Unsung Mark Walsh makes his mark

Mark Walsh is rapidly developing into one of the unsung heroes of Irish National Hunt racing.

Unsung Mark Walsh makes his mark

In lots of ways, he reminds you of Seamus Heffernan on the Flat.

Just like Heffernan, he has never held what would be regarded as a top job, number one to a leading trainer or owner, but in the same manner he goes about his business quietly and efficiently, while carving out a decent career for himself.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Walsh.

For instance, at the end of the 2006-07 season, his tally for the campaign was just four winners.

But his close association with JP McManus for a number of seasons has seen his standing gradually rise and he is now highly regarded.

Walsh has developed into a seriously talented horseman, who is tactically astute and particularly effective over fences.

We were reminded of his prowess at Punchestown last Saturday when he gave the Joseph O’Brien-trained Edwulf a smashing drive to land a beginners’ chase.

Edwulf had hitherto been very frustrating. Basically a good jumper, he was held back by doing a stupid thing here and there, a bit like someone fond of the demon drink, given to taking the odd fall on his way home from the pub.

But Walsh worked the oracle with a beautiful piece of riding. He gave the eight-year-old plenty of time to get into a rhythm and, as Edwulf’s confidence grew, his jumping got better and better and, in the end, he ran out a comfortable winner.

Indeed, so impressive was the horse that you really could see him taking a major pot before the season ends.

If Walsh was good on Edwulf then he was seen to even greater effect aboard Ted Walsh’s Any Second Now in a Grade Two over flights.

Any Second Now went into the race on the back of just a single outing, cruising to a shock 66-1 success in a maiden hurdle at Navan on December 10.

So easy did Any Second Now win that he could not have learned a whole lot and the two and a half lengths second, C’est Jersey, was since well beaten at Fairyhouse.

He was partnered to perfection by Walsh.

Ridden out the back, Any Second Now jumped and travelled and just got stronger as the race progressed.

Walsh could not have helped his charge anymore and the five-year-old then wasn’t found wanting, picking up in style in the straight to score going away.

Walsh is now 30 and well removed from being in the first flush of youth.

But most of the top pilots in Britain and Ireland are on the wrong side of 30 so age is no negative.

Will he ever get one of the best jobs in the game, first jockey to McManus?

Who knows but But Barry Geraghty replaced AP McCoy when 35 so it remains a possibility.

And back to Any Second Now. That win at 66-1 at Navan put me in mind of Melbourne Cup hero, Vintage Crop, and the first day he ran.

He made his debut, as a four-year-old, at Thurles in October 1991. Running in a two-mile Flat race and ridden by Pat Shanahan, Vintage Crop scored by eight lengths at 20-1.

Weld also ran a horse called Padiord in the same race and, ridden by Mick Kinane and going off the 3-1 second favourite, he finished 12th of 17.

The point is, you suspect, that neither Weld or Ted Walsh had a clear idea of just what they were bringing to the racecourse.

In any case, it is lovely to see Ted Walsh with potentially another high-class horse on his hands, although it will be a surprise if this inexperienced sort will be asked to head to Cheltenham in March.

For most of this season I have been convinced it was merely a matter of time before Willie Mullins put the young upstart, Gordon Elliott, in his place and took over at the head of the trainers’ championship.

But I am now no longer as dogmatic and, despite Elliott’s continued protestations that he has no chance of being champion, the reality is different.

This morning Elliott’s lead is just under €300,000. That is, admittedly, far from insurmountable, but sizeable all the same.

Races such as two valuable contests at Leopardstown tomorrow, next Thursday’s Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park, the Irish Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and Grand National may well play a significant part in the final outcome.

But, you’d imagine, the real battleground will be during the last days of the season, at the Punchestown Festival at the end of April.

If Elliott still holds a healthy advantage over Mullins, more likely than not, then Punchestown is going to be the real winner.

Mullins is a mighty man at this festival and will throw everything in his armoury at the meeting. To beat Elliott, however, he may well have to repeat the heroics of last season.

Mullins took 12 races over the five days, for win prizemoney of €571,830. It certainly does hold promise of a fascinating tussle.

Low grade handicap hurdles don’t exactly light this particular fire, but I will note where a horse called Dawn Raider turns up in the future.

Trained by Pat Kelly and rated just 99, he was the medium of a decent gamble in a 25-runner, three-mile affair at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

I always marvel at punters who have the courage to go for a touch in a contest such as this, with Dawn Raider backed from 8-1 to 5-1 favourite.

Anyway, he looked sure to score for most of the straight, but was collared close home and beaten half a length into second by Nicole’s Milan.

Dawn Raider went up just 4lbs, so has to be of immediate interest!

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