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"You don't know how good any of them are going to be until they get broke up and come back" - Ruby W

RUBY Walsh is one of the greatest jump jockeys the world has ever seen. Everyone has different criteria for judging the best. Even the numbers tell you different things, so it will forever be a subjective conversation.


Walsh’s great friend AP McCoy retired in April 2015, a month short of his 41st birthday, with a mind-boggling total of 4,358 winners in Britain and Ireland. It is a tally no jump jockey will ever surpass. He was British champion in each of the 20 years he was a professional, a testament to his remarkable durability in a trade where falls and injuries are a given. No jockey, national hunt or flat, has ridden more winners in a season than the 289 the Ulsterman recorded in the 2001-02 campaign.


Now 37, Walsh cannot match those figures, although at just over 100 winners short of 3,000, he still is a winning machine. It is the calibre of his successes that stand out however.


Take, for example, the 52 victories at the most important jumps meeting in the world, the Cheltenham Festival and compare it to McCoy’s 31. That gap will only widen by the time the Kildare man is finished.


The same applies to wins in Grade 1 races, the elite contests of the sphere. When Djakadam won the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown recently, it brought Walsh’s tally to a staggering 191 – and to think of how many he missed out on due to injury. McCoy accumulated a considerable 84. There are those not anxious to credit Walsh for his achievement, pointing to the riches at his disposal. But the riposte is obvious. Why are those riches available to him? And why did the top trainers in Britain and Ireland agree to share him, rather than not have him at all?


Everyone will have an opinion but ultimately it’s apples and oranges. Different people, different styles, different motivations. McCoy had a desperate need to ride a winner and he’d have taken out your grandmother to win at the local charity fair. Walsh is driven by the prestigious race, the one with history, the one that draws the crowds, be it in Australia or Japan or wherever else he has had to go to win Grand Nationals in seven different countries.


They fought out many battles on the track but are best friends. The rivalry never got in the way of that.


“I guess how it probably worked is that he was riding for Martin Pipe and I was never in danger of getting his rides. I was riding for Paul Nicholls and he was never going to take mine. So there wasn’t that rivalry that can be between jockeys. When he left Martin Pipe to work for JP (McManus) it was the same thing. So there was never that competition you have between riders, where you’re basically robbing the ride off them. That’s what it is. We’re all self-employed, trying to get the best rides. That dynamic wasn’t there and that’s probably why we did get on so well.


“I enjoyed his company. I thought he was an incredible jockey and an incredible athlete but I enjoyed taking the piss out of him and I think that helped him as much as it helped me!”


Rugby was his first love until he was 10 or 11, despite the fact that his father, Ted was a multiple champion amateur jockey who had taken over the training licence from his own father, after whom he named his eldest son. Young Ruby played the oval-ball code with Naas until he was 18 but by then, being a jockey was all he wanted.


“On my 16th birthday I applied for my licence and had a ride in Leopardstown three or four days later on a horse called Wild Irish; he finished fifth in a bumper. When I look back now, most of the guys that rode in the race are now guys that I ride for: Willie Mullins, Tony Martin, James Nash. The next youngest rider riding in the race was Timmy Murphy. It was a great thrill. We went to Tipperary a fortnight later and got beat half-a-length by Willie Mullins and things went on from there. I spent that summer with Aidan O’Brien in Ballydoyle and I rode my first winner in Gowran Park on a horse called Siren Song.”


Siren Song was trained by Ted and carried the colours of Ruby’s mother Helen, the acknowledged boss of the family.


“I thought it was easy. I’d just ride another one again in a couple of weeks’ time. It didn’t really work out that way. Siren Song went back and won in Galway. Then, unfortunately, the summer came to an end and my mother made me go back to school. That was the first big row I ever had with my mother but she won. I went back to school and when I look back now, I’d say she was right.”


He would go on to emulate his Dad as champion amateur but for a while, it looked like any dreams of turning pro would remain just that.


“I was heavy. That was my big fear going back to school. Sitting in a classroom all day, you weren’t out working but you were eating. I can remember cheating to do 10-7 in Naas and thinking I’d never make it as a professional. When I did finish school, as I got older and worked harder, I got lighter, and I’m lighter now at 37 than I was when I was 19.”


At 23, he began a decade as go-to man for both Mullins and Nicholls, having turned the master of Ditcheat down initially. While Ted had not been in favour of him taking on the job that first time, when the opportunity came around again, it was he who suggested that a dual role might work. And it did, though it wasn’t all plain sailing.


“Neither at the time were champion but both had lots of good horses and were on the way to being champion trainers and I rode on the back of that wave. I had some wonderful days, came across some incredible horses and from the time I was 23 til I was about 33, I lived the dream. It was the best craic I ever had.


“There was the odd blow-up, the odd row. I guess I was lucky in that if I rode four losers for Paul on a Saturday, I’d end up back in Ireland on a Sunday and a couple of Willie’s would win. So he would find it hard to blame me. And vice versa. I could get beaten on all of Willie’s on a Thursday and turn up in Newbury on a Friday and ride five winners for Paul Nicholls. I was just lucky that one would hit form when the other wasn’t. There was the odd diplomatic call that had to be made, the odd occasion when I was at a meeting I didn’t want to be at, but I had to do it to keep the peace. But sure that’s politics, isn’t it?”


There is no hesitation in plumping for Kauto Star as the best horse he ever rode but it is notable that he nominates the recently-deceased Vautour as one who had to potential to match his fellow French-bred gelding.


“(Kauto Star) was an incredible horse. When you think it’s 10 years ago since he won the Betfair Chase, his first King George, the Gold Cup. He was a phenomenal horse. He had everything: pace, stamina, he was usually a good jumper but he was so durable. He had some very hard races, took some crashing falls and he always seemed to come back. He was the horse of a lifetime. I thought I found another one in Vautour but it wasn’t to be.”


Eventually, the grind and in particular, not getting back home to wife, Gillian and daughters Isabelle and Elsa wore thin. He doesn’t regret the decision to end his association with Nicholls, despite being utterly dominated on the gender scale at home following the birth in 2014 of Gemma on Aintree Grand National Day. An arm injury meant that Walsh was around to welcome her into the world.


He has continued to flourish and though the likes of McCoy, Paul Carberry, David Casey, John Cullen and other contemporaries have retired, he has no plans to call it quits. Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell are the closest to his generation now and there is an exciting crop following them through.


“You’re getting asked to 21sts again when I’m more used to being asked to 40ths” he jokes.


“Things have changed since I started riding. Incredibly so. I suppose (Richard) Dunwoody changed it in the beginning and AP brought it to another level. The fitness, the analysis, all the different things you do. The physiotherapy, the rehab. I do so much more of it now than I did do. Weight training, endurance training. You get into that as you get older because you have to, to stay with the younger lads coming behind you. My father-in-law always said ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ and I’m starting to believe him. You’d love to be able to go forever but I enjoy it so I want to do it as long as I can but you do have to work a bit harder as you get older.


“I was lucky enough to ride with some brilliant riders. I started in a generation of geniuses. Tactically, Charlie Swan was incredible. Physically, Richard Dunwoody was just an animal in what he could do and put himself through. Then you watched what AP did, how physically tough he was. You watched Dicky (Johnson), how unbelievably fit he was. You watched Paul Carberry, how relaxed and just naturally gifted he was. I looked up to all those guys and then you end up somewhere on a level playing field with them, looking at the lads coming in behind you.


“There are some great riders coming up but the unfortunate thing about a jump jockey is, you don’t know how good any of them are going to be until they get broke up and come back. That’s going to happen to all of us. Until you get broke up, you think it’s the greatest game in the world. It’s so simple. Then you get slapped. Your leg is wrapped around your ear. And then you realise how hard this is and it’s how they come back. It’s interesting to see when they come back what they are. There are so many prodigious talents until they get hurt and then it stops. That’s when you find out how good they are.”


He has had more than his share of serious injury (ruptured spleen that meant it needed to be removed, a fractured C6 vertebra, a crushed T7 vertebra in his neck, fractured and dislocated hip, several broken legs, broken ankles, dislocated shoulder, broken arm, fractured wrists, broken ribs, the garden-variety broken collarbone, ligament injuries and concussion) but he feels stronger than ever thanks to his fitness and conditioning regime. At this remove, he has no idea even if he will be in Leopardstown or Kempton on St Stephen’s Day but the only certainty is that he will have plenty of decisions to make, with Mullins entering in customary generous fashion.


He won’t get all his calls right, as many of them will be tight ones and Paul Townend, Danny Mullins and David Mullins will be among those to benefit. He won’t be perfect every time either. This is race-riding after all. But the best make the least mistakes and as long as he stays healthy, it will be a huge shock if he doesn’t move closer to the magical 200 mark for Grade 1 victories, by the beginning of 2017.


 

Ruby Walsh was in conversation with commentator, Dessie Scahill at the launch of the Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle Grade 1 Race Day, which will take place at Naas Racecourse on Sunday, January 8. 


This article appeared in the Kildare Nationalist in December 2016.

 

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