A great day for this Irishman

By Dennis Ryan

21 Jul 2022

A great day for this IrishmanGary Wash and Dean Cunningham share congratulations after Tittletattle’s upset win in the Grant Pl

“Wasn’t it a fantastic game? I can remember about half of it, but we all know the result!”
For the Palmerston North jumps jockey known to his mates as Irish, last Saturday will be forever remembered as one for the ages.
Gary Walsh’s day began at Trentham with the biggest win of his career partnering the rising 10-year-old maiden Tittletattle to an upset win in the $75,000 Grant Plumbing Wellington Steeplechase, and ended at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium as his countrymen created history with the ultimate victory over the previously invincible All Blacks.
Walsh is typically deadpan Irish describing his big day out. “I just sat back and let the others do all the work,” he says of his come-from-behind win on the Dean Cunningham-trained Titteltattle. “I was so confident before the race. I just knew she would be hard to beat after the way she had gone for me the couple of times I rode her earlier in the winter.
“It was great to win the race for Dean – he’s a good bugger and it was marvellous to see how stoked he was afterwards.”
After catching up with a couple of mates who had joined him for the trip to the capital, Walsh caught the train into the city, raised a glass or three with former jumps jockey colleagues Ben Foote and Chris Allen at a nearby bar and headed to Sky Stadium fully pumped at the prospect of a test series win by the Irish rugby team.
“I had the green jersey and face zinc – the full works – and I also had the cup they had given me at Trentham. Dean got the main trophy and I think mine was the plastic version, but you could still drink out of it!
“Wasn’t it a fantastic game? I can remember about half of it, but we all know the result!”
From his years growing up in the Dublin region, Walsh is acquainted with Ireland’s veteran front-rower Cian Healy – “Through mates of mates, if you know what I mean” – but on Saturday night he was happy to celebrate the historic occasion with more immediate mates.
Back to the Manawatu on Sunday, the celebrations continued with a party at Dean Cunningham’s Marton home, but by Monday morning it was back to work for the rejuvenated 42-year-old.
Walsh’s riding career began in amateur ranks, mainly on the point-to-point circuit, when a highlight was winning the only amateur race staged annually at Irish racing headquarters, the Curragh. “That was back in 1997,” he recalls. “I won on two of my four amateur rides that year – my strike-rate was better than Frankie Dettori’s!
“Then I decided it was time to see the world, so I went to South Africa and rode work there for a year before spending four years in Australia doing the same. Getting a visa wasn’t easy, that’s when I came over to New Zealand, and I’ve been here since 2005.”
After being granted a jumps jockey licence, Walsh rode his first winner in 2007 and the tally grew steadily to eight wins in the 2011-12 season, which included his first feature success on the Grant Searle-trained Lord Custom in the Manawatu Steeplechase. He was denied a memorable home track double when narrowly beaten on Thatz David in the Awapuni Hurdles, but the day was overshadowed by Lord Custom having to be euthanised after suffering a serious hind leg tendon injury. A year later Thatz David got his reward when Walsh partnered him to victory in the Wellington Hurdles.
The gradual reduction in the number of jumps races and opportunities following his best season of nine wins from 70 rides in 2016-17 led Walsh to evaluate his future. Thus in 2020 he signed up to a building apprenticeship and is now midway through his qualifications.
“It’s been good, I’m really enjoying getting another skill,” he says. “It makes it difficult to take midweek rides but it’s my future that I have to think of.
“I had still been riding trackwork before heading to work but with things quietening down through the winter I haven’t ridden trackwork for the past month. In bed till half six in the morning – you can’t beat it!”
Tittletattle earned a 30-point rating rise for her Wellington Steeplechase win, but with her four-point mare’s allowance factored in she should still be well placed for upcoming targets headed by the Racecourse Hotel Grand National Steeplechase at Riccarton on August 13.
“I know she was a maiden before Saturday, but she had form against strong fields,” says Walsh. “She finished fourth in the Grand National last year and ran some good races earlier this winter, so the way she won on Saturday you’d have to say she’s improved from that.”