we can only go on what we have seen and he has beaten nothing.’’
Nor is he convinced regarding Mullins’ Yorkhill, the warm favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase.
“There is no denying he has a big engine,’’ said Walsh, “but of all the horses Ruby rides this week he is the one in which he will not be in total control. My worry is that it will be Yorkhill’s way and not Ruby’s way.’’
Walsh believes that both Douvan (Champion Chase ) and Altior (Arkle) only have to “stand up’’ to land their respective races.
He fancies Gordon Elliott’s Apple’s Jade, with the obvious danger being Limini, in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, Let’s Dance in the Trull House Stand Mares’ Novice Hurdle and On The Fringe in the Foxhunter Chase.
Andwhatabouttheexciting front-runner, Un De Sceaux, in the Ryanair Chase?
“The ground will be a factor, he will be unbeatable on soft or heavy.’’
For the extended Walsh family, the Cheltenham Festival is a family ritual. Home for Ted and his wife, Helen, will be a large cottage in a courtyard near the track. They will be joined by son, Ted Jnr, his wife, Nina Carberry, and daughters Jennifer and Katie and their respective husbands, Killian and Ross. No sign of Ruby then? “He will be in the cottage next door, comes the response. “There are seven or eight cottages in total and all the residents will be Irish, including Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Noel Meade.’’
Next month Ted Walsh will be 67. Does Cheltenham still excite him as much as ever?
He gives a qualified reply. “It does in that Ruby is involved in nearly every race and Katie is involved as well.
“But I don’t bet and believe there are too many ordinary races run at the festival. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Cheltenham has done a great job making mediocre races seem important. They are magicians to drag it out to four days. But if Ruby and Katie weren’t riding at the meeting, and I didn’t have a runner, then I wouldn’t go.’’
SPECIAL DAY: Katie Walsh enjoys the moment with her father Ted after winning the 2015 Irish Grand National on Thunder And Roses. The Cheltenham Festival is a real family affair for the Walsh family. Picture: Pat Murphy /Sportsfile
<<Melon is put through his paces at Willie Mullins’ gallops. Ted Walsh is unconvinced about his festival prospects.