THE LONG READ: In conversation with Ruby Walsh, Kildare's jump jockey supreme

Ruby talks racing ... and much more

Tommy Callaghan

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Tommy Callaghan

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tommy@leinsterleader.ie

THE LONG READ: In conversation with Ruby Walsh, Kildare's jump jockey supreme

Racing commentator Dessie Scahill with Ruby Walsh

He was born in 1979; is one of the most recognisable faces in modern day sport, both at home and abroad.

He has ridden over 2,000 winners; has been champion Irish jockey ten times; has been crowned champion jockey at Cheltenham also on ten occasions.

He has ridden the winner of the Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish Grand Nationals while also coming out on top in Australia and the USA.

In one season alone he rode three of the 'home' nationals inside a matter of a few weeks, losing out on the fourth, the Scottish Grand National, by a short head.

Meet Kildare native Ruby Walsh, one, if not the, greatest jump jockey we have ever had the pleasure of seeing in action.

Shortly before Christmas, Ruby held a wide ranging conversation with racing commentator Dessie Scahill at the launch of the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle and Naas Town Goes Racing Day which takes place on Sunday January 8.

The conversation went along the following lines.

Dessie Scahill: It’s hardly a surprise that you took to racing, coming from your background, but it took you a few years before the bug really got you?

Ruby Walsh: “I didn’t have a pony ‘til I was seven or eight. I much preferred playing rugby and football. I played rugby in Naas from the time I was seven ‘til I was 18 and really enjoyed that.

“I suppose boys are a bit different to girls and looking after ponies, mucking out after ponies and brushing ponies wasn’t really my thing. It was only when you got a bit older and learned to ride and gallop, yeah, there was a thrill in that.

“I played every kind of sport there was and there was plenty to do around here. I suppose I was 10 or 11 before I was really into riding.

“Once I got going at all, riding was all I ever wanted to do. We’d always come racing to Naas and Punchestown. I was never that keen on the Curragh. Maybe the couple of hundred million will change my opinion of it! But Naas or Punchestown, or point-to-point … you’d always be hoping to catch a loose one or doing something interesting like that.”

DS: So the very beginning was the amateur licence.

RW: “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.

After that?

“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.”

DS: Mammys are always right! Your amateur career took off, winners coming rapidly. How was the weight at that stage?

RW: “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.”

DS: Talent recognised you turned pro and after partnering a lot of winners for Willie Mullins, in the top bracket, then came the situation of combining job with Willie and Paul Nicholls. Best of both worlds?

RW: “I did. Dad was never keen for me to take the job. I was offered a job with Paul Nicholls and turned it down. I stayed in Ireland, Timmy Murphy got the job and things didn’t go so right for Timmy towards the end of the year. I got offered the job again and it was dad’s idea that you could make the two of them work. Balance it out and plan it right. And I did. There was plenty of diplomacy in it but I was lucky.

“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.”

DS: Was it difficult?

RW: “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 on 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?”

DS: Unparallelled success. Associated with great horses

RW: “Sure Kauto Star was the best of them.”

DS: He stands out doesn’t he?

“Without doubt. He 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.”

DS: You became great friends with arch rival AP McCoy. How did you deal with that?

RW: “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 where 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!”

DS: You end your association with Nicholls, concentrating on your job with Willie. Career getting on a bit, lot of lads retiring. Is it getting easier or harder with strong brigade coming in behind?

RW: “It’s getting lonelier anyway! There’s not as many lads at my end of the weigh room.

“Things move on. I gave up working for Paul because I was tired of not going home. I wanted to go home at night. I was lucky enough to have a good job in Ireland so I came home.

“Things do change. Paul (Carberry) is gone, David Casey is gone, AP is gone. There’s only me and Barry in the one corner when there used to be six … you’re looking at lads and you’re getting asked to 21sts again when I’m more used to being asked to 40ths. It’s a different dynamic but you have to get on with it. Talking to these lads is good craic and it keeps you young!”

DS: Do you challenge yourself to maintain standards or improve? Last few weeks – Champagne Fever, Un De Sceaux, Djakadam. People saying Ruby as good as ever?

RW: “Things have changed since I started riding. Incredibly. 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. Weight training, endurance training. You get into that as you get older because you have to, to stay with the younger lads coming behind.

“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.”

DS: Young lads, do you see potential champions?

RW: “You do. I was lucky enough to ride with some brilliant articles. 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. It’s interesting to see when they come back. There are so many prodigious talents until they get hurt and then it stops. That’s when you find out how good they are.”

Ruby Walsh, Tom Ryan, Manager, and Dermot Cantillion, Board of Directors Naas Racecourse, and Des Scahill

DS: You’ve been slapped a good few times but you’re in good health at the minute?

RW: “Thank God, every-thing is working, or nearly working. I’m in good shape at the minute. It is the hard part of the game but there’s some really good kids; if they can get over a few falls, jump jockeys will be set for a while.”

DS: Christmas plans?

RW: “We were in the office this morning looking at entries and Willie said ‘Enter everything’ So David Casey filled the page. The Lawlors’ Novice Hurdle was up and I think he put down 15. So at the moment, everything is running everywhere!”

DS: Leopardstown on Stephen’s Day?

RW: “I could be at Kempton. He has four in the Christmas Hurdle. He had a notion about supplementing horses so I’ve no idea where I’m going yet.”

DS: You won Lawlors Hurdle in two years since it was upgraded to Grade 1?

RW: “We’ll definitely have a strong representation. I think Invitation Only will run Sunday in Navan (finished third ) that would suit him, along with a a couple of others. The horse that won on Sunday in Punchestown, Turcagua, and I’d imagine Saturnas might step up to two-and-a-half.

DS: Yorkhill?

RW: “He’s entered at the weekend (and ran very impressively at Fairyhouse). I’m not saying anything I shouldn’t, but Willie is a creature of habit.

“He tends to do the same thing a lot of the time and there’s a beginners’ chase in Leopardstown that both Florida Pearl and Djakadam won. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went there.”