08/05/2005 11:00PM

Induction worth Walsh's wait


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Tommy Walsh's first trip to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame will be one that he remembers for years to come.

Walsh, 65, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at Saratoga on Monday for his achievements as a steeplechase rider. The induction ceremony will be conducted at the Humphrey Finney Sales Pavilion, a few blocks from the museum.

Before the ceremony, Walsh will attend a special breakfast for inductees at the museum on Union Avenue, where a plaque, with highlights of his illustrious career, will hang in perpetuity.

This year's induction ceremony will have a distinct steeplechase flavor. Others joining Walsh in the Hall of Fame Monday include retired trainer Sidney Watters Jr. and jumping great Lonesome Glory. The only flat-racing figure to be inducted this year is trainer Nick Zito.

Walsh, who began riding jump races at Saratoga in 1956 and later became a trainer of jumpers and flat runners in New York, has never visited the museum, which honored its first group of inductees 50 years ago. He said when he learned in May that he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, it came as a shock.

"I never thought I would make it; I figured it was a pretty cold case," Walsh said recently from his home in Muttontown, Long Island. "I rode for a short span of time - 12 years - and retired in 1967. I figured if I was going to be inducted, it would have been before this."

Walsh launched his career a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday, and apropos for a person of Irish descent, his debut came on St. Patrick's Day. He won three races that day.

In 12 seasons of riding, Walsh finished first or second in the national standings on seven occasions. Despite hanging his tack up three decades ago, Walsh is still ranked fifth among steeplechase riders, with 253 wins.

Some of his most significant wins came aboard jump champions, including Barnaby's Bluff, Bon Nouvel, and Mako.

Walsh, who competed during jump racing's heyday in New York, was the king of the American Grand National Steeplechase, a three-mile hurdle race run at Aqueduct and Belmont Park. Walsh won the Grand National six times, including a remarkable string of five consecutive wins. He also won the Saratoga Steeplechase Handicap three times and the New York Turf Writers Cup twice.

Walsh said one of his most memorable wins came aboard Independence, a half-brother to Bold Ruler, the 1957 Horse of the Year. Independence was trained and owned by Walsh's uncle Mickey Walsh, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1997. Until this year, Walsh's uncle was the last person connected to steeplechase racing to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Another unforgettable win for Walsh came aboard Bon Nouvel, who packed a whopping 170 pounds when he won the 1965 Temple Gwathmey at Belmont.

Bon Nouvel, Walsh said, "had some kind of speed. I remember the day - he just went out in front. There was a big crowd there that day, and the crowd was cheering."

During his rough-and-tumble jumping days, Walsh suffered two broken wrists, a broken knee, a bruised kidney, and a fractured collarbone. In 1967, at age 27, Walsh came home and told his wife, Georgia, he was retiring.

"I just got tired, and I came home and told Georgia, 'I'm not doing this anymore,' " Walsh recalled.

Walsh turned to training jumpers and flat runners, and now exclusively trains a small stable of flat runners at Belmont Park. His stakes winners on the flat include Ommadon and his dam, Missymooiloveyou, and Petrograd. Walsh bought Petrograd for $3,000 and won 28 races with the gelding, who set two track records at Aqueduct in the 1970's. The Walshes, who have been married for 41 years, named their small farm after Petrograd, who died there at age 35.

Monday will be a true Irish affair, with a large family gathering in Saratoga to witness Walsh's induction.

"I have a bunch of people coming from Ireland, including my second cousin, Ruby Walsh, who rode the winner [Hedgehunter] of the Grand National in England this year," Walsh said. "It should be a good time."