Whatever the fate of Any Second Now in this year’s Randox Grand National, Ted Walsh will take a moment to wistfully reflect on the part Betty Moran played in giving him “the best day in my racing life”.
The pair of them were in JP McManus’ box at Aintree when Papillon, the horse she owned, became a household name.
Ridden by Walsh’s son Ruby, he landed one of the biggest gambles in Grand National history, backed from 33-1 to 10-1 on the morning of the 2000 renewal.
Walsh, who trains the well-supported Any Second Now for McManus, is forever grateful to Moran.
Not because she paid for the building of the double bank in front of the stands at Punchestown and named it Ruby’s Double, after Ted’s father, Rupert (‘Ruby’ Senior).
Neither is it because she bought Papillon with the sole intention of bringing on aspiring jockey Ruby Walsh.
It is because she was, according to Ted, “part of the family”.
Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Moran, who died at the age of 89 in January last year, was an owner and breeder of multiple Group and Grade One winners through Brushwood Stable in Pennsylvania, including Belmont Stakes hero Creme Fraiche and Arlington Million winner Kicken Kris.
As a breeder, she produced two-time US champion Unique Bella, top stallion Hard Spun, and European champion three-year-old Russian Rhythm. She also owned multiple Group One-placed Jeremy.
Yet her lasting legacy is in the hearts of the Walsh family.
Papillon failed to sell at the Doncaster sales as four-year-old and was snapped up by Walsh.
“We knew he was a nice horse and we were going to go point-to-pointing with him, but we changed our mind,” Walsh remembered.
“Berry Moran, who was a friend of my dad’s, asked me to buy a nice horse who would suit young Ruby, coming along.
“I said I had one in the yard and she bought him off us and owned him. She was very close to my dad.
“He had spent some time with Morris ‘Pop’ Dixon, who was a big Jumps trainer in America, and he said she was coming over to the Dublin Show with a couple of friends of hers and he asked my Dad to look after her and get her a horse.
“The horse she bought was was a horse called Tib’s Eve. I had ridden him. He ran in the Triumph Hurdle and had placed in a few races and she liked him.
“He went back to Morris Dixon and he won two or three good races including a big stakes race at Saratoga.
“She came back the following year and bought another horse. Then her son Mike wanted to spend some time in Ireland, and he came over and spent the winter with us and then his wife, Anne Kelly, who was an Irish girl, spent the winter with us.
“They became part of the family with the kids growing up. Mike is a couple of years younger than me. I’m going to be 72 this year and I’ve known him since he was about 16 or 17. We go back 50 years and so it was very much a family friendship that Papillon came into.”
Named by Ted’s son (“young Ted”) after the film which starred Steve McQueen, Papillon was a striking individual.
“He was a showy horse, a great big, good-looking, gorgeous horse, very easy to work with and a fantastic jumper,” said Walsh.
“He never fell in his life. He got brought down in the second National (2001), when Ruby caught him, and got remounted and finished fourth.
“The main problem was convincing Betty to run him. She took a lot of persuading. She just wanted a nice horse for Ruby to ride when he was starting off. It was his first ride in the race.
“The National was getting a lot of adverse publicity at the time and people were saying it was a dangerous race, and she was more afraid for young Ruby than she was for the horse.
“We had no aspirations of winning, but we backed him here and there at 66s and 50-1.
“JP invited Betty up to his box and we watched it from there, with me standing on a chair while they jumped the Chair.”
He added: “It was a magical day. To complete would have been great, but the horse jumped super all the way, Ruby gave him a grand ride, never made a mistake, travelled really well and from a long way out, you knew he was going to run a big race.
“That National was the best day in my racing life, without a shadow of a doubt.
“The fact that he won on his own would have been terrific, but the fact that Ruby was riding him made it even better. The only thing that would have equalled it would have been if Seabass would have beaten Neptune Collonges as Katie (daughter) was on board (in 2012).”
Walsh was a fine amateur rider but rode only once in the National, in 1975 when his mount Castleruddery, whom he had previously won a Kim Muir on, refused. “I didn’t get as far as Becher’s,” he recalled.
“But it was a big deal to get a ride and still is.”
Just like the nerves of the 40 jockeys’ stretched to breaking point ahead of the marathon, Walsh’s voice raises an octave or two, in a passionate defence of the race.
“The National is close to my heart. It is the most famous race in the world. National Velvet, the whole lot.
“Rachael Blackmore is after winning the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, but she said the other day that nothing will compare to winning the National.
“It is a one-off. Every kid that grows up riding a pony dreams of riding in the National, making his own little Becher’s Brook or his own little Canal Turn. It’s magic. It is a race that touches the whole nation and the whole world of racing.
“If you go to other countries, if you sat down in a hotel in France tomorrow morning, ask somebody what won the Gold Cup, they’d say, what Gold Cup?’.
“Ask them who won the National, they’d say Tiger Roll.”
Walsh has strong memories of making the trip to Aintree in 1973 when Red Rum beat Crisp.
He said: “I remember when the National looked like it was going to close down. There was nobody there that year. Mrs (Mirabel) Topham was going to sell the place and they were thinking they would run it at Haydock!
“I remember that well. You could have played football around the place, there was so few people there. It was dead. But Ladbrokes took it over with Mike Dillon. They got behind it and Red Rum helped save it.”
Tiger Roll will not be there this time, although with the many modifications to the fences over the years, it is arguable that even if he or any other horse were to replicate Red Rum’s three victories, it would not match his achievements.
“They have been modifying the course since the 1950s and it is not the test it was,” said Walsh.
“I think you need a bit of luck to win and you need to have a horse who stays.
“You obviously need to jump. But you need a stayer now, more than you did 25 years ago, when the jumps were bigger and more of a challenge.
“Riders took it a little bit easier, because the emphasis was to get around. Now the jumps are modified and the riders take it for granted that they are going to get round. So they will tend to go that bit faster all the way.
“Sadly, I think we have succumbed too much to a very small minority who won’t be happy until there is no Grand National, but for me, it is the world’s greatest race.”
Fortunately, the National survives and Walsh will head to Aintree with no great expectations this time, despite Any Second Now’s good form, which saw him finish third in the race last year to Minella Times and show his well-being with success in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse in February.
“The fact that you have won it already doesn’t mean you don’t want that great feeling of winning it again, but everybody has a slice of good fortune and perhaps I have had mine,” said Walsh.
“I think he has a live chance, like I thought Seabass had, like I thought he had last year, like I thought Jack High had, when he unseated at the Chair (2006).
“We have gone there with a few who have had live chances. He has a live chance and if he gets a clear round and if things go well for him, he shouldn’t be far away.
“He doesn’t compare to Papillon, not really. They both have plenty of pace and could both go and win at two miles, so could Seabass – not at a Grade One level, but they could all win Grade Three or Grade Two races – at two miles. They had plenty of pace.
“He is slightly a better quality horse than Papillon, but probably not as good a jumper.
“He just won last time, on the bob of the head, but with a bit of luck we should be there.”
There may not be a big morning gamble, there may not even be another big celebration, yet one thing is certain: “No doubt I’ll think of Betty and that great day,” said Walsh. “But it would be fantastic to do it again.”