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'There’s nothing better than a well-bred man' - the enduring friendship of the toff and Ted

Robert Hall fronted RTÉ’s racing coverage for more than 30 years. Together with Ted Walsh, he formed a much-loved double act. They sat down to relive the highlights of a remarkable TV career.

robert-hall-ruby-walsh-and-ted-walsh The old friends with Ted's son, Ruby, in front of the TV cameras. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

1.

Captain Michael Hall, deployed inside a British tank, waited for the call.

War had spread beyond Europe and Hall’s posting took him to the North African coast. July 1942 witnessed the First Battle of El Alamein. Far from home, beyond the major fronts, the Allies were in trouble.

Robert Hall, the Captain’s only son, takes up the story: “On the morning of the battle, he was in his tank and there was a bash on the top. He opened it up: ‘Fuck me, Montgomery.’ He says: ‘Mick, best of luck.’ Dad is completely starstruck. Never met the man before. Montgomery went all way down the line. Absolutely fantastic, wasn’t it?”

Few tales escaped the mind of his father. Many veterans of that generation locked away their experiences so that they might build brighter lives. The Halls sought their future across the Irish Sea, returning to ancestral roots in 1948.

Of Cork extraction, Captain Hall first settled in County Kildare. Robert, youngest of three, was born in Furness, a Georgian estate near the village of Johnstown. The Synnotts lived in the main house while the Halls occupied one wing.

“I was brought up in a horsey family,” Robert explains. “We had ponies. My two older sisters were absolutely mustard keen. I got keen on hunting and hunter trials. My dad worked for Goffs and became manager.”

After four years at Furness, the family upped sticks. Naas to Terenure, where Goffs housed their offices, was an arduous journey in the late 1950s when the only route took traffic through every village in between.

These logistical difficulties prompted their move. Ensconced in suburbia, mother and son ventured down Booterstown Avenue: “We were knocking on people’s doors asking: ‘Would you have a field and two stables?’ This woman said: ‘Yeah.’ And this was a woman called Mrs Costelloe. She turns out to be the mother of Paul Costelloe, the fashion designer. I’m still friendly with Paul.”

Hall’s father was also developing strong relationships. Ruby Walsh, a horse trader from Kildorrery, he knew from running sales at Goffs. Walsh could always source a good animal. So Hall sought his assistance to help him find something suitable for the children.

“My father knew there was a nice pony with Eddie Hannigan, who was a friend of ours,” Ted Walsh informs. “He went down and bought the pony.”

“She was wonderful,” Robert recalls. “She was named after Ted’s dad. The pony was bought for my middle sister but I rode her as well.”

Seven years later, the family were packing again, this time settling in Kilternan on the Dublin-Wicklow border. Meanwhile Robert attended St Columba’s, a Church of Ireland boarding school.

Hall’s upbringing sharpened his sense of displacement: “I knew I was a different.

“I was Protestant. Everybody else was Catholic. I think I was wary. I was sort of sheltered. I hate the term ‘West Brit’. It’s about the worst thing you can call a man, I think. I’ve always felt that I was Irish. I love being Irish and I loved supporting teams in green.”

This fascinating life, now in its 66th year, leads to our encounter in the home of his renowned sidekick.

2.

“He was always a toff,” Ted Walsh states.

“Obviously I never got an Irish accent,” Robert Hall responds.

“You couldn’t, really,” Walsh reasons. “Your father and mother were English. And you were reared in that environment. Same as somebody is reared below in Kerry with a Kerry accent. Only problem I have is the fella who was Irish and they acquired an English accent. Like, Vincent O’Brien was born in Churchtown [County Cork] but Vincent acquired [an accent] because he decided this was the way forward. The same way, I hate an Englishman trying to become an Irishman, trying to be a bit of a Paddy. You hear him sometimes: ‘How are ya going?’ You know it’s only put on.”

Ireland’s most recognisable horseracing duo are off and running.

TW: There’s nothing better than a well-bred man. Now he can be any generation you like, he can be Chinese or Japanese, but if he’s a well-bred man that knows how to treat people, it doesn’t make a difference. If he’s a badly bred bastard, whether he’s the Queen of England’s descendant or a Traveller, he’s a bad guy. And people respected his father. To bring a horse from Fermoy to Dublin that time, a fella got 20 quid. That was hard work: put a trailer on the back of a box and bring him, leave him off and go back down again. Captain Hall would make sure that the lads who did that got paid. There would be no messing.

RH: He loved the proper man. It didn’t matter what wealth he had. He hated people who mistreated staff.

TW: My father would have been bringing horses to Goffs. If you had a problem, he was the man who was going to solve it for you.

RH: When Goffs came down here [Kill] in ’75, he was my next door neighbour. Ted would be hopping over into the fields beside us. I’d come down and get into work for 9am and he’d be coming back off the gallops or having had a canter or broken into somebody’s field. There’d be a wave. Then I was going racing and he was at the peak of his powers as a young rider. The bumper was a big deal in those days and he was winning them.

TW: It’s a small circle. He’s only four years younger than me.

RH: I would have respected him hugely. When you got to the bumper and it was the get out stakes… I was a racegoer and I’d be having a few quid here or there. And I’d be up or down a tenner. Would you go for Ted’s horse at even money or would you go for somebody else’s? He saved my bacon a few times. Only when we started working together that we got a rapport going. I remember I rang him up one day pretending to be Peter Bailey.

TW: He is the biggest prick of all time. Along with having an English voice, he’s a great mimic. I’m at home one day. Aintree is on television. We’re all at home watching it, on a Friday. Next thing, Jeff King, who was to ride one of the fancied horses, Zeta’s Son, in the National for Peter Bailey, gets a fall and is taken away in an ambulance. Of course, this fucker and a couple of other fellas get the idea, because I had ridden him in a Point to Point for Tom Costello, to ring me. So I pick up the phone: ‘Hello, is that Ted Walsh? This is Aintree Racecourse ringing you on behalf of Peter Bailey.’ So on comes this fella again: ‘Jeff King is in trouble and we’re not sure. Would you be available to ride Zeta’s Son?’ Now a fucken fancied horse in the National and you’re 27. Some fella’s after ringing you, Joe Schmidt: ‘Would you be able to step in for Peter Stringer?’ Fucksake, I’m running around inside: ‘That was Peter Bailey.’ I’m looking what weight am I. I’m fucken excited. An hour later, he rings back with a big ‘haw haw’. Well, I could have shot the fucker.

RH: I bet you could.

TW: I can remember it to the present day. I can remember getting up off the couch. Like some fella ringing you from The Observer: ‘Are you ready to write a piece?’

RH: I could do a few little voices like that.

TW: He was excellent. He could take them off as if they were there.

ted-walsh The veteran trainer in his element. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

3.

Ted Walsh never needed time to consider a question. Unprompted, he can deliver the most arresting verdict seconds after a race. Many of his one liners live on in the public consciousness and are now considered classics of their genre. But what of Hall and his abilities in front of the camera?

“He’s the same fella on television as he is sitting down there,” Walsh declares, looking across at his long-time linkman seated on the couch opposite.

“It just came to him,” he continues. “Robert didn’t have to pretend. It’s what makes a good rider, a good footballer. Robert was just a natural. He loved the game that he was in. He knew his subject to the earholes. He wasn’t worried what you threw at him. He wasn’t going to get caught in a corner. He didn’t become a connoisseur of ballet. He appreciated how much it meant to Tom Foley to have Danoli.”

From here, the conversation takes them back through their most memorable days.

RH: I didn’t find it difficult but I had nerves for 37 years. I loved the producer saying: ‘We’re going to a commercial break in seven seconds. So don’t let Ted say anything now.’ And Ted’s just about to open. All this sort of stuff is exciting.

TW: Very seldom you get somebody who’s presenting a sport that he’s in love with.

RH: Working with him has been an absolute joy because I think the first word is ‘passion’. If you have passion you can’t fail. People love passion whether you’re right or wrong. But he has knowledge. He has huge kindness. When I’m keeping a horse at home, which I do now and again, and something goes wrong, before the vet is rung, he’s rung. He might even get in the car and come over.

TW: Normally we’d ring one another once a week. If I came up with a good story, I’d ring him and I’d tell him. I’d be more into what the gossip is that’s around. I’d say: ‘What do you think of so and so?’ We talk and we’ll still talk. And we have different views. He might say to me: ‘Such a fella is a nice guy.’ I’d say: ‘He’s a bollocks.’ He’d say: ‘I didn’t think he was.’ And I might tell him why I thought he was a bollocks. And he’d say: ‘I never knew that.’

RH: I’ll tell you the story of the blowhole. [One trainer, on air] told me how he had got involved in racing. I wished him luck and I went to a commercial break. I turned to Ted and said: ‘What do you make of him?’

TW: ‘Fucken blowhole. Did you hear him? He thought he was the best fucken plasterer. Then he became the best fucken builder. Now he thinks he’s the best fucken trainer. He’s a fucken blowhole.’

RH: Two weeks go by and I get a call early one morning: [the trainer]. He says: ‘I don’t like what you said about me.’ I said: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And I knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever had a little bit of worry. We were wondering where the hell he’d had got this information. He’d  forgotten to set his tape recorder. He had rung up RTÉ to get a copy. The person in RTÉ, rather than fish out the race and the interview, gave him the whole programme. But they gave him the dirty feed. We had to get Tim O’Connor [RTÉ Head of Sport] involved and the lawyers. They said they were prepared to defend the word ‘blowhole’, funnily enough. That wasn’t the worst of them.

TW: Tim was great to us.

RH: He was a pioneer of television in this country. Now they’re frightened of their piss.

TW: Most people looking at television, 99.99 per cent of them have their sight. Most of them, in this present day, can read and write. They don’t need me and Robert to rattle out what’s already stated in front of them on a paper.

RH: People sit down and watch the telly to be entertained.

TW: If you’re really and truly a racing man on a Saturday, you won’t look at us. You’ll watch Racing TV because you’re going from Newbury to Leopardstown back to Chepstow back to Newbury back to Leopardstown, down to Gowran. You don’t want to know what we have to say. You want the next horse, next race. You don’t want to miss anything.

RH: If you’re a punter, you’re certainly on that track or you’re in a betting shop.

TW: We might say: ‘Horse looks well.’ Which they might not know. We don’t get into the nitty gritty. You might say: ‘This horse has no chance. He’s rated 65 and every other horse in the race is rated 100.’ But you don’t say: ‘The last day he was three lengths in front of this.’

RH: But most people in this country have an aunt or an uncle or a father or mother or a grandfather with a connection. That’s why we put the breeding up. That’s why we talk about the sire, the breeder, where he was found, who produced him.

TW: He was very confident in what he was doing and he was also very careful. He’d have written down what horses were non runners. Out of the blue, I might say to him: ‘It’s a pity Fakir D’oudairies doesn’t run.’ Some big runner. ‘Fuck,’ he’d say. ‘No one told me. When did he come out?’ We could laugh about it.

the-baltimore-suns-100-favorite-preakness-photos-from-years-past Secretariat charges towards the finish of the 1973 Preakness Stakes. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

4.

Robert Hall is on a Greyhound bus from Maryland to Indiana. The seven-hour journey via Kentucky takes him deep into Amish Country.

“Indiana is the most depressing place but everywhere I went was wonderful because I had eyes like stalks,” he remembers.

America captured his imagination from the moment he landed in 1973. Saratoga, his first port of call, was then hosting Secretariat, the thoroughbred icon of that age. Providence placed this besotted racing man Stateside in the year that the country’s beloved champion accomplished his Triple Crown – the first to win those three feted classics (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes) in 25 years.

Hall can still picture the scene he met in upstate New York: “You went into Saratoga, there was bunting, all the shops were bedecked in blue and white. Penny Tweedy, his owner, her colours were blue and white. Absolutely amazing.”

The wandering horseman went to work for bloodstock auctioneers Fasig Tipton. Before leaving Ireland, Hall completed the National Stud Manager’s course. Once established in the US, he was well positioned to take on the lead role at a private stud in Maryland. This opportunity came his way courtesy of Laddie Dance, an auctioneer he had befriended.

Stud season over, Hall hopped on the Greyhound: “I went up to Indiana to auctioneering school. I did that because Laddie told me he had been to this place. We were taught how to sell tobacco, real estate, Christmas auctions, the whole deal. We were taught all sorts of things. Strange people.”

For many years, Hall moved back and forth across the Atlantic. When in Ireland, he ran end-of-day sales for Goffs. Then he would break for America, making his way through those equine hotspots again: Saratoga, Maryland, Kentucky.

By 1975, Goffs were based in Kill, with Hall established in their Pedigree Department.

“Then I got married in 1980 and went down to work for John Magnier in Coolmore,” he recounts. “I did three years for him. I enjoyed it but I also wanted to do my own thing. I was terribly keen to become a race commentator. I wrote to all the Hunt Secretaries asking could I be their Point to Point commentator.”

His overtures were well received by the County Clare Foxhunts. They told him to come down for their two meetings at Dromoland and Scariff.

Those early encounters behind the microphone are still imbued with a distinct hue: “The parish priest used to watch the race beside me and I’d be scared shitless about my commentary. But he would say: ‘He’s only going to jump four. He’ll be pulled up in a circuit. He missed a bit of work during the week.’ He knew everything. It was brilliant.”

Next came a call from RTÉ and an audition at Leopardstown for the position of radio commentator.

“I got the job but I never improved,” he reflects. “You want to be doing it every day. You want to get to know the jockeys’ styles. You want to get to know the colours. Pale blue a mile down the track is white. You just needed to know those things. We didn’t have monitors beside us in those days.”

Television opened another door for Hall at an opportune moment: “Tony Sweeney was the paddock commentator. He wanted to do less days. So I filled in for the days he wanted off. And Ted, who was champion jockey and a big deal, used to be brought onto the show. They’d stick a mic in front of Ted and he was a total natural.”

Ted Walsh rejoins the exchange, exploding like a paint bomb.

TW: You were dealing with fellas like Noel Reid. Noel was the presenter of the racing on RTÉ. Noel Reid only just knew that he was at Leopardstown. RTÉ had never had any great grá for racing until the late Colm Murray came on the scene.

RH: We had an incredible Head of Sport called Tim O’Connor. I mean, a mega man. He took a chance with me.

TW: And me.

RH: I had a British accent. Then we got together and people began to enjoy us. The one great thing we had was passion.

TW: We loved a great horse. He might have a bet and I might have a bet. But if it was going down to the last, I’d want to see the best horse win. I would be disgusted if something fell at the last that looked like it was winning even if my horse came on and won behind him.

RH: You went to every Breeders Cup for 14 years because he likes to see a good horse.

TW: I love individual sports. The same with Federer or Nadal. I love watching them. There’s no one else. A one-man show. He either bottles it or he’s able to do it. I think they’re great people. When I went to Jamaica five or six years ago, I spent a week driving around to see if I could find Usain Bolt. I’d like to have met Usain Bolt. I’d like to shake his hand. The same way with Jesse Owens. I love runners. It’s a bit like the film that you see, Chariots of Fire. Just something electrifies you.

RH: There was a romantic undertone.

TW: The same as fellas would say: ‘He’s no Arkle.’ They’d say: ‘He’s no Jesse Owens.’ It’s just names that come to you. It’s like Jesus Christ: he ain’t God. There’s always some name that hangs there. It’s like Secretariat. He sticks in your mind.

robert-hall Robert Hall on his last day of television duty. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

5.

Mention of that American idol puts Walsh in mind of his maiden trip to Kentucky. He hit upon the notion of visiting Claiborne Farm: Sir Ivor, winner of the 1968 Epsom Derby, was retired there.

TW: We all went out to see a horse that was in a paddock because all of us grew up in ’68 watching Sir Ivor. We all have pictures, grown men in their forties. We didn’t want a picture with a model or a film star. We wanted to see Sir Ivor. It was 20 years after he won the Derby. You go up and you pet him. And you talk to him.

RH: Your imagination takes over.

TW: Robert’s the same way. I could never get my head around how little horses meant to Aidan [O’Brien]. Paddy Mullins used to go out every night and check Dawn Run. He wouldn’t turn on the lights. He’d shine a lamp in and look at her every night.

RH: Aidan will only ever look forward. I’ve talked to him about this. If you said to him: ‘George Washington?’ Don’t expect him to glass over and reminisce. That’s not him.

TW: It would be like you saying to me: ‘Have you got a John Deere?’ A John Deere means fuck all to me. There’s people who would come in and they’re tractor minded and they’d say: ‘Jesus, look at that.’ They’d kick the tyres. They’d walk around it, get into it, blow the horn: ‘This is some fucken tractor.’ Depends what switches you on.

RH: Aidan misses nothing. I remember one morning when I was down there and Gallileo was doing a canter. He suddenly went quiet. We went back and had breakfast. Aidan just wasn’t focused. Then he got called out. He came in — and the relief! Gallileo had lost a hind shoe.

TW: He knew he wasn’t moving right and he wanted a reason.

RH: Absolutely. All I saw was this magnificent horse.

TW: I can understand that.

RH: I know you can. Gallileo was such a magnificent horse. He prowled like a lion. Aidan saw something. He’s hugely talented in that direction but he realises he can’t make money on yesterday. It’s all about tomorrow.

TW: It’s like children. I see [my wife] Helen there and she’d say: ‘Little one is off colour.’ And I say: ‘She looks lovely.’

RH: Willie Mullins will take a dozen or two dozen horses up to the Curragh. They’ll be circling around and he’ll put one back in on the lorry: ‘He doesn’t need any work.’

TW: As Ruby will tell you, he saw something. It’s your ear or your eye.

6.

Hall, like Walsh, was gifted with a voice for horses, an inheritance of sorts. Proudly he recounts a little known fact: “Dad sold the cheapest Derby winner of the 20th Century, Hard Ridden, for 270 guineas.”

Then comes the kicker: “I sold the most expensive Derby winner, New Approach, for 480 thousand.”

This record has since been eclipsed. But Hall’s feat will always merit respect among peers, the same way his transmissions were so highly regarded for 37 years.

 

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