Evening Standard

On the lookout: top jump jockey Ruby Walsh surveys the scene at Leopardstown and has plenty to say about the future of racing. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Ruby Walsh, nursing yet another injury — a double-leg fracture while riding at Down Royal five weeks ago — may not be seen on a horse until Cheltenham is almost upon us. But, on Sunday, he will be glued to his television in County Kildare, hoping Tony McCoy becomes the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

“It will be great for him but not just for him. For racing. No jockey has ever won this prestigious award. We are not high up in the pecking order of sport. Racing has a limited following, a select group of people follow us and not everyone likes us. AP’ absolutely deserves it, 15 times champion jockey and he has won the Grand National.”

The Grand National may unite the nation into believing we can all get the better of the bookies. But, until this year, it was the race that separated Walsh from McCoy. In 14 attempts, the County Antrim-born McCoy had failed to win it. In contrast, the County Kildare-born Walsh won it at his first attempt, a mere 20-year-old, with Papillon in 2000, repeating it with Hedgehunter in 2005. It is McCoy’s victory this year on Don’t Push It that has made him a favourite for the BBC prize.

The win, Walsh acknowledges, changed their relationship. “I no longer have the Grand National bragging rights,” he says. “I shall have to find something else to slag him off for!”

Then, nodding in the direction of his wife, Gillian, sitting next to him in Dublin’s Leopardstown racecourse, the 31-year-old smiles impishly. It reflects the fact that these verbal duels are the mark of a strong friendship between these two great jump jockeys.

Despite being fierce rivals on the track, for much of the last decade Walsh has been almost a lodger at the McCoy home in Lambourn.

“When, back in 2002,” recalls Walsh, “Paul Nicholls offered me a contract, I did not want to go to England. I had a good job in Ireland, Ireland was booming. I decided to go there to ride, not live there.”

A friend suggested that he could lodge with McCoy, 36. By this time McCoy had already been crowned champion jockey six times. Walsh was not only in awe of AP but had barely spoken to him.

However, Walsh did treasure one dramatic moment in the 2001 Grand National when the two jockeys had a strange collaboration. This time Papillon did not win but hurled Walsh into a ditch. Soon McCoy’s horse, Blowing Wind, also threw him over and, as the riders walked around Aintree, McCoy told Walsh that there were only two horses left in the race.

Walsh responded, “Come on, we’ll go again.” McCoy was not sure but Walsh persuaded him. The pair ran back half a furlong, found Papillon and Blowing Wind standing together and remounted. When McCoy got worried that they might get into trouble, Walsh reassured him: “There won’t be anything said. We’ll just potter around together, keep each other company, nothing too dramatic, right?”

By the time the duo finished pottering, the race was long over, Red Marauder having beaten Smarty. But, with Walsh occasionally shouting at McCoy to wait for him, they jumped the last fence together before McCoy raced away to finish third, his best place until this year. “That’s AP for you,” says Walsh. “He has to win.”

Over the years, Walsh has collected more evidence of his landlord’s winning mentality and, having conquered his National hoodoo, Walsh feels certain that the champion jockey can now go where no jockey has been, not even the great Lester Piggott, and claim the Sports Personality of the Year prize.

But, while remounting in the National may have created a bond with McCoy and was a bit of a laugh, the subject has since come to haunt Walsh. The problem arose in 2005 on his second ride on Kauto Star at Exeter. Walsh, unseated, remounted and just lost by a short head to Mistral de La Cour.

The next day, as he sat at McCoy’s dining table sipping coffee and talking of the machine Kauto Star is, Nicholls rang to say the horse had a hairline fracture of his hock. It would rule him out for the season.

The result was, says Walsh, “World War Three broke out. I got plenty of stick for remounting. People put two and two together and decided they had four. The RSPCA had a go, plenty of people had a go. I was lambasted for this terrible cruelty to horses.”

Walsh’s defence at the time was there was no knowing when Kauto Star suffered the injury, he might well have got it in the horsebox after the race. However, English authorities did not see it that way and, in 2009, a ban was imposed on remounting.

This has left Walsh incensed. He says: “It is not a good rule and it is pretty insulting to me as a jockey. It’s basically saying that we cannot be trusted to look after a horse, that we are too greedy to worry about their safety.”

For Walsh, who is proud of coming from a family which has always had horses and was coached by his father, Ted, to be a jockey, this is an insult almost impossible to bear. It illustrates for him the difference between those who know racing and those who think they know the sport, the difference between winning the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“The Grand National is a handicap race. The handicapper has an opinion and the idea is every horse in the race should have the same chance. If you can outwit the handicapper, you can win the Grand National.

“So if you are not a purist the Grand National is the best race. But if you are in the sport the Gold Cup is the better quality race. It may not have the same prestige or esteem as the Grand National, millions more have heard of that race, but the Gold Cup is the race to go for. It is like the 100metres in the Olympics.”

He may have won two Grand Nationals and the victory on Papillon not only signposted the champion to be but meant a lot as the horse was trained by his father. But it is Cheltenham Gold Cup success with Kauto Star, wins in 2007 and 2009, and a second place in 2008, that makes Walsh feel he is part of racing history.

Add to that four consecutive King George VI Chase wins, between 2006-2009, and Walsh has no doubts about Kauto Star’s place in the pantheon of jump racing.

He says: “Kauto Star is the greatest horse of my generation. I was lucky enough to ride him. I feel just as privileged as Jim Culloty on Best Mate or Charle Swan on Istabraq.”

And having once seen the gelding win over two miles, two-and-a-half miles and three miles in a six-week period, Walsh says: “He annihilated the best chasers in England over every trip. There hadn’t been a horse that could do this in my lifetime.”

If Walsh could wind back the clock then there is only one other jump horse he would like to ride: the great Arkle.

Not that there is much in his life he would like to revisit. While he was a good scrum-half, and says, “I would have liked to have played rugby at a professional level”, racing was always going to be his chosen career.

Nor has he ever had any doubts that, despite all the talk, the sport is clean. So if an owner or trainer were to ever ask him not to try, his response would be, “I will smile, keep walking and try my best.” But he adds, “It has never happened. I cannot see it happening.”

There is only thing he would like to change, bring some of the respect the English have for racing to Ireland.

“In England you are treated as a professional sportsman. In Ireland you are not. In England racecourses are looked after much better than in Ireland. There is a trained physio at every racecourse. Not so in Ireland. I cannot see that changing soon what with the way the economy is going.”

Not that the collapse of the Irish economy has made the eight-times Irish champion jockey regret not moving to England when Nicholls offered him a contract. “Even now I would not move to England. Racing is a huge business in Ireland. 24,000 people are employed. The government cannot let it go. There will be cutbacks but like the wheel it will come up again.”

He accepts that next year’s Festival may see fewer Irish coming over but he cannot see the meeting being anything other than a great success — especially with Kauto Star bidding to reclaim his Gold Cup crown.

Then, picking up his crutches, he smiles as if to say that come Cheltenham they will be long gone and Kauto Star will be ready. And by then, he hopes, AP with the help of the BBC will have put racing where it truly belongs.

Ruby, The Autobiography, Orion Books — £18.99.


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