COUNTDOWN TO PUNCHESTOWN: Ted Walsh looks back on a glittering career

'The most magical moment of my life'

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COUNTDOWN TO PUNCHESTOWN: Ted Walsh looks back on a glittering career

Ted with daughter Katie

WHERE do you start with Ted Walsh? So many stories, yarns and recollections. And they’re all true. That’s why the Kill trainer and RTE personality is just so popular. 

Yet, when it comes to the Punchestown festival alone, like most other things in racing, he’s way ahead of the rest. 

So where do you start?

Given that Ted is mainly responsible for being the brainchild of the most famous fence in Irish racing, it’s probably best to start there. 

So Ted, how did ‘Ruby’s Double’ all come about? 

“Betty Moran, who owned Papillon, was a great friend of my fathers and when my Dad passed away, she wanted to sponsor a race in memory of my Dad at the festival. I said to her that when you sponsor a race, you have to sponsor that every year and races can sometimes come and go. 

“At the time, Charlie O’Neill and Joan Moore were running Punchestown and they had said that it would be great to have a bank in front of the stands. So I said I know a woman who will pay for it but it has to be called ‘Ruby’s Double’. 

“That was it and Betty paid for the whole lot, which was around £15,000 I think. Billy McLernon was the architect and it was a huge win for everybody because it was a once-off. It’s there now and it will be there in forty years’ time, well after we’re all gone. 

“Betty and the Moran family did everything with it and put up the money. It wasn’t a great idea, it was a brilliant idea. It was a huge miss for somebody like Bank Of Ireland or Ulster Bank because everybody talks about Ruby’s Double and it gets so much coverage on the television. We got one up on them and it was absolutely magic.”      

Ted’s first memory of the Punchestown festival was when he was ten-years-old. It wasn’t long after his family’s move from his native Cork but he remembers his first festival vividly.

 “It was 1960 and I remember Punchestown from that day on. We got off from school in Kill as all the schools would close, all the shops in Naas would close and it was a national half day for everybody in the surrounding areas.

“Everybody went to Punchestown and we’d go into the in-field where the hurdy-gurdies used to be and we’d stand on the bank and play and watch the horses jump the banks.”

It was a different Punchestown back then,” recalls Ted, nearly 60 years on from his first festival experience.

Many will remember the first Ruby Walsh to come into Irish racing, Ted’s late father. However, some may not know that 24 years before Commanche Court’s dramatic win in the Heineken Gold Cup, it was the father and son combination of Ruby senior and Ted senior which triumphed in the very same race. That indeed was Ted’s first major win as a jockey as well.

 “The first big race that I ever won in my life, I won at the Punchestown festival. I won the 1976 Punchestown Gold Cup for my Dad on a horse called No Hill for owner Johnny Callaghan. He beat Paddy Slater’s horse Russeltown, who was favourite, and he was ridden by Bobby Coonan. It’s funny that I won that race for my Dad and then years and years later, Ruby won it for me.” 

Ted’s father enjoyed plenty of success at the National Hunt festival as Ted recalls. “Dad would have had plenty of horses which ran over the banks races that Ned and Jim Cash, from Clane, used to ride. San Mario was a horse of Dad’s which I remember running at the festival but that was a long time ago.”  

It wasn’t just Ruby senior who Ted enjoyed plenty of Punchestown success with either. “I used to ride a lot of hunter chasers for PP Hogan and I won the La Touche for him on a couple of occasions. I used to ride a lot of good horses for him over the banks while I won the Ladies Cup for Mick O’Toole another year on a horse called Mickotee. And I rode Pat Taaffe’s first ever winner as a trainer at Punchestown when I won the Bishopscourt Cup on Russian Friend for owner Ted O’Connor.”    

Ted hung up his britches in 1986 and it was at this time when he assisted his father in the training ranks. They enjoyed plenty of success together too. “Barney Burnett was the best horse that Dad ever trained and he won plenty of races at Punchestown, including the champion novice hurdle at the festival in 1986. 

“He won all his novice hurdles that season and he beat Deep Idol and Weather The Storm in the champion novice that year having skipped Cheltenham. He was owned by Paddy Donovan in Celbridge and he went on to finish second to Desert Orchid in an Irish National. Brendan Sheridan rode him all of the time and he won 11 races on him. He was a hell of a horse and he sticks out in my mind.”

Ehings then took a turn for the worse when Ruby passed away on New Year’s Day in 1991. It was then when Ted stepped up to the plate. 

“After Dad died, I got the licence changed over to my name and three weeks later, Roc De Prince gave me my first winner in the Thyestes. He also won a La Touche Cup for me under Tony Martin carrying 13st7lbs. He went to Aintree to run in the Grand National and ran okay, when Charlie Swan rode him, and then he came back and won the La Touche Cup that year. He’d 13st7lbs on his back that day and he won.”

To date, the best month in the training career of Ted came in 2000. 

Firstly, Papillon won the Grand National at Aintree before Commanche Court completed a spectacular double in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse 16 days later. Then, nine days after that, the same trainer, jockey and horse from that Fairyhouse fairytale added the Heineken Gold Cup as well. That dramatic win at Punchestown had to be seen to be believed too. 

“That was a great day and Commanche Court had to jump over Dorans Pride after the third last fence before going onto win the race. He was a special horse as he gave me my only Cheltenham festival winner as a trainer, he won a November Handicap, an Irish National, a Heineken Gold Cup and he was just touched off in a Cheltenham Gold Cup. He done everything that you dream about and I only wish that he was still alive,”  reminisces Ted of arguably his favourite ever horse to have put a saddle on. 

That 25 days' period in 2000 is a time Ted will never forget either. “Papillon winning the Grand National and then Commanche Court winning the Irish National and the Heineken Gold Cup gave me the most magical month of my life.”

Ted’s trip down memory lane then goes back to the most famous race in the history of the Punchestown festival. That took place in 1986 when the reigning Champion Chaser and the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner locked horns in a once-off event. 

Not only was Ted there to witness ‘The Match’ but he watched it alongside the man responsible for the great occasion. 

“I was there and I remember it well. I stood beside Vincent O’Brien and it was a great match between the two horses. It was Vincent’s idea and the Purcells and the Turf Club put up the money and it was magic. 

“It was a wonderful race, they were two great horses, Tony Mullins was back on board and it was a great celebration. How great a mare Dawn Run was that she could beat Buck House at his distance. It was a magical occasion, a once-off and that’s the way it should be,” says Ted on the only arranged match race he has ever witnessed in the flesh.  

The success of the Punchestown festival has been attributed to many factors but the support from English owners and trainers is as important as it ever was. Ted is very much in the same mindset and he fondly recalls one Punchestown evening in particular.

“I remember going up the evening that Sprinter Sacre and Long Run arrived at Punchestown before they ran at the festival and it was a dream to see them getting off the box and coming into the track. A champion chaser and a Gold Cup horse from England but the English have always been good supporters of Punchestown. I remember for donkeys-years when Tom Jones brought horses over and Stan Mellor and Tony Balding would be riding them and they were great times too.”

In those times, the festival was a three-day event and Ted’s quick to remember the days when the festival was just a two-day extravaganza. 

“It started out as a two-day festival and then in our time, it was a three-day festival. I’ve a picture of my father at the 1950 Punchestown festival, when it was two days, and it was called off because of snow. They lived in Kildorrery and they used to drive a pony and trap as far as The Heath and stay there for a night and then come up the rest of the way to the races the following day. 

“That year, on the 29th April 1950, the centenary year, it was called off because of the snow. That was a long time ago and now Punchestown is over five days and like Galway, it has to pay for itself.”

So 58 years on from attending his first Punchestown festival, what does Ted think of next week’s celebration of Irish horse racing? 

“This year’s festival is the perfect end to the season but it wasn’t always like that. It’s a great finale and with Willie and Gordon going head-to-head for the trainers’ championship, it will be very exciting. Gordon has had a brilliant season, having trained over 200 winners here, he’s been leading trainer at Cheltenham and now he’s won the Irish National. His achievements have been wonderful and if he doesn’t win the trainers’ title, I just hope he doesn’t think that he hasn’t achieved enough because he’s achieved it all. It would be great if we all had a couple of weeks off after Punchestown before we start the next season. I love Punchestown though and I love everything about it.”

There is no doubting that Ted Walsh is fanatical about what he does and he can’t talk enough about the sport which has made him who he is.  Let’s hope he never changes.

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