Bridging The Gap: Cork to Churchill Downs

|

Cork-born trainer Brendan Walsh | Coady

By

Cork-born trainer Brendan Walsh has been ascending steadily through the U.S. ranks since taking out his license seven years ago, and the 45-year-old will reach the summit of American racing on Saturday when he saddles his first GI Kentucky Derby starter, the G2 UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait (Point of Entry).

In 2012, his first full year with a license, Walsh sent out four winners. His tally last month at Keeneland's three-week spring meet alone was six–good for joint fourth by winners. Walsh bagged in excess of $3-million in both 2017 and 2018, and with $2.35-million in the bank already in 2019 he is well on his way to a career-best year with a stable of 60 split currently between Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

“Six winners at Keeneland is pretty good going for a stable of our size,” said Walsh, who also saddles Proctor's Ledge (Ghostzapper) in Churchill's GII Distaff Turf Mile, a race she won last year, on Saturday. “It's always good to be doing well and having winners like that when you're going into something like the Derby.”

Plus Que Parfait, like his trainer, is riding a winning momentum heading into the First Saturday in May. The chestnut, a $135,000 Keeneland September yearling, will be a longshot when he exits gate nine on Saturday, but Walsh said he has blossomed since his trip to Dubai. Plus Que Parfait has started twice at Churchill Downs, placing both times including a neck second behind fellow Derby starter Signalman (General Quarters) in last November's GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. He failed to fire in the Louisiana prep races over the winter, finishing fifth and 13th, respectively, in the G3 LeComte S. and G2 Risen Star S. He looked a different horse, however, when winning the UAE Derby by 3/4 of a length over Gray Magician (Graydar) after saving ground midpack on the rail, and the 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points he earned there ensured him a spot in the starting gate. Walsh said Dubai was always in the back of his team's minds because owners Imperial Racing are based in the Emirate over the winter.

“They have some horses with Doug Watson, I believe, out there, and of course they have a few distributed amongst different trainers [in America],” Walsh said. “A lot of it revolves around World Cup night [for Imperial Racing] and I think this is the first time that they managed to pull off a win, so they were really, really pleased, as you could imagine.

“When things didn't quite work out at Fair Grounds, we diverted towards maybe giving Dubai a shot. We sent him down to Florida after the Risen Star because if he was going to Dubai, he was going to fly out of Miami anyway. We said, 'If he's doing really, really well, where we'd be confident he'd run a good race in Dubai, then we'd send him to Dubai.'”

Walsh, who has “one or two 2-year-olds” on the way to his barn for Imperial Racing, said he laid eyes on Plus Que Parfait for the first time in Ocala about a year ago.

“I loved him from the word go, and he's always been very, very professional the whole way through,” Walsh said. “When we brought him in last year, from day one he was one of those that you just showed him what you wanted him to do, what was required, and he went ahead and did it. He's always been very professional, and he's got a great mind, which I think is his biggest asset. Physically, in the last two months, he's really grown from a boy into a man. He's gotten a lot stronger, physically, which is exactly what you want to see in a 3-year-old this time of year.”

“He's always handled Churchill well,” Walsh added. “He ran twice there last year and ran well both times. He handles the track good. He's always worked well there, too. He's done plenty of work there and he looks this week like he's taken to it like a duck to water.”

Plus Que Parfait's apparent affinity for Churchill Downs is not unlike his trainer's compatibility with the American racing scene. It can't hurt that Walsh laid a solid international foundation before striking out on his own. His travels took him from Ireland–where he completed the Irish National Stud course before moving to Darley's Kildangan Stud-to Dubai, where he spent nine winters as a work rider for various stables including Godolphin, where he had his hands on the likes of Daylami, Street Cry, Fantastic Light and Kayf Tara. His next stop was Newmarket, where he spent 3 1/2 years with trainer Mark Wallace, before taking up an offer to join trainer Eddie Kenneally in Kentucky.

“I came over on vacation at one stage and I bumped into Eddie Kenneally, and he told me, 'If you plan on coming back give me a call,'” Walsh explained. “I hooked up with Eddie, and did another 3 1/2 or four years with Eddie, which was great. And then I decided I'd take the plunge.”

For all his global grounding, however, Walsh's interest was sparked in his birthplace of County Cork. It is widely acknowledged that racing globally is suffering as a result of a growing disconnect between humans and the working animal– something that is being borne out in the strengthening of extreme animal rights organizations as well as rising staffing problems-and while Ireland is not immune to this, it seems that places like Cork–home of Coolmore satellites Castlehyde and Grange Studs as well as Glenview, Grove, Castletown, and Rathbarry Studs and many, many others-are some of the last remaining places where the relationship between man and beast is truly congruous.

“Without a doubt,” Walsh responded when asked if growing up in Cork kick-started his career. “I was obsessed with horses from the get-go. Don't ask me where it came from, but we were farmers at home, so you're always around animals, and I think when you've got a natural thing with animals, it translates, no matter whether it's dogs, or horses, or whatever it is.

“I was always very fond of animals, and I think you learn to care for animals, and horses were my thing. My dad bought me a pony when I was eight years old, and we just went from there. But it's difficult, when I think about it sometimes, to explain where it really came from, and how I ended up in it.”

Having an unwavering familial support system didn't hurt, either.

“My dad bought me a pony, and opened the door for me, and they never stood in my way, and thankfully things worked out,” Walsh added. “There were a few bumps along the road, as there is with anybody's career. In the end, it worked out great. I'm doing what I love to do, and there's an awful lot to be said for that.”

While he is undoubtedly nostalgic about his native land, it appears as if there was never much doubt about where Walsh would lay down new roots, and why.

“America is just the land of opportunity,” he said. “It's very hard for a young trainer to get started in Europe, unless you have a lot of money behind you, because everything is private. So you have to find yourself a yard and gallops, and you have to have the right clientele and the right connections.

“It was always going to be very tough for me to get going there, and I always loved American racing. I always followed it, and it always appealed to me. There was a bit more opportunity here, so I decided I'd pursue it, and thankfully, it worked out. When I look back on it, it couldn't have worked out any better.”

American racing unfortunately rolls into its marquee event this weekend in the shadow of a national crisis that has unraveled following the deaths of 23 horses over the winter at Santa Anita. Progress to regain the public's confidence in racing appears to be making baby steps, most notably with a 20-strong coalition of racetracks that have pledged to phase out race day medication, but deeply divided opinions, specifically on the topic of Lasix, still stand in the way of true reform. Walsh was quick to acknowledge the merits of both sides of the argument, but said he thinks a national governing body is necessary for real progress to be made.

“I know I'm stating the obvious, but the main thing that needs to be done, above anything–and I don't know how you'd even go about it–but there needs to be a national governing body in the country,” Walsh said. “Any of the major racing countries in the world has a national governing body, and I think that's where American racing gets called out more than anything. And I think if you could do that, and everybody come together and come to an agreement, and not have one bunch saying one thing, and another saying another, I think that's what has to be done. Everybody needs to come together and find a common ground, where everyone is reasonably happy. Hopefully, everybody can find a way to keep the whole thing going, and we don't end up in trouble, and it's not too late.”

The rise of high-quality turf racing in the U.S. has been a much more positive talking point over the past year. Plus Que Parfait is by Point of Entry, a beautifully bred son of Dynaformer from a prolific Phipps family that won three Grade Is on the turf and was second in the GI Breeders' Cup Turf. Interestingly, this year's Kentucky Derby includes a handful of horses with turf-themed pedigrees: GII Fountain of Youth S. winner Code of Honor is from the first crop of Frankel (GB)'s three-time Group 1-winning full-brother Noble Mission (GB) (Galileo {Ire}), while Omaha Beach–favoured before being scratched late on Wednesday–and War of Will are both by War Front. It is well known that the Claiborne stallion raced on dirt himself but has thus far carved out his lofty reputation primarily on the basis of his grass runners, although the axis looks likely to shift this year. While Omaha Beach would not have been a longshot to excel on the dirt, being a grandson of the outstanding dirt Grade I winner and broodmare Take Charge Lady (Dehere) and a half-brother to champion 2-year-old filly Take Charge Brandi (Giant's Causeway), War of Will is a fascinating case, being a half-brother to the Irish champion 2-year-old Pathfork (Distorted Humor) out of the stakes-winning Sadler's Wells mare Visions of Clarity (Ire).

Walsh acknowledged that turf racing is indeed on the rise, but said he hopes that doesn't come at the expense of dirt racing.

“I think there's an awful lot more of turf racing than what there was when I came to this country,” he said. “Why, I don't know. Maybe with what's going on at the moment with medication and everything it suits to have more turf type horses than dirt. But the dirt is also a very big part of American racing, and long may it continue. When you watched American racing you always associated it with dirt racing, and it's always been very exciting.”

This week, Walsh has a chance to immortalize his name in that great dirt racing history with a Kentucky Derby runner, and a win in America's greatest race and one of its most coveted and historic sporting events would no doubt be the crowning glory of the trainer's career.

“To win it would be unbelievable,” he said. “It's like any sport, like the golfing Majors, the Superbowl in football–this is our Superbowl. So for anybody that's involved in a sport, this is the pinnacle of it. To win it would be unbelievable.

“I just want to see the horse run well. I think that would be a great achievement in itself, to show that it can be done, that you can come back from Dubai and run a good race. Hopefully, he comes back out of it good, and he can have a good rest of his career. Because I think he can, I think he can be very good horse, as time goes along, and I don't think we've seen the best of him yet.”

 

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

X

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.