Sunday 19 May 2019

Game-changers deserve to bow out on their own terms

Nina Carberry (left) who retired on Saturday, poses with Katie Walsh, who retired a day earlier, during day five of the Punchestown Festival. Photo: PA
Nina Carberry (left) who retired on Saturday, poses with Katie Walsh, who retired a day earlier, during day five of the Punchestown Festival. Photo: PA
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

It was time to go, they decided. It was time to start a new phase in life. The jump jockeys jumped, they weren't pushed. The old rugby warrior could have played on for another year. They were the ones who wrote their own P45.

Nina Carberry, Katie Walsh and John Muldoon are different people but all three are owned by themselves, and no one else.

The three stuck to a value system underpinned by loyalty, honesty and keeping fit for the fray. All three had that will to win that we only see in the very best and all three were winners.

The two girls hugged and cried when they told each other they were about to retire on the undulating fairways of Punchestown. Nina and Katie are great friends, rivals on the course and sisters-in-law off the course. Neither would bang on about glass ceilings but these two broke through by just being such outrageously good riders.

The Walshes and the Carberrys are bred to ride horses. Katie's dad Ted told us that Katie was a free-range kid.


"She hardly spent a minute indoors since she was four years of age. If the cat had kittens, she'd be out sticking her hand down some hole trying to find one. Katie was mad about the dogs and the ponies," Ted recalled.

"She spent all day out in the yard practising, loading and unloading the pony out of the horse-box. She always knew what she wanted to do and she's fierce tough. Herself, Ted (Jnr), Jennifer and Ruby used to jump off an oul' rope tied onto a beam in the hay shed. They were like Tarzan. I think that all that childhood happiness stands to you in later life."

Nina's big brother Paul told us how she would follow him around everywhere on her pony. The pony was Nina's babysitter.

Says Paul: "I told her the pony was good enough and she was good enough. Nina was about nine and she was jumping gates, ditches and hedges. She was tough too."

Ted was relieved when Katie retired: "I know the pitfalls of this game. Ruby is a worrier and he didn't want his sister to get all the injuries."

It was just before the off at Aintree and Katie was riding in her sixth Grand National. Ruby was asked if he was worried for Katie. "Of course I am," said her big brother. "I'd much prefer to be out there riding than having to watch her go over the National fences."

Katie has the best record of any female rider in the National and if there is a regret it was that she couldn't win on Sea Bass for her dad. Sea Bass and Katie were third and Ted said: "Katie did everything to win, bar lift Sea Bass up on her shoulders."

Just like her sister-in-law, Nina was utterly brave and was as good an amateur pilot as we've seen. She was the first woman to win a Grade 1 over jumps. Nina claimed the Irish National and has five Cheltenham wins. Katie also won the Fairyhouse showpiece.

Ted said Katie was very fit but with the sales coming up, which is the business end of racing, she told him: "I just can't do all this." Ted told his girl the jockey's part of her life was over and it was time to move on.

There was a fairytale ending for John, Nina and Katie.

Muldoon even got to kick a conversion against Leinster on Saturday, at his beloved Sportsground. Connacht won 47-10. Muldoon apologised for taking the kick. To the last it was all about the collective, the us rather than the we.

What Katie did next was to beat Barry Geraghty in a duel from the last on Antey. It was one of her greatest. She wasn't going to beaten, no matter what. And Geraghty is one of the greatest of all-time. Ted was admant that "it was her fitness that got her up". And yes, Ted, her breeding too.

Nina was bred for her last success in the saddle. It was in the cross country race, a test of true horsemanship over the banks, ditches, hedges and fences. Josies Orders won for her friends and supporters JP McManus and Enda Bolger.

The little girl who jumped gates on her pony was part of Josie and Josie was part of Nina, who kicked on to glory for the last time.

The three stalwarts played a dangerous game, but all three came home safe. Many jockeys' last ride is in the back of an ambulance and there are rugby players too who've been seriously injured.

Muldoon is one hard nut. They say he never stops doing what he's doing. The notion of a one-club man is fading fast.

Muldoon turned down big money. But maybe that's why he played for so long and maybe that is why he is in such good shape. The French teams treat their loose forwards like galley slaves, and the only guarantees are that they end up smashed up.

We are reminded of the lines written by the Galway poet Liam Ó Flaharta. Na Blátha Craige explains why people cling on to the rugged places they love. "Táimid faoi dhraíocht ag ceol na farraige." We are entranced by the music of the sea.

It seemed as if Muldoon would be another who would be picked on the best team never to win a medal. Muldoon's greatest day was Connacht won the Pro12 in 2016. He was captain and it was the day the West was wide awake.

I never presume to speak for anyone other than myself, but I'm sure you are with me when we send this thank you card to Nina, Katie and John, who so deserved the ultimate sporting dignity of leaving at their own chosen speed.

Irish Independent

The Left Wing - Where Leinster went wrong, Saracens power and looking ahead to RDS showdown

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport