When jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. turned for home aboard 3-year-old filly Auntie Joy in the Grade 3 Regret at Churchill Downs, trainer Brendan Walsh allowed himself to be cautiously optimistic. By then, the homebred for Sanford Robertson had led for the entirety of the 1 1/8-mile turf contest in a departure from her usual closing style.
“It just worked out that she ended up on the lead,” said Walsh. “It wasn't our plan, but we weren't afraid to do it. You never really have it in the bag until you're past the wire but when she opened up at the head of the straight, she was doing it so easily I thought, 'They're really going to have to go to get her now.'”
Auntie Joy provided Walsh with his sixth graded stakes since taking out his trainer's license in 2011. This latest triumph in a graded race is just as exciting to Walsh as the first, when Cary Street won the Greenwood Cup at Parx Racing in 2014.
“They're the ones that we all strive for. The whole team works very hard to get [the horses] there and get the best out of them,” said Walsh, who is based at Churchill. “If you don't get a buzz out of a win like that then you've no business in the game.”
A native of Ireland, Walsh grew up on a farm but had to beg his father to buy a pony so he could learn to ride. As Walsh remembers it, his father relented when Walsh was nine years old, spending 200 Irish pounds (about $300, Walsh said) on a 12-hand pony after winning a small lottery. Ponies, of course, have a reputation for being devils in tiny packages, and Walsh said his was no exception.
“Now you can imagine the kind of pony you're going to buy for 200 pounds,” said Walsh. “It's not going to be any superstar. He ran off with me every day and I fell off of him every other day.
“When I was a kid I'd be looking at these big horses thinking, 'Horses are so much easier.' These ponies, they've got every trick in the book.”
In the end, the pony got to be a decent jumper and won a few local shows, though it took a few years' work because, as Walsh pointed out, “the talent was there but the temperament wasn't.”
But that pony taught Walsh perseverance and the power of a well-balanced seat, which has served him well. After graduating from the Irish National Stud program, he broke yearlings for Sheikh Mohammed in County Kildare and galloped horses in Dubai, France, and the United States. Walsh quickly zeroed in on the goal of opening his own training operation one day.
Walsh sought to expand his horizons as assistant to Mark Wallace in Newmarket, then came stateside in 2007 to work for fellow Irishman Eddie Kenneally. Walsh enjoyed his experience with American racing, but the choice to hang out his shingle here was a practical one — starting a stable and picking up enough horses to support it is more challenging in Europe than it is here.
One thing that has troubled Walsh about his move across the Atlantic: He's tired of hearing fans put European racing on a pedestal. While he believes the United States could benefit from a centralized authority to police the sport and those caught with medication violations need harsher penalties, the regulatory situation in Europe isn't all roses, either.
“I think people are very hard on American racing,” he said. “At the end of the day, the United States is a huge country. It's a whole continent. In Europe we've got Ireland, England, France, they all have their own bodies and their own rules. They're all very similar but they do vary. I saw William Buick the other day get a 30-day ban in France for improper riding. No one ever got a 30-day ban in Ireland or England for something like that.”
Taking on the stress and responsibility of being head trainer after being assistant for many years was daunting, Walsh admits. Early on, he encountered an owner who tried to avoid paying him, and it took time and luck to get new clients. His claim of Cary Street for $10,000 helped tremendously. The gelding was originally supposed to be a quick turnaround Walsh hoped to move a little higher in the claiming ranks. He quickly realized that the horse was much more talented but needed time to mature. Cary Street has now picked up wins in the G2 Las Vegas Marathon Stakes and G3 Greenwood Cup and has career earnings of $381,515.
“It's like people come to me and say, 'I'm thinking of becoming a trainer.' You're thinking in your head, 'Oh God, don't do it,'” Walsh joked. “But at the same end, somebody who wants to do something like that, and it's their life's ambition, why would you try to talk them out of it? You'd rather do it and fail than not do it at all.”
Although he admitted the fear of failure never really leaves a trainer's mind, Walsh would appear to be far from that. His runners have earned over $3.8 million in his career, and he has landed in the money in 39 of 121 starts so far this year.
The future looks bright for Auntie Joy as well. She was a highly-strung filly early on, but Walsh and his team have ironed out a few of her quirks. He believes she will only improve with age as she grows into a tall, leggy frame. Walsh will wait to see how she trains after her Regret victory to pick a next start, but the Lake George at Saratoga or the Belmont Oaks are possibilities.
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