Quiet man Mark Walsh doing all his talking in the saddle

Galway has been good to the low-profile Clane man in the past

 

When it comes to the virtue of silence, Tony McCoy likes to quotes his boss JP McManus – “Imagine all the fish in the world that’d be alive if they’d learned to keep their mouths shut.”

Since the most regular two words employed to prefix McManus are “legendary gambler” it’s not a massive stretch to see where jump racing’s most famous owner might be coming from. And it’s no stretch at all to see why McManus is such an admirer of Mark Walsh.

Asked to describe McManus’s “other” jockey, most racing people immediately come up with their own two words, usually variants on “quiet” and “unassuming.”

Approached for an interview, the 28-year-old from Clane in Co Kildare politely declined, preferring, he said, to keep things “low-key” and “under the radar”. McManus you feel heartily approves of such public modesty.

“It’s hard however, to remain low-profile when he goes into the Galway festival perched on top of the jockeys table, and as a growingly recognisable figure on the Irish racing scene. The tall thin figure coiled up in those famous green-and-gold colours has become as familiar a sight on the nation’s racecourses as any of his more high-profile colleagues.

Expansive attitude

McCoy will probably transfer his tack across to Galway at times this week, and on other big occasions during the season. But day-to-day, Walsh is the one with the responsibility of steering McManus’s horses.

It’s an enviable job, one that has already contributed to a hugely-successful summer which sees Walsh approaching 20 winners, clear of household names such as Geraghty, Russell and Carberry. And this is especially a week to look forward to since Galway has been very good to Walsh in the past.

It was around Ballybrit that a worryingly stagnant career got rebooted in 2008 with P’Tit Fute’s win in a valuable handicap hurdle. Not for the first time after a promising career start, a young rider had found the going tough as a pro. Walsh wound up the 2006-07 season with only four winners, making headlines mostly for a 21-day suspension under ‘non-trier’ rules on the McManus-owned Good Company, a sore experience for any young jockey, never mind one wary of the limelight.

Walsh’s reaction was to put his head down and persevere, an attitude that clearly impressed McManus who began employing him more and more.

Walsh’s quiet horsemanship became more and more familiar to the owner’s legions of followers and the jockey himself became a hugely valued member of the Martinstown team, even when not actually in the saddle himself.

Four years ago, he was to ride the McManus No.2, Finger Onthe Pulse, in the Galway Plate, only for McCoy to switch after the other horse was ruled out. McCoy produced a barnstorming ride to win, and if Walsh’s feelings had to be understandably mixed, then he kept them to himself. Any karma believers wouldn’t have been surprised to see Walsh win the Plate a couple of years later on Bob Lingo. More prosaic minds might simply have pointed to it as evidence of the jockey’s mastery of the tricky Ballybrit circuit. Not that he’d put it like that himself.

“He’s not one to push himself to the head of the pack. He’s a very quiet man. But boy, can he horseback. JP loves him,” says Christy Roche, the legendary former flat jockey whose Curragh stables were where Walsh went when still a teenager.

“You wouldn’t know he was around the place. I sent him down to Aidan O’Brien’s, along with my young fella, Pádraig, for experience but he was always a lovely rider.”

What Roche feels now is that his former protégé has got stronger and more confident, something others say is obvious from the way Walsh is riding. Finger Onthe Pulse’s trainer Tom Taaffe agrees.

“Experience has brought Mark on. He’s riding quality horses regularly, and that’s important. There’s a job there, but he has to come up trumps and in fairness he has. I think he fits into the role very well,” says Taaffe. “I’m sure Mark would admit he’s matured a lot as a jockey over the last two or three years. It’s very visible.”

Concrete evidence of that came at the turn of the year when Defy Logic’s St Stephens Day victory gave Walsh a first Grade One success. Just weeks later Gilgamboa secured a Boylesports Hurdle victory back at Leopardstown. McCoy might get first pick on the big day when he’s available but his remorseless pursuit of records in Britain means that’s not always the case. And at 40, even McCoy concedes he can’t go on forever.

Different figure

“I love the way he rides. He’s excellent over a fence, never in a hurry. He rides like he is himself, quiet,” Roche says. “His older brother Jonathan was with me for a while too, a good rider who got a little heavy. His mother used to drop him over here, and I always remember her saying to me ‘wait till you see the other fellah!”

Walsh concedes Roche’s role in his career is critical and has said in the past: “I owe Christy an awful lot. He was training a lot of JP’s horses and he had no problem putting me up, even though I was just a young fellow.

“If it wasn’t for Christy, I’m sure I wouldn’t be getting the opportunities I’m getting now on JP’s horses.”

It’s also safe to say one of Walsh’s abilities is not letting his mouth run away. Continuing to stay under the radar could become harder with every winner.

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