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Horse-racing is the only sport in the world where I can take on a man... and I love it

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Jockey Katie Walsh. Photo Colin O'Riordan

Jockey Katie Walsh. Photo Colin O'Riordan

Jockey Katie Walsh. Photo Colin O'Riordan

KATIE Walsh loves the freedom to challenge the best jockeys in Ireland and Britain.

Horse-racing is the only major sport where men and women can battle each other for glory in the same race and the formidable Kildare woman would have it no other way.

Walsh (28) is a top amateur jockey who is often called upon by trainers to take rides in professional races – most notably when winning for Willie Mullins at the Cheltenham festival in 2010.

"It's the only sport in the world where I can take on a man professionally.

"A professional woman golfer can't take on Rory McIlroy, but I can take on Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy...I think it's brilliant that I can get those chances," she said.

And the talented Irishwoman has certainly made the most of those chances.

She has more than 100 winners on the race courses of Britain and Ireland, but her down-to-earth personality betrays very little of her success.

 

Reputation

Just last month she was the only jockey – male or female – to be named in the SportsPro world list of the 50 Most Marketable Athletes.

So what was it like to see herself on a list that included the likes of soccer stars Neymar and Gareth Bale, golfer Rory McIlroy and sprinter Usain Bolt?

"I don't feel like a global star as I am not getting stopped on the street or anything. I am doing something I love, and it's just fantastic to be on the list. I'll wait here by the phone for Lancome to ring me, or maybe Mac," she joked at the time.

Her reputation hit another high last year when she came third in the Aintree Grand National on Seabass, trained by her father Ted.

She was the first ever woman to finish in the top three places since the race began in 1836.

"I thought I could win it," she remarked.

Katie spoke to the Herald during a break in her busy day at the Walsh family home in Kill where her father Ted trains up to 40 horses at his legendary stables.

A labrador and a dobermann loll on the lawn nearby.

Her brother Ruby has swept the boards as a professional jockey, but Katie believes she has enough scope to keep her amateur status, which allows her to enter 21 professional races a year.

This year, many fancied her chances to win the Grand National as once more she was riding Seabass. But success eluded her.

Earlier the same week she rode her family's beloved horse Battlefront in a race on the course, but he suffered a heart attack and died during the race.

Katie insisted the death of Battlefront did not affect her performance in the Grand National two days later.

"It was very upsetting and I cried. But you just have to go: 'Right, he died doing something he loved. He didn't get hurt. He had a heart attack. Close the book, move on.' That's just the way it is for everyone in horse-racing.

"It doesn't make the loss of Battlefront or any other horse any easier, but we have a job to do.

"It's a sad thing to happen, of course, but when you're involved in a professional sport you can't be seen standing outside the weigh room bawling your face off two days later."

She admitted she felt the pressure to win on Seabass this year.

"Everyone wanted the fairytale finish," she said.

She has strong opinions about changes made to the famous Aintree course and those campaigners whom she believes would have been happy to get the race banned entirely.

"It's not the race that it was. The fences are only half as big. If anything, the horses are going to go a lot faster. If anything, I think they've done the race more harm than good," she said.

She hates some of the criticisms made on horse-safety grounds and thinks many journalists and television pundits are 'stirring it'.

She says the horse community love and care for their animals and many of the comments about fence sizes and whips seem to irk her.

Clearly, there's no hiding her love for her sport. And the feeling that she was born to do what she does.

She spoke about being photographed riding at just two years of age.

Her family became racing icons. Her father's horse Papillon won the 2000 Aintree Grand National with her brother Ruby as jockey. She was there to witness that joyful experience and she led the horse around the parade ring before the race and back in after the win.

Katie left St Mary's Convent in Naas after transition year to work with horses full-time. She won her first race at 17 in Gowran Park.

She went on to win two major races in Cheltenham in the same week in 2010 on Poker de Sivola and Thousand Stars.

 

Medal

She declared: "Cheltenham is the Olympics of National Hunt Racing. To win is like winning a gold medal!"

Her boyfriend Ross is a trainer. She, too, wants to be a trainer some day. But not just yet. Not while there are so many races to be run.

Her grandfather Ruby was a successful trainer too and died one day after returning home from a race meeting.

She, nor any of her family, will 'retire' from the horse world.

She explained: "Racing is different. No one retires. You only retire when you die."

aokeeffe@herald.ie


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