'If there were no horses what would I do?' - Ruby Walsh admits the thought of not riding again at Cheltenham 'f**king scares me'
HE SITS scarcely a short-head before us, the Caesar of the Cotswolds. Ruby Walsh, at 39 years, 295 days, is gleaming in his coat, those probing, intelligent eyes aglow, a healthy sheen glinting off skin clingfilmed tightly about his jawbone.
As he speaks – and, with his penetrating wisdom, the aversion to bullshit, those vivid word-pictures that chairlift his audience into the coliseum and onto the back of a snorting half-tonne equine Ferrari, he is the Arkle of interviewees, the Kauto Star of insight – it as if he is subconsciously transported to the Gloucestershire valley where he is the unrivalled maker of magic.
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When the conversation is steered toward next Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, a potential race for the ages, it triggers a subtle change of his posture.
Something imperceptible yet remarkable unspools: Ruby tilts his seat onto its front legs, with knees tucked in, rump a little higher in the air; his hands are extended out in front on the table, half clenched, as if around the neck of an animal charging up the Cheltenham hill toward immortality.
Walsh, the Paddy Power ambassador, is in a meeting room on the fifth floor of the oddsmaker’s plush Dublin HQ; but Walsh, the genius horseman, a rider of such gorgeous poise and intuition that he brings, an ancient testimonial to Lester Piggott galloping across the years – “What happens between Lester and a horse is a mystery known only to Lester, the horse and God” – is lost in his imagination.
Riding on a saddle of air, transported to the most storied National Hunt playground on earth, the fantasy palace where Walsh has ridden a record-shattering 58 Festival winners, where, for four days in March, he is Master of the Universe.
If springtime at Prestbury Park will always be, for many of us, a religious experience and a superior refurbishment of the soul, still, the sense is that it will be diminished when the pitiless revolution of the clock forbids the Kildare Da Vinci adding any further brushstrokes of beauty to his sun-dappled Cheltenham canvas.
In May, he crosses the Rubicon into the Badlands of sporting old-age, jumps the open ditch that has the enemy territory of his 40th birthday on the far side.
The number at which his great friend, AP McCoy, allowed the wild and, for so long, unquenchable inferno of his quest for winners, to at last ebb and die.
Ruby inhabits a world many furlongs from the saccharine-drenched territories of sentiment.
He carries the qualities that have elevated him to greatness – a cold, sometimes sharp pragmatism; brilliant understanding of reality; a refusal to surrender to peripheral noise, utter fearlessness, a genetic inability to suffer fools, a perceptive wit – into civilian life.
Yet the prospect of leaving that magnetic Gloucestershire field of dreams behind him for a last time, he says “f**king scares me.
“You can’t replace that can you? A drug, that’s what it is. It is a good way of describing it. That’s the way AP describes it as well, everybody describes it. I’m sure athletes miss performing, because that’s what it is about.
“Hopefully there’s a few more left yet. There better be… But that’s going to happen at some stage too. That’s life…” the words trail away as if he imagines it as something closer to an unimaginable darkness, the extraction of his very soul.
Walsh is perhaps the most rounded, most intuitively attuned horseman to have stepped into a stirrup. On the better days, he seems to have a magical gateway to the animal’s cerebral cortex, to be fluent in the horse-whispering tongue.
In Cheltenham week, racing, briefly, goes mainstream; As the mother star at the centre of the March orbit, Ruby has come to transcend the relatively narrow confines of his sport in the way, say, Pavarotti did operatic singing.
If McCoy’s gluttonous and elemental requirement to prove himself every day – an obsessional pursuit of success that made even a 30-minute exile from the winner’s enclosure feel like a gruelling, psyche-sapping, life-sentence – yielded an untouchable 4,348 national hunt victories, still there is the sense that Walsh is his chosen sport’s Mozart.
A once-in-ten-lifetimes composer of the transcendent.
Cheltenham – and those symphonic afternoons aboard Kauto Star, Hurricane Fly, Big Buck’s, Faugheen, Annie Power, Vautour, Douvan, Quevega and Master Minded, a giddy crescendo booming across the valley – is the sheet music where the staves and octaves of his genius soar highest.
Ruby, brings a Vulcan logic to the gentlest interrogation about whether he rides Cheltenham better than anybody.
“No. Cheltenham is simple. Just get on the best horse. Best horse is probably wrong, because it is the best horse on the day. I’ve ridden the best horses in Cheltenham and they haven’t won because they haven’t performed.
“But when you are in Cheltenham on a horse that’s on song, Cheltenham becomes easy because you are always where you want to be.
“When you get on one at Cheltenham that’s struggling, you are like a ping pong ball in a slot machine, getting f**ked around the place.”
When a follow-up question presents a thesis heard from Naas to Newton Abbot, the one that announces Ruby as the finest jockey of all time, he is a little jerky, like a horseman trying to right an animal coming to that dangerous downhill fence four from home, on the wrong stride.
Yet, there is no attempt at false modesty. The aversion to bullshit won’t allow it. He understands his worth.
It is more the bottomless respect he has for the unchartered territory into which his close friend, McCoy, relentlessly galloped that has taken Ruby off the bridle.
“I don’t know. It is probably somebody who backed the last winner I rode saying that. I don’t know. So who is the best jockey of all time, who knows? McCoy is, he rode the most winners.”
Do you believe that?
“Ah yeah, he was incredible.”
Do you think he’s better than you?
But, for the only time, in our hour together, he speaks with the slightest absence of conviction. If a horse beneath him was as unresponsive, Ruby would crack the whip.
Not that interviewers often encounter the urge to give Walsh even the gentlest reminder.
Like Padraig Harrington or his good friend Ronan O’Gara, he has a brilliantly analytical mind, a beyond-the-bubble world view, a rare capacity to get to the nub of a subject. The sense is he would score highly in an IQ test.
Racing is all about breeding and bloodlines, about DNA. Ruby Walsh is unbending in his belief that his greatest favour from the heavens came with his sire.
His father is, of course, Ted Walsh, for decades the blunt yet colourful voice of Irish racing, a champion amateur rider and a Grand National winning trainer.
“I had an advantage over a lot of my competitors in that I was a trainer’s son. And training is so much more difficult than riding. It gives you a much clearer perspective, it gives you a reality of what racing really is.
“So before I started I realised there was going to be way more losers than there ever was winners. When there was big winners, enjoy them, because they are going to be rare. And there’s going to be huge disappointments.
“For a jockey there’s going to be injuries, for a trainer, there’s going to be horses getting injured. Injury is a huge part of racing. I knew that before I started.
“I look at guys who think they should win on every ride, that’s not racing, that’s not the reality of it.
“The reality of it is you get a certain few chances to ride winners. If they win, great. I couldn’t foresee the luck I’ve had at Cheltenham or the winners I’ve rode at Cheltenham.
“When I was growing up, Ireland could barely compete in Cheltenham. So you ask, ‘what did you feel going out at Cheltenham’, I felt lucky to be f**king there.”
It is from Walsh senior he inherited the inability to speak around the truth.
“That was the beauty of Dad for me. Just because you won, in Dad’s eyes it didn’t mean you had done it right.
“It wasn’t about whether you won, it was about how you rode the horse, how you performed. So you could finish third and he’d say you are after giving it a great ride, there is no more you can do.
“Yet you could win on one and he’d tell you were you went wrong. But that’s what you need. Someone standing behind you and telling you because you are winning you are doing great, sure there only telling you a lie.
“You have to realise when you are doing it wrong when you are winning. You have to be able to take criticism and direction. That’s vitally important, hugely important.”
Criticism can be easier to accept than celebrity. It is why in a recent American vox-pop of sporting superstars, when asked what superpower they would choose for themselves, so many chose invisibility.
Patrick Mullins, son of Willie, and the leading amateur rider, attended a Manchester derby with Walsh last year and was staggered by the level of recognition, the huge numbers who sought an autograph or a selfie or a handshake, or who just did a double take when he passed.
There is the story of Walsh on a flight to Paris, when, without warning, what seemed like every passenger on the plane broke into a merry chorus of the Kaiser Chiefs’ “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby.”
“It happened once and I wanted to get under the seat. They were (Irish fans) going to the World Cup in France. I actually hadn’t thought about but I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get a flight to France.
“I ended up having to go to Beauvais the night before. But I realised when I was getting on the plane and I hadn’t booked a seat, so I was allotted a seat wherever it was on Ryanair.
“Paul Townend was with me. He had booked a seat and I was thinking getting on the plane, ‘I wish I’d bought that f**king seat.’”
So invisibility, then, as his superpower of choice?
“No. As McCoy always said when people stop recognising you, you are f**ked. I’m a jockey, I’m not a rock star.”
But at Cheltenham, for four days, you are a rock star, are you not?
“One week of the year. There’s 51 others”
For all 52 weeks, all 365 days, 24/7 there are horses. But what if there weren’t? What if, on his 40th birthday, every stallion and gelding and mare disappeared from the face of the earth? What then for Ruby Walsh?
He closes his eyes, ponders dystopia. For fully 45 seconds, he spins the thought of a world without oxygen in his head.
“It wouldn’t be President of Ireland, that’s for sure. It wouldn’t be Taoiseach either. Jesus, can you think of anything worse? 400 beds in the corridor in Tallaght, what are you going to do about it. What can I do about it?
“If there were no horses, I’d be struggling wouldn’t I? What would I be, what would I do? If there were no horses what would I do? You could have warned me about this one and I might have had an answer.
“What would I do (exhales heavily and long delay)…Go and coach the All Blacks with O’Gara.”
He smiles triumphantly, but, in truth, the smile is as empty and forlorn as a stable stripped of its very last four-legged resident.
RUBY ON... CHAMPION HURDLE
I don’t know how good Laurina can be. Could she be better than Annie Power? She’d have to achieve a lot. But the potential is there. That potential has to be turned into reality.
She gives you a great feel. Couldn’t do any more than she done in her two runs, but a lot more will be required in Champion Hurdle against Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade.
I can’t have people knocking Buveur D’Air’s Champion Hurdle wins. You can get lucky once, I don’t think you can get lucky twice. Apple’s Jade has been very good this year. She was brilliant at Fairyhouse.
RUBY ON... HIS CHELTENHAM BANKER
Benie Des Dieux (in Tuesday’s Mares’ Hurdle) is the one I am most looking forward to. She is my best ride of the week.
I am not one bit worried she hasn’t run this season. It doesn’t bother me at all. I wasn’t worried when Quevega was going to Cheltenham without a run every year and I am not worried about Benie doing likewise.”
RUBY ON... A FAUGHEEN MIRACLE
He’s in great form and has some cracking form over three miles. He was brilliant in Punchestown last year when he beat Penhill.
He was still travelling strongly when coming down at Leopardstown but it is a long way from the second-last to the line at Leopardstown and we don’t know how close he would have got to Apple’s Jade. Paisley Park is the progressive one, but I’m not sure about a lot of the horses he has beaten.
RUBY ON... PRESENTING PERCY
I think he’s a very good horse. Look what he did in last year’s RSA. I think people are getting carried away with his lack of runs. Normally lack of runs is down to injury. But he is not an injured horse. He has been in training since August 1st. He has a lot of mileage and galloping done. He hasn’t missed training. He didn’t look like he lacked fitness in Gowran. He’d have seven months’ training under his belt. He’s not going to lack fitness anyway.
RUBY ON... THE GOLD CUP
It’s a very open Gold Cup. If you look at the first ten in the betting, it wouldn’t be a shock if any of them won.
Of the English, Native River because he’s the defending champion and Clan Des Obeaux because he looks like the most improved. Willie has four (Bellshill, Kemboy, Al Boum Photo and Invitation Only).
Bellshill was great at Irish Gold Cup and is going in the right direction. Shattered Love is probably overlooked. She was very good last year in the JLT. And Presenting Percy has very impressive Cheltenham form.