‘I Get A Kick Out Of The Breezers – But It’s Not The Same As Riding Winners’

Five years ago this week, Katie Walsh took Relegate (Ire) from going nowhere to the Cheltenham Festival winner’s enclosure when galvanising the mare to come from last to first to take the Champion Bumper in pulsating fashion. 

Little did we know at the time, but that Cheltenham success was to be Walsh’s last, as she bowed out on a winner at her beloved Punchestown Festival the following month.

A lot has changed in those five years since. Along with her husband Ross O’Sullivan, a prominent trainer in his own right and just about the friendliest person you could meet in any walk of life, Walsh welcomed daughter Stevie [three] and son Ted [one] into the world. 

Like her own father Ted and more recently her brother Ruby, Katie has proved to be a dab hand as a broadcaster and is now a regular contributor–along with her 2010 County Hurdle hero Thousand Stars (Fr)–on RTE’s television coverage of all the major festivals. 

And then there are the breeze-ups. That same competitive spirit that saw Walsh win the Irish Grand National and three Cheltenham Festival races in total has been channeled into producing belters of breezers. 

There was a time where Walsh hummed to a very different tune. A helter-skelter soundtrack that came to a crescendo in the second week of March for over a decade. The buzz that comes with riding a Cheltenham winner will never be replaced but new dreams abound for the 39-year-old who will swap the Cotswolds for preparing her horses for the Dubai Breeze Up Sale this week. 

“It was crazy at one time,” says Walsh on a morning borrowed from the depths of winter at the family yard in Kill, County Kildare.

“When I was riding and doing the breezers, I would be riding at Cheltenham this week for example and then try and manage everything that was going on at home with the breezers. 

“Or, if I was riding at Aintree, you’d be straight into the car and driving down to Newmarket to the Craven afterwards. I’m still working at the big festivals but it’s different to what it was.”

She added, “Back five or six years ago, the breeze-up business at home was getting going and the whole thing was getting bigger. I came to a stage where it made sense to retire. 

“Part of me wasn’t ready to stop but it made sense. I wanted to have a family and it came to a choice between this or keeping on riding. And for what? Another two or three years at best? Driving all over the country to ride was great craic when you were younger. But that went.”

Katie Walsh with Relegate after winning the Champion Bumper in 2018 | Racingfotos.com

One chapter closes and another begins. Stevie, who was named after Nicks, not Wonder, and inspired Jamie Osborne to name a horse he bought off Walsh precisely that, arrived just in time for the yearling sale season in 2019. Not ideal timing you could say. But typical of Walsh, she made it all work regardless. 

“I had Stevie in September and obviously missed a lot of sales that year. I went to Doncaster and then Arqana in October that year and even that was hard. Stevie is used to it now but, at the start, I did find it quite difficult to leave her. But that’s the way this industry is and that’s the business I am in.”

She added, “The great thing about this job is that it’s seasonal. I am gone from a lot of September through to October but then I’m at home for the rest of the year. Okay, Dubai is next week, but that’s only a couple of days. 

“It’s definitely more challenging with two small kids around. At night you find that your work is never done but I’m not the only mother in the country who is trying to organise kids and work. It can be difficult at times but I have great help and support. Mam, Dad and my sister Jennifer are brilliant.”

Concentrating fully on the breezers must be made easier when you have a track record like Walsh does. From these famous gallops, where Ted’s war horses Commanche Court (Ire), Papillon (Ire), Rince Ri (Ire) and this year’s Grand National contender Any Second Now (Ire) have all been trained off, Walsh has blooded her own big names.

Casper Netscher (GB) was the first to put Greenhills Farm in lights and, according to Ted, it was his sale that underpinned the success that followed.

“I’ll tell ya how things turn around,” he started. “A good few years ago, we had what I thought was a nice horse and he worked well. We weren’t getting enough for him at the sales so we brought him home. He ended up being a grand horse but he didn’t go on and be a good horse. We’d have been as well off to have sold him. 

“The following year, we had a nice horse and I said to Katie, ‘unless you get a good price for him, don’t sell him because he’s a good horse.’ She says, ‘we’re selling him no matter what because I’m in the business of buying and selling. I’m not keeping any of them.’

“We arrived at the sales anyway with this little bay horse that I thought was too small but who Katie liked. By God he could fly. She got 65,000gns for him. Who did he turn out to be? Casper Netscher. He won the Gimcrack, the Mill Reef and the German Guineas. He was a great little horse and while she only got 65,000gns for him, she did the right thing in selling him, as it got the word out that she was a seller.”

After Casper Netscher there was Breeders’ Cup runner-up East (GB) (Frankel {GB}), G2 Richmond S. winner Asymmetric (Ire) (Showcasing {GB}) and last year Walsh broke the record for the highest price ever achieved at the Tattersalls Ireland Goresbridge Breeze-up Sale when her Saxon Warrior (Jpn) filly sold on behalf of James Hanly to Stephen Hillen for €520,000. 

But for all the smiles this game generates, Walsh knows that the scowls can be just as plentiful, given the unpredictable nature of working with horses.

Walsh with her record-breaker at Tattersalls Ireland | Racingfotos.com

“I’m realistic,” she says. “I have been in this game for so long and I know the disappointments. Between horses getting injured, breezers going wrong and different things, that’s just the way it is and I’m okay with that. I don’t lose sleep at night over it. I understand the game and know the way things go. I’ve seen it my whole life with racehorses not going the right way or not working out as you hoped they would. Breezing horses is very easy compared to training them.”

She added, “I always had an interest in the breeze-ups. I just got the bug for this from the start and loved it. Okay, the next few weeks will be crazy again, but then I am at home with the kids for the summer. Ross won’t be. He’ll be heading off to Kilbeggan and Ballinrobe. That’s why I said, training horses is much harder than doing the breeze-ups. 

“There’s absolutely no let up as a trainer. You need to be a certain type of person to make a trainer. Ross is a very likeable fella and has a good bunch of owners there. I’m not saying I wouldn’t handle it, but I do know that I wouldn’t have the same patience as other trainers. I have built up a reputation with the breeze-up horses and have a good bunch of people here and some great staff as well. I have no problem calling a spade a spade and owners either like that or they don’t. If a horse isn’t good enough I’ll tell the owners and I wouldn’t be putting cherries on top of it either.”

“I’ll never come out and say that I think I’ve an aeroplane. That sort of talk rubs me totally up the wrong way,” – Katie Walsh

What you see is what you get with the Walshes. They don’t suffer fools nor do they care too much about what other people think. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but they’ve gotten this far just fine and Katie is a chip off the block. 

“I’ll never come out and say that I think I’ve an aeroplane. That sort of talk rubs me totally up the wrong way. I’ll never really believe it until they go and do it on the track. When you think a horse is going to breeze well and it doesn’t, nine times out of 10, that horse will always let you down. But when a horse breezes better than you expected, that’s the one who will always deliver for you.

“I think it’s so much easier to keep expectations lower than start calling horses good before they have done anything. At the back of my mind, I might be thinking, ‘this can bloody rubber,’ but I’ll never say it. You are on a hiding to nothing if you go telling people a horse is good until it goes and breezes well. If it clocks, well then you can say, he’s after breezing like I thought he would, he’s a good horse. It’s only then that you can stand behind them because you know they are a good horse.”

With that in mind, it might be best to concentrate on what Walsh doesn’t say about her Dubai Breeze Up Sale horses, colts by Into Mischief and Tonalist. She got well-paid for an Exceed And Excel (Aus) colt at the inaugural running of this sale 12 months ago and this year’s representatives were bought specifically to go back to Dubai.

“They are very big horses so you are just giving them every chance you can. But you are not under as much pressure in Dubai because there are no clocks. The season finishes out there the following week at the Dubai World Cup meeting so that makes it easier. You want them to look the part and go up there in a nice style and, off the back of John Cullinane’s Tapiture colt [Go Soldier Go] winning a Listed race at Meydan last week, he only cantered up the straight at the breeze-up. He is a fine big colt and clearly needed all that time. They are the types of horses that they seem to want over there. Obviously, you can bring a bigger, scopier horse to Arqana but you wouldn’t be bringing a Craven or a Donny type of horse out to Dubai. I don’t think anyone goes to the Craven with a horse for next year. The Craven is where you try to sell the Royal Ascot dream and Doncaster is the same.”

Regardless of how well this year’s batch of breezers sell, nothing will come close to the days of Poker De Sivola (Fr), Thousand Stars, Relegate and Thunder And Roses (Ire), horses Walsh will forever be associated with. 

“It’s very hard to replace the kick you get riding winners. If you have never experienced it, you don’t know what you are missing. To ride a winner, wherever that may be, that buzz is unbelievable. When that stops, you look for something to replace it. I’m not saying it’s the same buzz but I do get a great kick out of the breezers. I love finding out which ones are good and bringing him to the sales and for them to behave and breeze the way they should. Regardless of their ability, I take pride in the fact that it’s professional. That means a lot to me. Listen, I’d love one of those horses of my own to go and make €500,000. That’s the dream and who knows? Maybe some day it will happen. 

She added, “I always hoped and envisioned that it would grow to be as big as it is. I hope it gets bigger. I’d like more horses of my own. This week revolved around Cheltenham for a long time. I was lucky enough to be riding as an amateur for Willie [Mullins] and the whole thing snowballed from there really. 

“Every year, it was all about Cheltenham and trying to get a ride in the bumper and the amateur races over there. I was lucky enough to ride a few winners there, I’d great luck, but now it’s different and things change. It’s the same for Ruby, who’s flat to the boards now with ITV and Racing TV, so it’s been a big change for us all over the past few years.”

For all of the change the Walshes have seen in recent times, the results Katie has achieved through her Greenhills Farm operation remains a constant. 


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