By Kate Rowan
The first time I ever placed a bet was in 2000 on Ruby Walsh riding Papillon in the Grand National. I’ve not backed a Grand National Winner since, so Papillon and his jockey have a special place in my sporting memories. At the launch of his autobiography, Ruby Walsh was interviewed by journalist Malachy Clerkin, who co-wrote the book with him. Immediately the subject of his colourful moniker came up. Walsh explained in his Kildare brogue, “I was called after my grandfather, he was Ruby too, which was short for Rupert because he was born on the feast of St. Rupert.”
Much is said about the bloodlines and genealogy of horses, but Walsh himself has an impressive racing pedigree. In his day, Walsh Senior was a jockey and trainer, and is now famous as an RTÉ racing pundit, making remarks about “riding” that sound like racy innuendos to those uninitiated to the racing world. His late grandfather and namesake was also a trainer from “a great family of horse people.”
Younger sister Katie is making a name for herself as a jockey, and notched up two winners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Her brother joked, “I don’t get much of a chance to ride many of dad’s horses anymore because of Katie!” All the family was in the audience to support him and many punters had a word with Ted about tips in upcoming races, which he seemed delighted to oblige.
For someone as successful as Walsh – two Grand National wins on Papillon in 2000 and Hedgehunter in 2005, then winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice on Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009 – he comes across as down to earth. Of his fledgling career as an amateur jockey in his teens he said, “I was lucky my dad is a trainer because nobody else would have given me a ride back then.” He went on to explain there was no other career path for him: “I always knew it would be racing, there was nothing else”. His mother Helen insisted he finish school.
Walsh got permission from his school to take some time off each week to go racing, so he could establish himself in the business. Laughing he told of how “part of the deal was that I would study and do homework on my way home from races, I would sit in the back of the car with a book and I would at least pretend I was doing some work!”
His mother was also keen for him to apply for some college courses as a back-up plan but ever determined to follow his dream the Kill native purposely put down “grand old courses like veterinary and medicine, knowing well I wouldn’t get five or six hundred points” so the path was clear for him to race full-time after he completed his Leaving Cert.
After a very promising and smooth start to his career as a professional jockey, Walsh suffered his first serious injury at Pardubice in the Czech Republic, breaking his leg in October 1999. He missed five months of racing and during this time started to doubt if his career would continue to flourish but this led to him in his opinion gaining an advantage “nobody is as hungry as you when you get back, I was mad for action when I first came back”. Despite a Cheltenham Festival without any winners the young jockey was just around the corner from a victory he would describe as “meaning the most emotionally” to him of all his triumphs.
That win was of course was guiding my old friend Papillon to success in the Grand National. The reason this win was so special to Walsh, other than it being his first win and first time attempting such an iconic race was that his father was the trainer. Also the owner Betty Moran was a family friend.
The jockey described the gelding “as a family horse”. He showed his grounded side again when he shared his thoughts during the build up to the famous National Hunt race: “I was more thrilled with the idea of actually having a ride in the race at all.”
From that point ten years ago Walsh became a household name and has since racked up the most winners for a jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, the sweetest of those moments being his two Gold Cup triumphs on Kauto Star trained by Paul Nicholls.
He talked animatedly of his great friendship and rivalry with Tony McCoy, or A.P. as he calls him. Often when the Kildare man is across the water he stays with McCoy and has been doing so for eight years. He explained, “I only knew A.P. to say hello to but he was a friend of a friend and I was looking for a place to stay and it was suggested I would stay with him and I have done so ever since. It is great to have a home to stay in rather than a hotel. They even have ‘Ruby’s room’ in their house now!”
Some of the most fascinating insights into Walsh’s career and views on the racing world came up during the question and answer session after the main interview. When asked which jockeys he disliked he said there was huge rivalry between them all but because racing is such a dangerous sport, any of them could have a serious accident during the next race, so there is no point in being petty.
It was also interesting to discover that many jockeys including Walsh prefer it when the going is soft because “you can have a bit of a banter but when the going is hard, you have to be more careful and keep your head down as it is much faster and so more dangerous.”
I was surprised by how candid Walsh was on the matter of female jockeys when questioned if he would mind his young daughter Isabelle riding when she was older. “I am not sexist but, women are much lighter than men and so the falls affect them much more, even though my sister rides I don’t think I would like my daughter to do it but I wouldn’t mind as much if I had a son.”
There was more honesty on show when asked about following his father into training: “I don’t know if I am diplomatic enough to deal with all the owners and jockeys”.
Not for the first time in the session, he came across as self-effacing when he said that “the owners are the most important people in racing, the jockeys and trainers like to think they are but without the owners there would be no trainers, jockeys, punters or bookmakers.”
Ruby proved to be a gem as he signed books afterwards and chatted happily with the punters as his family mingled with the crowd just as if they were at a race meeting at Puncherstown or Cheltenham.