Ray Walsh was always the perfect gentleman. He was of the old school in so many ways. And right up until the last day he attended a race meeting - just a few weeks ago – he was resplendent in his customary, or perhaps to him (the obligatory) hat and tie .While most of his colleagues were content with more casual north Queensland race day attire - shirts, caps and jeans..
His horses too were always paraded with what became known over the years the “Walsh polish”- an accolade he dismisses with “well, we always did our best to look after them – even the slower ones”.
And that, everyone will attest he surely did.
A native of the northern Rivers of NSW where his uncle Jim was a trainer, Ray decided as a young bloke he wanted to be a jockey.
He had the size and the inclination but after an apprenticeship with renowned Brisbane trainer Athol Strong, Ray eventually moved north to join his brother who was a cane cutter at Proserpine.
It was a visit that would change his life.
He never returned to Brisbane - at least permanently and set about adjusting to living conditions in the rich sugar country of the Whitsundays in the mid 1980s.
But the incessant yearn for horses became unbearable. And his problem was exacerbated by the fact that Proserpine didn’t have a racecourse. The nearest track was at Bowen 100km away.
So he carved pit a 1000m track behind the town dump. And then he got a horse.
It was the beginning of a new era for the former apprentice who by how had established himself as a successful glazier in the town where work was plentiful. His first horse was Tip To Toe and then soon after along came Cobbler’s Mistake who put Proserpine’s one and only horse trainer on the map with a series of wins at Ooralea at a time when Mackay racing was considered one of the strongest in the north.
So with the encouragement of his wife kath - an enduring and much admired stable stalwart – he bit the bullet and moved to Ooralea. It was a move he never regretted though in the past couple of years he has become “disillusioned” with the training profession in general and the overall control of racing.
He is reluctant to elaborate but suffice to say he would agree with the general consensus that horses are no longer trained like they used to be.
It’s all about treatment.
IN recent times he was missing the old bonhomie of the early morning track work sessions. “When I first came here you couldn’t get to the track quick enough in the early morning. Everyone was cheerful, helpful and the atmosphere was happy and friendly.
“It has become too cut-throat. The old principles are no longer practiced or adhered to.
And that’s why he is pulling down his stables - arguably the cleanest and neatest in the country - has already sold his truck and given most of his gear away to Nippy Seymour his neighbour on Bernborough Avenue - the long time hub of racing in Mackay.
He has nothing more to achieve as a trainer and says would sooner remain home and enjoy the memories than encounter the duress that seems to have pervaded the profession.
Ray doesn’t know how many winners he has trained.
“I gave up counting at 280,” he says. “And that was a long time ago.”
“But I reckon I remember every winner - just don’t know how many,” he adds.
He knows that Cobber’s Mistake the horse that changed his life won 16 races. And he remembers clearly every win of his favourite Regal Solo.
Not to mention the 2002 Cleveland Bay with Mighty Spy who also won the Mackay Newmarket in the same year.
Paul Vella the pioneer of motels in Mackay in the early 1970s said to Ray one day that he would love to win a Mackay Cup.
“Well, I will buy you a horse that can do it,” was the trainer’s response.
”OK,” said Paul. “Do it”
The trainer was quickly on the phone to that legendary Newcastle trainer Max Lees (father of Kris) and snapped up a horse called Real Tolomy. And with Shane Scriven aboard he won the cup in 1994 for Mackay’s popular motel mogul.
He was just one of stacks of winners for this modest, unassuming man who lived for his horses. A trainer who in 40 years seldom saw the inside of a stewards room, was a six times winner of the Mackay trainer’s premiership. And always there to help.
Racing can do without a lot of people. Ray Walsh is not one of them.
And he has a proud record of achievement that says it all.
JUST AS Ray Walsh bows out having saddled his last runner - I am writing and you are reading the last Silks and Saddles.
It has been a long and most times an enjoyable ride - with a few bumps along the way. But we always strived to deliver our views on racing without fear nor favour. At times, of course, my expressed views on issues raised in the column were not always accepted by all. And, really a columnist should not want it any other way. We tried to entertain and keep our country readers abreast with happenings in our region and elsewhere. We even managed to change a rule or two and as much as I would love to predict a bright and prosperous future for racing, particularly in the provincial and country areas where we belong, I simply and sadly can’t.
The problems are immense and manifold and while news last weekend of a change of guard at Racing Queensland was welcomed by many if not most, it is at least a start.
But time is running out - and there is much to be done. Racing in Queensland needs a leader of the Peter V’Landys ilk.
A national tote and on-course only bookies is a basic fundamental.
Or our racecourses around the country will end up caravan parks or worse.
Good luck, and thanks for the ride.