Being fit for Christmas fills Ruby with festive cheer
This Christmas malarkey does indeed come but once a year and whatever about the naughty list and the nice list, if you're in the business of riding horses to win races, the last place you want to be is on the injured list.
It could be considered the winter equivalent of making hay while the sun shines, but last year Ruby Walsh was nursing a broken leg that left him looking on from the ditch while the action unfolded in the field without him.
"It's the worst place to be for any sports person," he reflects. "It doesn't matter what sport you're in to, there's times of the year that are more important than others. To be crocked as a jockey at Christmas is a dose. Same as a GAA star. If he misses January or February, he'll take that, but it's some kick in the rocks if he misses July, August and September. It's the same in racing, there are times of the year when you think 'if I'm going to be injured, this isn't the worst time'. Christmas is a bad time - so is January, February, March or April."
They come under starter's orders at Leopardstown on St Stephen's Day, the first of four action-packed days of the Christmas Festival which boasts seven Grade Ones and a total prize fund of €1.4m. Walsh has spent many a Stephen's Day at Kempton, of course, where he won the King George five times aboard Kauto Star, but this year he will be in Limerick to partner Getabird in the Grade One novice chase.
"Of course I'd love if we had a horse in the King George, it'd be great to be there, but that's not the way it is this year. You have to look at your own table. There's no point in me asking 'oh, why am I not there?' I'm not there because Willie Mullins doesn't have a runner and I don't ride any of those horses. I'll look at the King George wondering what's going to win and I'll enjoy it for the race it is, not worrying about not riding in it.
"Last Christmas was a completely different ball game. Trust me, if you had told me I could go to Down Royal last Christmas, I'd have gone, so going to Limerick doesn't bother me."
Injuries have been a persistent nuisance for Walsh in recent times and you wonder if he's a better patient now, five months out from his 40th birthday. "I'd say I'm worse, I wouldn't say I'm any better anyway. The problem with injury is the loss of independence. If you make a cup of tea you can't get it from the counter to the couch, you can't go to the shop to buy the paper. After a couple of weeks you get your car adapted and you get moving again and it becomes slightly easier, but the initial loss of independence, that's the hardest thing to deal with."
Leopardstown holds happy memories for Walsh, who had his first ride as a professional at the Dublin track three days after turning 16 in 1995. "Wild Irish, we were fifth in the Bumper," he readily recalls. "He went to Tipperary a fortnight later and he was second."
The licence was a precious piece of paper and it came at a good time too. "I don't know what winning the lotto feels like, but I suppose that's a way you could put it. I felt I had everything I ever wanted, just a licence, a little piece of paper.
"The economy was starting to turn and there was money in racing in Ireland. Charlie Swan had dominated and that had probably stifled the generation under him, and we were coming on then after that. You can get a job at the right time. Charlie was on the way out but the economy was the big thing. Willie's yard grew, Frances Crowley was growing at the time, Noel Meade was flying and as we got going through 18, 19, 20 and got established, the money turned. Gigginstown came in, JP (McManus) expanded and we were there at the right time.
"I always relate it to riding Papillon in the Grand National in 2000. I was born in 1979. I watched the National all through my childhood and if an Irish horse got to Becher's it was doing well. I never saw an Irish horse in contention. They didn't compete - 1975 was L'Escargot, 1999 Bobbyjo won the National, for 24 years Irish horses didn't compete. What you see in childhood shapes what you think the world is going to be. I grew up thinking if I can get a few rides in Cheltenham in my career, it'll be great or if I ever get a chance to ride one in the National, it'll be great. Did I think at 20 I'd win it? Did I f**k! And it was my only ride at the meeting.
"At that time, and we probably changed it, Barry (Geraghty), Paul (Carberry), Davy (Russell) . . . Charlie had started it where instead of the Irish bringing the English jockeys in, Charlie had turned it the other way and was riding a bit for Martin Pipe, but we definitely changed that. They wanted us, so rather than shipping in the big English jockeys when I was younger, eventually we changed that."
As his clock ticks towards 40, Walsh's Christmases are no longer all about racing. "Christmas changed when we had kids. To me, kids make Christmas and I'd say last year I was probably in ordinary enough humour as it was, but it is a great time."
And does all this, the kids, the injuries, mean that maybe he's looking to a life after racing? "I'm not doing something that hasn't been done before. Once you're fit and able, and the beauty for a jockey is it doesn't matter how slow I get, I never have to move anyway. So you're getting all the experience mentally, dealing with situations and you're a more mature person. It doesn't matter if my legs don't move as fast because they're not supposed to move anyway. That's the advantage a jockey has over most other sports people."
So it's business as usual for Walsh into the Christmas season and beyond. Hopefully without the injuries though.
- Ruby Walsh is a Paddy Power Racing Ambassador, and columnist with Paddy Power News (news.paddypower.com)
Sunday Indo Sport