After 20 years in U.S., Walsh returns to Ireland

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Paul Rowland came to Robbie Walsh in the Meadowlands paddock with a pretty simple message about front-running hurdle horse Preemptive Strike.

“He’s a lunatic tonight, just let him go,” the trainer told his jockey as they got ready for the 2005 Somerset Medical Center Stakes, a rare hurdle race at the New Jersey track. Walsh followed instructions. Preemptive Strike sprinted to the first fence, led by 25 lengths after a half-mile and was 30 in front with a mile to go. Future Hall of Famer McDynamo whittled the margin in the stretch, but Preemptive Strike shrugged it off and won the 2 ½-mile race by 5 lengths.

“I think we went the first half in :44 and change but then he took a deep breath and off he went,” Walsh said last week. “We just lobbed along. McDynamo started coming to us in the stretch and I remember thinking, ‘I hope I’ve done this right.’ ”

He had. Preemptive Strike lit up the Meadowlands night and provided a highlight for his jockey, whose 14-year career ended in 2015. An Irish native, Walsh and his then fiancée Carmel arrived in the United States in 2001 for what was supposed to be a year’s stay. They made it 20, got married, became parents to Kevin and Laura, built lives.

But this month they close the book on America and return to Ireland. Carmel and the kids went in September. Robbie, an exercise rider with Graham Motion at Fair Hill Training Center, follows in a week or so.

The reasons cover plenty of bases – family, careers, citizenship statuses, the future – but the decision is made. The house in Pennsylvania is sold. The kids are in school in Ireland. The furniture is not making the trip.

“Visa things not being finalized, still being ongoing, that didn’t help,” Walsh said of trying to gain permanent immigration status in the U.S. “Carmel’s mother’s health has deteriorated. That factored in a little bit as well. The last five, six years we hadn’t traveled that much over there because of restrictions with paperwork.”

The Walshes also look forward to giving their children an opportunity to experience life in another country, one with family and deep roots.

“They’ve had a great experience here, made friends, grown up, but it’s a chance to just give them a different perspective of the world,” Walsh said. “You don’t see that unless you do it. That’s part of it too. They can go anywhere they want eventually.”

Walsh is from Kilkenny originally, but his parents recently moved to a farm in Ballypatrick in County Tipperary. The place is in the middle of horse country, not far from the famed Ballydoyle yard of Aidan O’Brien, and has two houses.

Walsh might leave horses behind, at least for a while. He applied for a stewards’ secretary job, looked into a position working with insurance for jockeys, but might go a completely different direction too.

“I’m lucky enough that once we sell the house here I don’t have to look for a job straightaway,” he said. “At the moment, most things are shut down anyway (because of the pandemic). I could ride out if I wanted, but I’m not pushed about it. I might just take a break and see how it goes.”

He will miss America’s warm weather, the sheer size of the place and the people he’s met. At 44, he’s spent much of his adult life in this country. It’s home. Or it was. Ireland will seem small by comparison – a two-hour drive in the United States might put you in another state; there, you’ll be on the other side of the country.

“The people I will seriously miss,” he said. “I made some very, very good friends here, people who gave me good advice and helped me out, good friends and teammates when it came to riding and racing. It’s easier to stay in contact now, but it’ll be different. Experiences, I don’t dwell on too much, just move on to the next one. If I was going to miss them that much, I wouldn’t leave. It’s our decision to go back. It’s not like we’re being forced to.”

Few experiences will compare with the horses he rode. In addition to his spins on Preemptive Strike, he was the regular jockey for 2014 steeplechase champion Demonstrative. Walsh won the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup three times. For Motion in the morning, Walsh rode champions Main Sequence and Animal Kingdom, Grade 1 winner Miss Temple City, 2020 Breeders’ Cup starter Mean Mary and dozens of others.

He came to America to get away from riding races, but returned to it at the suggestion of trainer Janet Elliot in the winter of 2002. Walsh was getting on young horses for Frankie Wooten in South Carolina, and started schooling horses in the afternoons for jump trainers. Elliot sat him down, told him he had to take out a jump jockey’s license. Walsh had a ready answer.

“No, I don’t.”

As she’s been known to do, Elliot didn’t take no for an answer.

“I was tired of riding races in Ireland and chasing the tail riding horses that weren’t very good anymore,” he said. “I had gone from being one of the top amateurs in the country to struggling so it wasn’t something I wanted to do. But I had my five-pound claim because I’d only ridden two winners over jumps. I had ridden 40 bumper winners though. That stood me in good stead.”

Walsh rode his first American race at Aiken, aboard Elliot’s Justagallop. He won two jump races that first year, four more in 2003 and nine in 2004. He broke through with 100 mounts and 15 wins in 2005, good for third in the standings. He hit double digits again in 2009 (12) and 2011 (10), but also endured injury-shortened seasons in 2007 (just 37 rides) and 2010 (21 rides).

Walsh MabouIn 2011, he won the Turf Writers with Mabou (at left in photo, Tod Marks) for flat trainer David Jacobson, who had claimed the horse three weeks earlier from Tom Voss. Walsh won the Saratoga Grade 1 the next year on Demonstrative and teamed up with that horse again in 2014. Demonstrative closed that season with wins in the Lonesome Glory and Grand National, part of a magical year for Walsh, who was the regular exercise rider of turf champion and champion older male Main Sequence.

“Main Sequence won four Grade 1 races that year and I won three Grade 1 races on Demonstrative,” Walsh said. “That was about as sweet as it gets. The work job and riding races came together and there was success at both.”

Walsh routinely got on quality horses in his job for Motion, but Main Sequence and a few others stand out. As with quality steeplechasers, there’s a feeling.

“Main Sequence was a different level, Animal Kingdom was a different level, Miss Temple City was at that different level, where if you breezed them you were like, ‘I’ve got at least three more gears left, I hope they’re getting enough out of this breeze,’ ” Walsh said. “I used to breeze Smart Bid with Animal Kingdom on the turf course. Smart Bid was a nice horse, he won a million dollars, but when Animal Kingdom would arrive upsides me it was different. Main Sequence was like that. He was pretty special. I loved getting on Miss Temple City, she was like that.

“Main Sequence was quirky, kind of awkward, but the gears he had were unbelievable. I had never ridden anything with those gears. I galloped Animal Kingdom, but never breezed him. Maybe he had those too. At home you never got to the last gear. You just didn’t. I rode a lot of good horses. That makes the job fun.”

Questions and Answers

What was your favorite race course? “Little Everglades. That was beautiful to ride around. They had a proper jocks’ room and everything about it was good. It’s a shame that didn’t last. I loved riding the Colonial Cup. The Pennsylvania Hunt Cup was fun. Race courses here have improved so much since when I got here. They have done such a good job managing the turf compared to before. You’ve got to give a lot of people credit.”

Any race that got away, one you wish you won? “The Colonial Cup. It still irks me that I didn’t win it. I’ve been second in it. I should have won it once. That’s one I’m sorry I didn’t win. I loved riding over those fences, loved getting horses into a rhythm, getting them jumping. Preemptive Strike in 2004. I should have let him bowl along. He jumped those fences so well. I had ridden him in the Iroquois going 3 miles and Tres Touche caught him. We worried about him getting the trip, but 2 ¾ at the Colonial Cup would be more like 2 ½ around the Iroquois. He ran great, he jumped brilliantly, but I would take a pull and give him a breather between fences. I should have let him go on and I don’t think they would have caught him. Hirapour won it (and was champion steeplechaser) and we were second.”

How about timber races? “Northern Thinking in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup stands out for me. Kevin was not long born, he was a bit of a tricky horse and I got him switched off and settled. We broke the third-last, but he got there to win. I remember coming up alongside Jack (Fisher) on Bubble Economy. I think he thought I was done at the third-last.

“I got hurt before Salmo ran in the Virginia Gold Cup (in 2007). We were second at Middleburg in what was a pretty good race and Chip Miller turned to me in the jocks’ room after and said, ‘You’re looking forward to him in the Gold Cup, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I really am. Four miles will be great for him. He went around there nicely today without a prep.’ Then I got hurt (in a point-to-point fall) and Chip won the Gold Cup on him.”

You won five Grade 1 races on Demonstrative. Does one stand out? “Anything with Demonstrative was good, he was just a fantastic horse.”  

What will you miss about riding on the jump circuit? “I rode with a lot of good people and made some great memories. There were fantastic days, I rode with fantastic people. The lads were competitive, but always looking out for each other. No dirtiness, no nothing. It was a great experience.”

walsh rowland6 Robbie Walsh and Paul Rowland were thrilled with Preemptive Strike’s win at Little Everglades in 2004 (Tod Marks Photo).

 More on TIHR about Robbie Walsh:

Ten horses who mattered.

Riding along with two champions.