OXFORD, Pa.--Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey Thomas M. (Tommy) Walsh, 79, died Wednesday, Nov. 13 after a long battle with cancer.
Walsh live in Oxford and died at Jennersville Hospital Tower Health, West Grove, Pa.
He was diagnosed with untreatable stage 4 cancer in 2014, and doctors gave him six months to live.
With the same tenacity that marked his riding career, Walsh fought and lived another five years despite doctors' diagnosis.
Walsh’s wife of 56 years, Georgia, is fighting her own battle in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
"He was a wonderful person," said Betsy Houghton, whose husband Ronnie rode against Walsh." We've been friends for years. He was such a good steeplechase rider."
Walsh was a god-parent of Houghton's daughter Robin.
"Tommy was a typical Irishman," said Houghton. "He had a great sense of humor. And he didn't care how a horse jumped, just as long as he got from one side to the other."
Betsy and Audrey Colgan have been among those who helped the Walshes through the last difficult years, taking them food and helping out with chores.
WALSH retired well off, but with both being ill, their funds dried up, and the steeplechase community rallied to help, funneling donations through a GoFundMe account created by longtime industry professional Lenny Hale.
Tax-deductible donations go through the American Steeplechase Injured Jockeys Fund.
Born in 1940 in Great Neck, N.Y., he was the son of the late James and Molly McLaughlin Walsh.
He grew up working and riding at his father James Walsh’s riding academy.
In an article from the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation, Tommy's younger brother Jimmy remembered “hunting days” on Long Island.
“Tommy and me would ride the horses down on hunt days, because my father would pretty much supply all the (livery) horses,” Jimmy said. “I’d ride one, pony one, so would Tommy. We’d cross the Whitney estate, all the way down Middle Neck Road from King’s Point all the way past the Long Island Expressway.
“It was a pretty busy road. A little hairy, but, you know, it’s just what we did. We were kids, and our dad said to ride over to the Meadowbrook Inn, so we would.”
In 1956, Walsh began his riding career at 15 years old.
During his 12-year career as a jockey, he was either first or second seven times in the standings and was at the top of the ranks twice.
Walsh ranked second in the steeplechase division in 1957 and 1958.
He won the American Grand National five consecutive times and also rode in the Saratoga Steeplechase Handicap, the Harbor Hill Handicap and the New York Turf Writers Cup winning in several of those.
As soon as he turned 16, Tommy Walsh went to Southern Pines, N. C. to gallop for his uncle Michael G. “Mickey” Walsh.
He finished second, to champion Paddy Smithwick, in rider rankings in 1957 and ’58 and won his first title with 31 wins from 138 mounts in 1960.
He repeated in ’66 with 39 victories from 177 rides.
Tommy Walsh’s uncle Michael G. “Mickey” Walsh, was a native of County Cork, Ireland.
He emigrated to the U.S. and began training steeplechase horses in the 1940s and passed the $1 million mark in 1964.
Mickey Walsh was the sport’s leading trainer from 1953 through 1955, training winners of nearly $3 million on the flat and over fences 1951-1990.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
Tommy Walsh, who rode from 1956 to 1967, winning 253 races and two year-end titles. is still the fifth all-time leading National Steeplechase jockey, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
“When I first started racing, Tommy was one of the top riders,” said fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Fishback. “He was very, very good. But you better believe he was the kind of champion that could put you in a squeeze to prevent you from slipping past him. If I had to choose a word to describe Tommy Walsh, the jockey, it would be ‘courageous.’ And, maybe, ‘aggressive’.”
Walsh had an almost intuitive manner with horses.
He was never badly injured, shrugging off the occasional broken collarbone as occupational inconvenience.
“I just got tired of it,” Walsh said of his deciion to top riding races. “I rode a lot of good horses. But it was time to quit.”
As a jump rider retiring to train flat and jump horses, Walsh was in good company: other former steeplechase jockeys that turned to training include Sid Watters, J. Bowes Bond, Scotty Schulhofer, Evan Jackson, Downey Bonsal, Allen Jerkens, Mike Smithwick and Jonathan Sheppard.
Walsh had some hurdlers when he started out, and Fishback rode many of them.
Bert Firestone was one of his first big clients.
Through 2013, Walsh trained more than 2,000 starters, winning more than $4.5 million and 200 races, mostly on the flat but added a couple dozen over hurdles in his early years.
Top performers included multiple-stakes winner Brandala for breeder-owner Sorin Stables, G3 winners Nice Pirate, Ommadon and Missymooiloveyou along with barn favorite Petrograd.
Wife Georgia owned multiple graded-stakes-placed winner Petrograd, an iron handicapper that raced from ages 2 to 10.
Petrograd set a new stakes mark at Aqueduct in 1973, continuing to run well – and win – dipping to the claiming ranks as he aged.
Petrograd was claimed out of a race at Aqueduct at age 9 by Frank “Pancho” Martin.
Petrograd raced 11 times the next year for his new connections, in 1979 winning four races before Martin retired the horse back to Walsh at the end of the season.
"Petrograd fed me, now I’m going to feed him," Walsh said, and he kept him until he was 35.
Walsh stayed in New York until after the Aqueduct meet in spring, 2008.
He moved to Delaware Park, remaining there until he retired in 2013 when he got the cancer diagnosis.
One of Walsh's most impressive wins came on a cold, wind-whipped afternoon at Aqueduct in October, 1965.
He rode champion Bon Nouvel to win by 30 lengths in the feature, the Temple Gwathmey steeplechase handicap.
The front-running – free-flying, Walsh said – effort shattered the course mark for the three-miles, with Bon Nouvel carrying a then record weight of 170 pounds.
Coming home second, barely clear of the last fence as Walsh raised his bat in salute under the wire, Lucentaur carried a featherweight 134.
Walsh is survived by his wife George, and two brothers, Jim Walsh (Anne) of Alexandria, KY and Robby Walsh (Barbara) of Bethpage, NY.
He was preceded in death by a brother John Walsh.
A memorial service will be held at 11 am Monday, Nov.18 at the Edward L. Collins, Jr. Funeral Home, Inc., 86 Pine St., Oxford, Pa., with a luncheon to follow at Sylmar Farm, 151 Maple Shade Road, Christiana, PA 17509.