Robbie Walsh stole a busy minute from a busy day while playing father to 10-month-old daughter Laura and 3-year-old son Kevin. The Irishman summed up the past eight years since coming to the United States in 2001; he had 50 seconds left over.
“Well, I was only planning on coming over for a year and I’m still here, so it must be going pretty good.”
Indeed. Walsh has turned a one-year excursion into a career, and the 33-year-old is off to a flying start in 2009. Through the first three weeks of the season Walsh leads the standings with four wins and looks poised to have a good year.
Walsh grew up in County Kilkenny just a short drive from the mighty Coolmore racing and breeding conglomerate. Born into a racing family, he knew early on what his career path would be.
“My dad Paddy was an amateur flat and hurdle jockey and later a trainer, so from a young age I was always involved with horses,” Walsh said. “I went to riding school at 7, started jogging horses at 10, galloping them at 12 and schooling at 14.”
From there Walsh continued to advance through the ranks, working and then riding for top barns such as Joe Crowley and his son-in-law Aidan O’Brien, as well as Paddy Mullins. Walsh rode his first winner, Our Weathercock at Ballinrobe in 1998 and as an amateur riding for Mullins’ high-powered barn he cracked the top five in the standings. But in the following years, Walsh’s fortunes never really progressed.
“Towards the end, business just began to dry up and I started struggling a little bit. I wasn’t getting on the horses and I just felt I needed a break; it was time for a change,” Walsh said. “I talked with my wife, Carmel, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we decided to come to the States for a year.”
They departed in 2001 and shortly after arriving Walsh landed a job riding out with Michael Moran’s stable in Unionville, Pa. By spring 2002 Walsh found himself in Camden, S.C., where he met former jockey and trainer Joe Walsh (no relation). The two struck up an instant friendship and soon Robbie, with the Joe’s guidance, began riding over timber. Joe Walsh helped continue the education that began back home in Ireland.
“Between my father back home and Joe here in the States, they’ve both had a tremendous impact of my career. Their experience has been a great help to me along the way,” Walsh said. “I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my career to have worked with some great horsemen and it’s been a big part of my success.”
That same spring at Camden Walsh began schooling horses for Janet Elliot and Kathy McKenna. Elliot soon had a suggestion.
“One day Janet asked, ‘Have you ever thought about taking out your license?’ I didn’t come over here to ride, I was just looking for some work around the barn,” Walsh said. “But she got me thinking and so I decided to go for it.”
After a trio of training flats, Walsh made his NSA jump debut at Strawberry Hill in April 2002, finishing third aboard Bering Land Bridge for trainer Ricky Hendriks. He scored his first victory a month later aboard Hero’s Tour at Willowdale for Hendriks and picked up another later that fall to conclude his freshman season with two wins from 43 mounts.
From there the win total grew to a career-best 15 in 2005 when Walsh finished third in the NSA standings. That fall season also included his most memorable moment – Preemptive Strike (then trained by Paul Rowland) opening up 30 lengths in a Meadowlands stakes and then easily holding off the legendary McDynamo. The race had more than a moment’s significance to Walsh, however.
“He was the horse that got me going. It only takes one good horse, or one good ride and people start to take notice,” Walsh said. “He was just awesome that day and I don’t think there was a horse out there that would have gotten close to him.”
Walsh’s fast start this season is in nice contrast to his past two springs. In 2007, he missed significant time after suffering serious injuries – including a fractured cheekbone, jawbone and a broken shoulder blade – riding at a point-to-point. In 2008, he didn’t score his first win until Nashville in May. But by year’s end he won nine times, including four stakes scores. Among them was his first career Grade I aboard Dr. Bloomer in the AFLAC Novice Championship at Callaway. Walsh learned long ago that pressing to get a victory isn’t the approach to take.
Now he gallops for trainer Tim Woolley at Fair Hill Training Center and helps Joe Walsh with some steeplechasers.
“Even when I was struggling last year before the Iroquois I was still trying to go about my business and give every horse I rode the best chance of winning,” Walsh said. “Winning obviously gives you a lot of confidence, but I’ve gone through enough spells in my career to know it will come around. You’ve got to get on the right horses and the wins will come.”
And the wins are coming this year.
“Last year, I didn’t win a race until May and just kept asking ‘Am I doing something wrong? Am I ever going to win a race?’ ” Walsh said. “I had a great run the rest of th eyear, but it’s nice to jump out the first meet and have a winner. It helps your confidence so much. Instead of asking “What am I doing wrong?’ you’re thinking about riding a winner on everything.”