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The Walsh wonders

IN HORSE racing, breeding carries as much weight for the human protagonists as the equine ones. Being a Mullins, Carberry or Taaffe is like having Sadler’s Wells blood in you.



RACING MAD: Ted Jnr, Ted Snr, Katie, Helen, Jennifer and Ruby (Photos by Caroline Norris)


The Walsh clan is another example.


Ted is the son of Ruby, a trainer who moved to Kill in Co Kildare from his native Fermoy in Co Cork when Ted was just a nipper.


The nipper grew to be one of the most fearless and combative jockeys around. Champion amateur 11 times, he rode more than 600 winners including four at Cheltenham. A Champion Chase on Hilly Way in 1979 was amongst those.


He trained Commanche Court to win the Triumph Hurdle in Cheltenham – he was subsequently second in a Gold Cup – while the highlight of his training career to date was Papillon’s Grand National victory in 2000.


Nowadays, he is best known as the most knowledgeable and sensibly forthright television pundit (as against insanely forthright á la John McCririck) there is.


Ruby was the jockey when Papillon won the National and has since established himself as one of the most consummate pilots in the history of the sport. He is so good that the champion trainers in Britain and Ireland, Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, are happy to share him. He has won all the big prizes and will be associated forever with Kauto Star, Master Minded, Big Buck’s and more but the fire still burns. He is out with a broken leg at present.


Katie is one of the premier lady riders on the circuit. A winner of the Ladies Derby in 2005 on Cloneden, she has also ridden Alexander Taipan, Snowy Morning and Glencove Marina amongst others to their debut bumper successes. When she rode two winners at the racing Olympics of Cheltenham last March – Poker De Sivola and Thousand Stars - her name was cemented in the history of the sport.


The three of them agreed to sit around a dinner table to discuss the issues of the day and give us some sort of insight into the dynamic between them. We learned that they all like the same starter but there was more in the course of a two-and-a-half hour conversation.

 

Daragh Ó Conchúir:

It was another incredible year for the family but with all Ruby’s wins, Katie’s Cheltenham was probably the highlight. What did it mean to you?

 

Katie Walsh: It’s something I never thought was going to happen so for it to happen was brilliant and then to come back and follow up in Punchestown as well. I was walking on air by then and I have been all year. Cheltenham is where everybody wants to have a winner. When you’re an amateur the chances are few and far between so to go with no ride and to come home with two rides and two winners is…

 

Ted Walsh: … I think the fact too that Katie would realise how important Cheltenham is in your life as a jump jockey. She was there when Commanche Court won the Triumph and knows what it meant to us. It’s like a fella going to play; how important it is to get to an All-Ireland final, or play in Croke Park or a golfer to win the Open. It’s got to be in your system. Katie had been involved in the yard all her life and knew that Cheltenham was a highlight.

 

Ruby Walsh: I was in the kitchen when Ferdy Murphy rang to see if you’d ride the horse. You (Ted) rang Katie to say that Ferdy Murphy had rang and the excitement coming down the phone because you’d gotten a ride… that’s what Cheltenham is. Even on the Thursday morning when I came back up from the yard and you were outside the house and I said to you ‘I think there’s a chance you might ride one of the horses in the County Hurdle tomorrow’. You were after riding a winner but you were delighted that Willie was going to give you one of his four and you were going to get another ride.

 

Katie: I was looking forward to going to Cheltenham anyway. I love Cheltenham, ever since Commanche winning and then to go and be able to watch Ruby.

 

Ted: You have to know what these occasions mean to really enjoy them. You could be going to Cheltenham for 20 years and never have a winner. Willie McLernon was a great amateur but he never rode a winner at Cheltenham. Francis Flood never rode a winner at Cheltenham and he was a fine amateur. They were as good as any professionals of their day. Tom Taaffe always talks about having trained Kicking King and Finger Onthe Pulse but he never rode a winner there even though his father Pat won 25.


There’s loads of fellas who play football all their lives but they never get to play in an All-Ireland final. They’re fine footballers but because there’s a small window of opportunity… Both Ruby and Katie realise how fortunate they are to have experienced that.

 

DÓC: You got as much a kick out of it Ruby as Katie did by the sounds of things?

 

Ruby: Definitely. I can remember it as clear as day. You were well dropped in, sneaking your way in down the inner. I was watching the first down the back and she got a little closer. Then she got another bit closer and I thought ‘She might have a chance.’ Next thing she went out of shot, then she came back into shot a lot quicker than I expected. You could see Nina (Carberry) was travelling well but so was Katie and I was thinking ‘This could happen… this is going to happen.’

 

Katie: The plan was to drop in, sneak around and see what happens which were great instructions because it’s something I love to do. I knew I was getting a good run, down the back I missed one or two but I winged the last down the back and before I knew it I was fifth. He actually came on the bridle when a horse came up on the outside and I got there a bit too soon, which wouldn’t be the first time! I missed the second last which was probably the best thing that happened to me. I didn’t really know I’d win until I crossed the line.

 

DÓC: Nina and you both got suspensions for overuse of the whip. How frustrating is that and does it take away in any way from the good of it?

 

Katie (laughing): I actually hadn’t seen the replay so when I got down to the stewards’ room, Tony McCoy was standing outside and I said ‘What am I going to say?’ and he said ‘Just say sorry, it doesn’t matter, they’re going to do you anyway.’ So I went in with a smile on my face and tears probably running down my face at the same time and they could have given me whatever they liked. They were asking me to watch and look and see where I went wrong and count how many times (I’d hit the horse) but I was no more counting…

 

Ruby (laughing): You were watching the replay.

 

Ted (grinning): You were after winning the lotto and some fella was getting on to you about your spelling.

 

DÓC (to Ruby): You broke Pat Taaffe’s record for the most winners ridden at Cheltenham to bring your tally to 27. The next one is still as important as the first though to you.

 

Ruby: To me the making and breaking of how the season goes is how Cheltenham goes; especially the expectation that’s on me now. If I go to Cheltenham and ride no winner, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done the rest of the year they’ll say it was an ordinary year.

 

DÓC: Would you feel that pressure?

 

Ruby: You would. You’d want to get one out of the way. Then you can say ‘I had a winner at Cheltenham.’ The chances are I’m going to have 15-20 rides and chances are that four or five of them will be favourites.

 

Ted: If Kilkenny don’t get to the last four, people will say they’re gone. United the same way, if they’re not in the hunt for the Premier League, they’re gone!

 

Ruby: Any year you get to ride a winner at Cheltenham is a great year and I was lucky enough to ride three and ended up doing something I never thought I’d do, breaking Pat Taaffe’s record. It was a great year.

 

DÓC: How important is your sister Jennifer?

 

Ruby: Serious. Very important. She does all the dealings with Paul and Willie, booking flights, what’s running where, what’s happening when; a huge part of it. I’d talk to her once or twice every day… not so often when I’m hurt!

 

DÓC: How did it come about that she became your agent?

 

Ruby: Even when I was in school she was doing a bit of it. She used to work for Racing Services and they’d have the declarations first. She’d know what was happening, what Willie had declared, what was spare. It worked well when I was an amateur so when I turned professional we said we’d keep going and haven’t looked back.

 

Katie: I’m not in quite as much demand! Jennifer works in the office at home. She’d be doing Ruby all morning and when I come in at 10 o’clock I stand over her shoulder saying ‘Go to the bumper, go to the bumper!’

 

Ted: For me, Jennifer’s big plus is that she’s a very good race reader. She has a good strong opinion. It might be a different opinion to Ruby, Katie or myself but she’s able to fight her corner.

 

Katie: For someone that never rode…

 

Ted: … yeah, for someone that never rode she’s a very good race reader. She’d be very slow to put Ruby on a yoke; she’d be looking for a fancied ride but also a safe ride. She also has to communicate to the owners and trainers. Ruby might say ‘Yell them what you like but I don’t want to be on that the next day.’ She’d have to do that diplomatically.


She understands from a smaller background, how much pressure the likes of Paul and Willie are under. There could be a very wrong time to ring a trainer. You have to understand that.

 

Ruby: She has to be able to read their humour down the phone. Not looking them in the eye.

 

Ted: She knows when she picks up that phone to Willie whether things are going well or bad and she might say she’ll ring again in 20 minutes. Same with Paul Nicholls, she’ll know by the sound of him… sometimes it mightn’t suit Ruby to go to Fontwell of a Tuesday and the economics of it mightn’t make sense but she’ll know by talking to Paul how important it was for him to go that day.

 

DÓC: With Jennifer giving birth to Lucy this year and Ruby’s daughter Isabelle, what’s it like to be a grandfather Ted?

 

Ted: Absolutely super. It reminds me of when the kids were small all over again. Nothing gives us greater pleasure, Helen and myself, when they drop them off and leave them with us, especially if they’re going to stay a night. One is eight months, the other is 13 months and they’re at a lovely innocent age, it’s magical. I love small kids anyway but I can’t wait ‘til they’re old enough to bring them to Eddie Rocket’s and McDonalds, and tell them lies, and bring them to The Curragh.

 

DÓC: Did it make any change to you Ruby when Isabelle was born in terms of your priorities?

 

Ruby: It changes you but the job I have your priorities can’t change.

 

DÓC: You’ve had two bad injuries this year. Some guys take it as an excuse to relax or do something else. Not you though.

 

Ruby: It is torture.

 

DÓC: Do ye think he overreacts in that way? That he is too glum about it?

 

Ted: No, I don’t. I’d hate to see him under-react. He’s got to feel the pain of that to feel the gain when it comes to the other side. If you’re not as passionate about it you’re not taking it as seriously as you should. It’d be difficult on Katie as well but Ruby is a professional and that’s what his life is about at the moment. And when that’s taken away from him at this part of his life, that’s huge.




"I’ve had so many good Cheltenhams now with the two of them. I get a great kick out of it. It means as much to me as it means to them. They mightn’t think that but it does"


Katie: I do think though… I think when you’re watching Ruby and he gets an absolute pearler, the first thing you think of is ‘What time of the year is it?’ The summer’s the summer.

 

Ruby: Don’t get me wrong, Galway is great but Galway is not Cheltenham. When I was looking down at my leg after falling in the north, I was thinking ‘Next week’s the Paddy Power. Hennessy, Tingle Creek, Cheltenham, Ascot, Kempton, Leopardstown.’ I’m lying on the ground thinking ‘Fuck.’

 

DÓC: Growing up in the house you did, you were always going to ride horses? Was your father a hard taskmaster or an arm-around-the-shoulder man?

 

Ruby (smirking): I’d say arm around her shoulder.

 

Katie: No, that’s not fair; no way!

 

Ruby: She’s the baby. You’ve to mind Katie.

 

Katie (throwing a napkin across the table at Ruby): No, no, no. I get as much, if not more than anyone else.


The first person I ring, win, lose or draw, whether I think I’ve given it the worst ride of all time or whatever, the first person I would ring 10 minutes after crossing the line is Dad. I’ll know exactly, what way he answers the phone…

 

Ruby: … what way the hello is.

 

Katie: If he says ‘Well...’…

 

Ruby: … take it.

 

Katie: Just sit there and take it.

 

Ruby: If he doesn’t come out with a ‘That won well’…

 

Katie: ....‘Hello. Well done!’…

 

Ruby: …that’s your opening line to say ‘I was bad on that’. You need someone to tell you where you’re going wrong. There’s no point having people around you that are going to clap you on the back and tell you you’re great every day of the week. How the hell are you going to get better? You can’t.

 

Katie: You know yourself if you should have won or gave it a bad ride but I still ring. I don’t know why. There’s often times when I’d come in and say ‘Maybe I should have whatever’ and you’d say ‘No you shouldn’t have.’

 

Ruby: That’s the other side. ‘I probably shouldn’t have gone as fast’ or ‘I should have made more use of that’ and then you get down the phone ‘It didn’t matter what you’d done.’ That’s reassurance. You need praise, you need confidence too.

 

DÓC: Helen has been mentioned a couple of times. So what’s the deal with her?

 

Katie: The backbone. Good, bad or indifferent. Give one a bad ride, get given out to by him (nodding towards Ted). Next person then is Mam. ‘I didn’t think you did bad.’

 

Ted: Helen is a mother to the core. When Ruby gets a fall, the first thing he will think about is what he’s gonna’ miss. I might think about what he’s gonna’ miss. The first thing Helen will think about is ‘Will he be alright?’


No matter how bad a day, if the two of them rode stink and had a right bad day, Helen is only glad that the two of them are in the back of the car coming home or everybody’s alright. It’s all about health and happiness and being together. Some people are better at being a mother than others and Helen gets an A+ in that department.

 

Ruby: When you get the silent treatment it’s serious. And you ain’t getting out of it in one day either.

 

DÓC: What are the challenges facing racing now?

 

Ted: There’s too much racing first of all. There’s too many people trying to feed out of the one pot. Unless we can organise that we can get our share of the betting industry, we won’t survive. The likes of Dundalk are great but people should be let in for nothing. But the people who own Dundalk should be getting a percentage of what’s bet on the day and racing should be getting a percentage of what’s bet.


Those days, there’s no-one there. So if it’s run for the betting public we’ll have to get a piece of it and a lot more than we’re getting now. In the old days betting tax was 10%. Now they’re bellyaching over 2%. The likes of Betfair have absolutely bent the bookmakers.

 

Ruby: They have but it’s the on-course tax that has bent the bookie. There’s no incentive for anyone to go racing now. None. People who punt will tell me I’m talking crap but there’s no incentive. You get better staying at home watching it on At The Races. You get double result, you get best price. What they have to do is tax the off-course and leave the on-course tax free.


I’d forget about promoting the middle of the week. I’d let them have At The Races, let them bet off-course but I would take the big meetings away from At The Races. If you want to see them, go to watch them.


Now, when we were in the boom, what money racecourses squandered is unbelievable. The facilities in Irish racecourses are…

 

Katie: … a disgrace. Disgraceful. Some are lovely but nine times out of 10 they are an absolute disgrace. Desperate.

 

Ruby: Not even that but it costs you to go racing. When you get in the door then it costs you twice as much. What they feed you is pathetic. Something I’m only after learning since we had Isabelle – there’s no place at a racecourse in Ireland where you can warm a bottle and they say ‘Come racing, it’s a great family day out!’

 

Katie: I think it’s ridiculous that at some racecourses, jockeys have to pay €1.50 for a bottle of water.

 

Ruby: Look Katie, that just goes back to ‘We’re the racecourse, we run it, we manage it, you’re lucky we have racing on. Put up and shut up.’ That’s the attitude at management level of a lot of racecourses. ‘Get down there boy and ride the horse.’


And by the way, they’re getting fed At The Races and SIS money because they can’t run a business. Racecourses in England have to survive themselves, get their own prizemoney, because they’re not getting the cut we get in Ireland. There’s some real good race managers in Ireland, but there’s a lot of…

 

Katie: Ruby would know better than me but I go over to England in the summer for some of the lady races and they’re unbelievable. Not living in the lap of luxury but just nice, clean, tidy… hot shower.

 

Ruby: Clean is the thing. That’s the one that bugs me over here… the rat playing tennis in the back, holding your nose going into the toilet because it hasn’t been cleaned for a few weeks. And you open the door of a sauna? Holy good God.

 

DÓC: It’s clear from listening to you all that you love sport in general. I have it on good authority that Katie had the makings of a brilliant footballer with Eadestown.

 

Ted: She was good. She’d stick it in the back of the net quick.

 

Katie: I loved it. I was very quick… that was Ruby’s problem, he wasn’t so quick! It was great craic but when you’re into racing it’s hard to do anything else properly because everything’s on the weekend. It was hard to keep the two things on the go.

 

Ted: She did a good bit of eventing and we went all over with a horse we bred ourselves. We were in Poland, Portugal, Spain, Belgium.


Ruby: I got brought nowhere but Katie gets brought everywhere! I played rugby for Naas at scrum-half.

 

Katie: He goes on about it forever in the book. When it came to making a decision on what would be his career he didn’t know what to do!

 

And the slagging continues, in amongst discussions about Kildare’s loss in the All-Ireland final in 1998 which Ted still hasn’t gotten over, the magnificence of Johnny Doyle, Ted’s enjoyment of the achievements of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, Ruby’s preference for Munster’s rugby team over Leinster, what you need to be a successful jockey, Ruby’s belief that Kauto Star is better going left-handed despite the conventional wisdom that Kempton is his home from home and the fact that Ted is as happy seeing a young lad with an ipod as Roy Keane is seeing a soccer player wearing a snood.


We finish where we started though. With Walsh success in Cheltenham and what it means to the family.

 

Ted: I’ve had so many good Cheltenhams now with the two of them. I get a great kick out of it. It means as much to me as it means to them. They mightn’t think that but it does. That’s the way I am.

 

Ruby: We have good back-up with our parents but I have Gillian as well and Katie has Ross; someone to go home to when things go wrong. It’s very easy to have friends on the good days. It’s the days when you’re lying in the hospital, got beaten on the favourites, things aren’t going well, that’s when you find out.


Ted: We’ve a close-knit family. And I must say that Jennifer and Ted are great too. Jennifer is very much involved so people know her but Ted is in tears when either of those two rides a winner. He’s not saying ‘Pity I grew to be 6’2” and 14 stone’, he’s absolutely as proud as punch. He’s a great scout. He’s made of the right stuff.


Like them all.


This article was commissioned by and appeared in the Irish Examiner, December 2010

 

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