Donn's Articles » Mark Walsh

Mark Walsh

Mark Walsh kicked on off in front on the favourite Winter Breeze in the two-mile maiden hurdle at Thurles on 26th February. Mick Winters’ horse is a front-runner, he had made the running in his last point-to-point and he had made the running on his debut over hurdles two weeks previously, so it made sense to allow him stride on.

Walsh himself was a bit of a front-runner. He had set off in front in the jockeys’ championship at the start of the season, he had had a good summer, a good autumn, he had ridden plenty of winners. People said that his lead wouldn’t last, that when the winter came and the big racing got going, he would be reeled in by the perennials. Yet, when he lined up in that maiden hurdle at Thurles at the end of February, he was still clear at the top of the table with 68 winners, nine ahead of Paul Townend, 12 ahead of Ruby Walsh.

Winter Breeze was a little awkward at the first flight, he jumped a little to his left and he caused some scrimmaging in behind, but after that he settled into a nice rhythm. He was taken on for the lead by Mikey Fogarty on O’Donoghue’s Wish, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was happy to sit level with the other horse, or just behind him, it didn’t really matter.

He came under pressure as they ran across the top of the course and approached the third last flight. Walsh saw a stride and he asked his horse to make it: one, two, up. The horse got the message and came up, jumped the flight of hurdles in his stride. Unfortunately, he just clipped the top of it, stumbled on landing and came down.

Watching from afar, it didn’t look that bad. As falls go, it looked innocuous enough. But then, sometimes the bad ones do. Walsh knew immediately that the prognosis was not good.

“I knew straight away that my arm was gone,” he recalls. “I didn’t know about my ankle though until I went to get up.”

Broken arm, broken ankle. He had suffered a clean break to his left arm – it’s rarely good when the the only good news is that it is a clean break – and he had chipped a bone in his ankle. Six weeks minimum, the doctor said, maybe eight. Goodbye Cheltenham, goodbye Aintree, goodbye Fairyhouse, goodbye jockeys’ championship.

“I was gutted. Really. The first thing I thought about, as I was lying on the ground there, was the championship, that any hope I had of winning the championship was gone. Then I thought about Cheltenham, about missing Cheltenham, and Fairyhouse and Aintree. But I got things into perspective fairly quickly, it’s only a broken arm, a chipped bone in an ankle. I’d be back after a little while. You see what happened to JT McNamara and Robbie McNamara and it’s easy to get things into perspective.”

That’s these jump jockeys for you. Only a broken arm, these are insignificant knocks, only a few weeks on the sidelines. All Walsh wanted to know was for how long he would be out, all he wanted to do was get back riding. He targeted Punchestown and worked on his rehabilitation.

“To be honest, the championship wasn’t a major goal of mine at the start of the season. I just wanted to ride as many winners as I could, and things went well. It wasn’t until after Christmas that I started to believe that I had a chance of winning it, then it became a goal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.”

He wanted to get back race-riding before the Punchestown Festival so that he would be ready. Punchestown is so competitive, you don’t want to be going in there ring-rusty. He started riding out again two weeks ago, and he had his first ride back at Tipperary last Thursday, Bitsandpieces for Mick Winters in the last race, the three-mile maiden hurdle. Bitsandpieces needed a ride too. Walsh had to drive him out to get him home by three parts of a length. It was great to come back on a winner though, he was back, he was ready for Punchestown.

He didn’t know that he was riding Jezki in the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle on Thursday until Tuesday morning, just before declarations were made. He hoped that he would get the ride, of course. He had only ridden Jezki once before, but owner JP McManus’ rider AP McCoy is now retired, of course, and Barry Geraghty, who is five for five on the Jessica Harrington-trained gelding, didn’t make it back from injury in time for Punchestown.

“I was delighted to get the call to ride him. He is a top class horse, a Champion Hurdle winner, he is one of the best hurdlers around. It was brilliant to get to ride him again.”

Walsh’s main objective in the early stages of the race was to get Jezki settled. It was the Milan gelding’s first time to race over three miles, he had never been beyond two and a half miles before. He is bred for stamina, but he had the speed to win a Champion Hurdle over two miles, so it was important to get him settled over three, conserve his energy, harness his speed.

“I was tracking Hurricane Fly early on. But my fellow was a bit keen, and I thought that Hurricane Fly wasn’t jumping as well as he can. We out-jumped him at the fourth flight, so I just let my horse stride on. I was aware of Ruby there behind me the whole way, but Jezki picked up really nicely in the home straight and he kept on well. It was brilliant. It was fantastic to win it, I was delighted to be able to repay everyone for the faith they had in me in giving me the ride, JP McManus and Frank Berry and Jessica Harrington. And the reception he got was magic.”

It has been some Punchestown Festival for Mark Walsh. Add Jacksonslady on Thursday, Snake Eyes on Friday and Gallant Oscar and Sort It Out yesterday to his list of winners. Indeed, it has been some season. Even after missing that eight-week spell that lies at the very heart of the National Hunt year, he has ridden 72 winners, almost twice as many as he rode last season, and last season had been his best season ever.

“I set a goal for myself every season, to ride more winners than I have ridden the previous season, and thankfully that has worked out for me for the last few years now. But I am very lucky to be in the position I am in. It was through Christy Roche that my association with JP McManus began, and I can’t thank JP enough for the opportunities that he has given me.”

Of course, with AP now going racing in his civvies, the opportunities for Walsh may be more plentiful than ever next season.

“AP has been brilliant,” says Walsh. “He is unbelievable. He has done so much for the sport, and I don’t think there will ever be another rider like him. I’ll set out next season to ride as many winners as I can, same as ever. I’m hungry for all the opportunities that I can get, and I will try to make the most of them when I get them.”

Opportunity knocks.

© The Sunday Times, 3rd May 2015