'No matter how good you get, there is always more losing than winning' - Paul Kimmage meets Ruby Walsh
In the toughest game of all, Ruby Walsh knows that if you lose your bottle, it’s time to walk away
Racing had finished for the day. We left the weigh room, entered the track at the tail of the grandstand and had just passed the starter’s tape when he slapped his buttock with his hand and broke into a run.
The security men watching from the gate must have thought him quite mad — this balding, smartly dressed, middle-aged man, galloping along the rail and across the Melling Road. It was a Friday at Aintree on the eve of the 1992 Grand National and Ted Walsh was ‘walking’ the course.
“It’s like driving an oul’ car across an oul’ country road,” he explained. “A fella that knows the road well knows all the oul’ bends on it, the twists and turns, where to swing left and right around the potholes. He knows there are spots where he must slow down and some spots where he can drive on.”
We stood for a while at the base of the first — a four-foot six-inch wall of tightly packed spruce and birch — and were suddenly transported back in time to 1975 and his ride on Castleruddery. “There was a bit of hustle and bustle as we went down the first and he jumped it very high,” he said. “He was slow at the second so I wound him up for the third but he stood off it and landed belly ways across the fence. He was cowardly at the next and we got to the fifth and he refused. I made three attempts to get him to jump but he wasn’t having any of it.”
It was Ted’s only ride in the National and he hadn’t even got to Becher’s but 17 years later he was back with a horse called Roc de Prince. Earlier that season, the gelding had given him his first win as a trainer in the Thyestes Chase and now Charlie Swan was on board and they had an outside chance of glory.
Helen and the kids — Jennifer, Ruby, Ted and Katie — had arrived that morning. Everybody in Kill had wished them luck and put a pound on.
“I’m really looking forward to tomorrow,” he said. “Everyone is so revved up. They’ll be all looking and shouting for Roc de Prince and it’s great to be part of it because it’s history, and the National will always be part of history.”
A day later, Roc de Prince finished 17th.
If you had sat him down that night and said: “In five years’ time you’ll train a winner at Cheltenham,” he’d have been thrilled. If you’d said: “Three years after that you’ll win the Grand National,” he would probably have cried. If you had pointed to his daughter, Katie, and said: “This young lady will make jump racing history,” he would have been speechless. But you couldn’t have said anything about Ruby. That he would not have believed.
A blustery Friday morning in late December: Rupert Walsh — the artist widely known as Ruby — is sitting in the kitchen of his splendid home near Kilcullen in County Kildare with his wife, Gillian, and youngest daughter, Gemma. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since that weekend with Roc de Prince at Aintree when I saw him for the first time.
He’s a bit older now, (slightly) greyer and no longer being introduced as “Ted’s boy”: 2,000-plus winners, two Grand Nationals, two Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles, 10 champion jockey titles and a place already secure in the Pantheon with the greatest jockeys of all time.
So, plenty to talk about, but it seemed appropriate given the year to start with the ‘other’ guy.
* * * * *
1 My friend, the enemy
Chanelle: If you want me to pack your bag I will.
AP: (Yawns) I don’t actually want to go on holidays.
Chanelle: Do you not?
Chanelle: What Ant! Talk about, like, wrecking my buzz! Why do you not want to go on holidays?
AP: Well, do I need to state the obvious?
Chanelle: Because the only reason you’re going on holidays is because you’re not riding.
Chanelle: But you’ve a week now to recharge your battery, get your collarbone in the sun . . . vitamin D. And can you just try and accept you have an injury and that you’re not just going to be completely . . . actually, can I just ask you? You’re not going to be completely frying my head for the next week? Because that’s what’ll happen. And you know what honey? It’s not all about you.
AP: Since when? - Being AP
Paul Kimmage: This is going to sound a little odd but the first thing I did when I knew I was coming to see you was to buy a copy of this . . . (a DVD of Tony McCoy)
Ruby Walsh: Being AP.
PK: You’ve seen it?
RW: I was at the premiere in Dublin. It didn’t reveal anything to me that I didn’t know, or hadn’t seen before.
PK: I thought it was compelling.
PK: Yeah, the degree to which it possessed him. The voiceover in the opening scene when you see him galloping to his 200th winner: “I don’t think I was ever really content in my life, because no matter how much you have a go at it, no matter how much you try, you can’t be as good as you want to be.”
(He looks at me, waiting for a question.)
RW: Was that the advantage I had over him? That I came from a racing background? That I always understood that there is more losing in racing than winning?
PK: I don’t know, I’m asking.
RW: Racing is a loser’s sport — even if you’re AP McCoy. He had a 30 per cent strike rate; he rode three winners in every ten, which meant he rode seven losers in every ten (smiles). Do you know what I mean?
RW: So I knew that no matter how good you got, or how great this is, there is always more losing than winning. I grew up with that as a kid when my grandfather was training, and my father was training, and understood it before I ever started. And maybe that was an advantage I had that he never had . . . or not an advantage but an experience.
PK: This is a quote about you from his autobiography: “He’s the best rider I’ve ever ridden against. I suppose we are like-minded in a lot of ways.” You don’t agree?
RW: No, I do agree, but like-minded as in it was all about winning; like-minded as in you ride it unless you physically can’t get off the ground; like minded as in racing comes first, life comes second. For him, it was seven days a week but I preferred being fresher and ready for the bigger days at the end of it. I grew up watching the big races on Grandstand on Saturdays and that’s what I wanted to do — to ride the big winners on the big days. And that’s what I chased — the good horses. AP was obsessed by numbers.
PK: Riding winners?
RW: Yeah. I was in and out of England the year he broke Sir Gordon Richards’ record of 289 or whatever it was but for me, everything lined up for him that year: he’d a good summer, there was no frost, he had no injuries. He got every winner out of it he possibly could. I never thought 300 was manageable. I was staying in his house and watching him trying to do it and his dedication was unbelievable, but for me, 300 winners for a jump jockey is unrealistic. He thinks someone will do it; I think no one has a prayer of ever doing it. I thought he was chasing the impossible, but that’s him.
PK: There’s a memorable scene in the film where he is having lunch with Chanelle and she’s at him about retiring but it’s putting him off his food. He doesn’t want to know. Later she says, “It’s not all about you.” “Since when?” he says.
RW: Yeah, that was him, but there was no one better at turning up at a hospital when someone was hurt. So it wasn’t all about him — to me that was a throwaway phrase.
PK: But he was obsessive.
RW: (Doesn’t respond.)
PK: He was definitely obsessive.
RW: He was but . . . I dunno, I suppose I was in the back of his car so many times . . . he might have had three losers in Ludlow or somewhere, and we’d be heading three hours back across England and I’d be damned if I was going to sit there and say nothing. So I’d start slagging him: “How did you get beat on that?” (laughs) I definitely got on differently with him that way. And I was never allowed come home here and bring it (a bad day at the office) in the back door.
PK: Yes, I’ve heard you say that before.
RW: I’ll think about it all the way home on the plane and down the road in the car but when I come in the back door it’s over until the kids go to bed and I have a chat with Gillian. But it has to be separated, and as much as he plays on the fact that he couldn’t, I think he could.
PK: He’s four years older than you?
RW: Five, and ten days.
PK: At what stage were you aware of him?
RW: I didn’t watch AP as a kid. He wasn’t old enough for me to aspire to. Richard Dunwoody was; Charlie Swan was. They were the generation I watched every Saturday. But I was aware of AP. He was champion jockey in the UK when I started riding at 16 and the guy I had to catch up with and try and beat. I didn’t see him as an idol.
PK: You spent a long time just nodding at each other until the 2001 Grand National, when you were both taken out of the race on the second circuit. This is how you recalled your first conversation in the book:
I got out of the ditch to see AP standing there looking off into the distance.
“There’s only two standing,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Beau is after unseating Carl Llewellyn. That means there’s only two left in the race.”
“Well, sure come on, do. We’ll go again.”
“Do you think?”
“Sure why wouldn’t we?”
So the pair of us ran back about half a furlong. Papillon and Blowing Wind were standing side by side at the back of the second fence so we caught them and remounted.
RW: Yeah, we got back on. Papillon was quite reluctant and I was roaring at AP, well, not roaring at him but I said “Hang on, just wait for me, because if you leave me here, I’ll refuse.” So he hung on and we cantered around but as soon as we landed over the last he was gone.
PK: You wrote: “AP has to win.”
PK: It was in his nature.
RW: Yeah, that’s him. I remember slagging him one night . . . We were having dinner with Emma Spencer (the Channel 4 racing commentator) who was a very good tennis player in her youth, and he challenged her to a match — said he would beat her before they both turned 45. I guarantee you that he will get lessons off whoever it takes to win that match. It doesn’t matter if he’s having a kickaround with the kids — he has to win.
PK: Is that what set him apart? That hunger and drive to win?
RW: There was his physicality as well — he was physically very strong, and mentally as strong as he was physically. When you put him at the start, you never saw him wilt.
PK: You became friends when you started riding for Paul Nicholls in England. You also became his rival. That must have been a challenge at times?
RW: There were days I would have had a bark at him, and days he would have had a bark at me, but it was always left on the track. The big days were a challenge. I stayed with him a lot, but I rarely stayed with him on the big days at Cheltenham or Christmas. I didn’t go home with him any day when I had won a massive race, or beaten him a head in a big race. The next time we’d meet would be at the races the following day, or a week later, and I’d sit down with him for a cup of tea.
PK: The first time we see you in the film is when he announces his retirement at Newbury. Were you surprised?
RW: Yes I was surprised, I didn’t think he would do it that way; I thought somewhere along the way he would just come in one day and throw the saddle in the door: “That’s it.”
PK: It wasn’t something you had ever discussed with him?
RW: I suppose I did, up and down, and I always asked the same question: Why?
PK: Why would you?
RW: Yeah, why would he? He was in great shape, unbelievably talented and he still had the one thing that stops all jockeys — his bottle was intact. His nerve was good. I was never in England in the summer and sometimes I’d be on my way to Ballinrobe and read in the paper that he had one or two in Perth. And the following day he’d be in Newton Abbot, and the day after that he’d be in Hexham. So I could understand him wanting to get off that treadmill but I couldn’t see him stopping — I thought he might cut out a day or two and give himself a chance but that wasn’t him. It was all or nothing, all or nothing.
2 A boy named Sue
Now, I have no problem with Derek Thompson at all. None whatsoever. But Christ almighty, I was only obliging Channel 4 by coming out to do the interview with him. I could have sat where I was in the weighing room and said no. I was just being sporting. Plus, I was standing waiting there for about five minutes while he got a cameraman to come over. Again, I didn’t mind that too much but I would have thought I’d be cut a bit of slack in return. There was no need to try and get me to admit to millions watching on television that I’d made a balls of it. - Ruby: The Autobiography
PK: Take me back to the start: How did it feel to be called Rupert in school?
RW: The only one that ever called me Rupert in school was a teacher. I was a boy named Ruby — a bit like the song, the boy named Sue — and yeah, I got slagged about it but it was character building. At the age of 11 or 12 you probably think: ‘I am so hard done by!’ But I got over it.
PK: Did you ever resent it?
RW: I can’t ever recall resenting it.
PK: Because your grandfather was Ruby?
RW: Yeah, that’s why I was Ruby. And I suppose it was more in secondary school than in primary but sure I was going grey when I was 16.
PK: Was that a problem?
RW: I suppose it was, of course it was.
PK: It didn’t stop you getting the girl.
RW: (Smiles) No.
GW: I remember when I started going out with Ruby people were like (hysterical): “What’s your boyfriend’s name again!” I remember one of my friends saying: “Ruby! What kind of a name is Ruby?”
PK: (laughs) “And he’s (going) grey.”
GW: And he’s grey! He had this tiny little patch — said I was to blame.
RW: (Laughs) I’m blaming Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls.
PK: Tell me about your grandfather: He was from Fermoy originally, and lived in the States for a while before settling in Kill?
RW: Yeah, a great man, really kind. He used to make great toast.
PK: Was he like your father? His character traits?
RW: I couldn’t tell you, I was 11 years old when he died in ’91. I didn’t know what character was. I remember him bringing me to the races in Downpatrick for the day when I was . . . probably ten. Brendan Sheridan was driving and I went with them for the day and the fear crossing the border! Going into Northern Ireland was (pretty scary) in the late ’80s! We bought Guinness for Barney Burnett (one of the horses) — used to put it in his feed. We’d buy it in the north and put it in the boot and it felt like you were smuggling coming back across the border. And you always filled the car with diesel on the other side.
PK: What are your first conscious memories of your father? You’ve said that you remember seeing him racing once on TV at Cheltenham in ’86.
RW: (On) Attitude Adjuster.
PK: His last ride?
RW: Yeah, and I can remember him riding winners for Mick O’Toole and Peter McCreery as an amateur, and winning bumpers in Naas. But I remember him more as a trainer than as a jockey; clipping horses and riding out and driving the horse box. That’s more my memory of dad — collecting us from school.
PK: What about his work on TV?
RW: His work on TV was 40 days a year or whatever, the other 325 he was dad the trainer. He brought us to McDonalds, bought us a pony. Dad was just dad.
PK: Was your mother from a racing background?
RW: No, mam was born in Skibbereen. Her dad was a (Garda) Sergeant and moved to Naas.
PK: “Mum always has a great understanding of people. She has a great ability to stand back from a situation and think it through, and if I’m ever in a quandary or a dilemma, she’s brilliant for sounding out.”
RW: She is. She’ll play it over and play it back and then tell you what she’s thinking. With dad, what you see is what you get. He’s a great fella in an emergency because he’ll think on his feet — ‘Bang!’ — and find a solution. Whereas mam is more . . .
RW: Yeah. I suppose that’s what makes them a good couple.
PK: Who do you take after?
RW: I’m probably more like mam.
PK: What about your brother and sisters?
RW: Ted is like dad — he’ll talk to anybody about anything and keep a conversation going. And he’s definitely better with people than I would be. Jennifer is like dad and so is Katie . . . although Katie can be a bit like mam.
PK: So you’re the most like your mother?
RW: I think so.
PK: You’ve got some interesting and admirable quirks — you admit in your book to not being the friendliest guy in the world? And you lit up on Derek Thompson after the Gold Cup in 2008 when he asked if you’d wished you’d chosen Denman?
“Tommo, that’s probably one of the most ridiculous questions I’ve ever been asked.”
“It is, I know. But I had to ask it.”
“No, you didn’t have to ask it.”
RW: I hate people stating the obvious. I have no issue with anybody having an opinion, none, but if you’re voicing your opinion to me, make sure it’s an educated one. I wouldn’t dare sit here and tell you about cycling. If you’ve an opinion on racing I don’t mind — everyone is entitled to one — but that doesn’t change mine, I have to respect them. Sometimes people ask me for an opinion and then they give me theirs — I didn’t ask for theirs!
RW: I hate lazy journalism. I pick reporters up, and broadcasters up, on simple things like form. I hate sloppiness. I hate bullshit — that’s probably the best way of putting it.
PK: There’s a bit of Keano in you? Or Ronan O’Gara? You have that same edge.
RW: Yeah, but sure it is what it is — call it. There is no harm in being honest.
PK: It doesn’t make you popular.
RW: I never rode for popularity. I never rode for fame. I rode for the thrill and to fulfill the dreams I had as a kid. And no, it doesn’t make me popular but sure it’s not a popularity contest. And I wouldn’t always be certain that success makes you popular anyway.
PK: Have you met Keane?
RW: No, never met him but I loved him. I’m a Man United fan. He wasn’t one of those fellas who voiced his opinion off the pitch and didn’t back it up. He called a spade a spade but he played the way he spoke.
PK: You get on well with Ronan?
RW: Yeah. What I always slagged him about, and still slag him about: it didn’t matter who came running down the ‘ten’ channel — he stood there to make the tackle even though he couldn’t. He never shirked the issue. He would stand in front of whoever it was every time, and they would bowl him over and stand on top of him and he would just get up again (laughs).
PK: You like rugby. You played at school?
RW: I loved it. I was just turning 18 when I finished. The last game I played was in Donnybrook against Mullingar in a Culleton Cup final.
PK: That was with Naas?
RW: Yeah, but I loved it. And still watch it.
PK: Your favourite sport outside of racing?
RW: Without doubt.
PK: You were a scrumhalf?
PK: Did you ever think about playing professionally?
RW: No, at that juncture in my life I had been champion amateur jockey and was playing at a fairly modest level so it was nowhere near an option. I wasn’t good enough. I could ride a horse no problem but rugby . . . I loved it and I was fit and brave but that was it.
PK: Your heart was set on life as a jockey from fairly early on.
RW: Yeah I wanted to be a jockey, and yeah my heart was set on it, but did I ever think it would be what it was? No. I didn’t set out thinking ‘I want to be champion jockey ten times,’ I set out hoping that some day I could be champion jockey, or that I might be lucky enough to ride a winner at Cheltenham, to get a ride in the Grand National. I set out hoping I would have a bit of luck and be good enough to do those things.
PK: Did your father recognise how good you were? Or the potential you had?
RW: I’d say he thought I was fairly capable. He never forced it on me as a kid. I was never chipping and putting like Rory McIlroy as a three-year-old. I was never Andre Agassi and doing it seven days a week before school. I lived a normal childhood. I lived normal teenage years until I was 16. But when I started riding, yeah, he made a lot of the right decisions for me. I got a lot of experience with Enda Bolger and with Willie but the most I learned technically was listening to dad. And even as I got older . . . last week I rode a horse somewhere and he rang me when I got home: “I thought you were sloppy on that one. You would want to have a look at that.”
PK: (laughs) Did he?
PK: Can you take that?
RW: Of course I can take it.
PK: Do you always agree with him?
RW: He wouldn’t be ringing me up to tell me I was sloppy because he wanted to have a bitch at me.
PK: But that doesn’t make him right.
RW: There’s a fair chance he’d be right about something like that. Do I always agree with his take on a race or his take on form? No, I have my own opinion.
PK: In 1992, when I wrote that story about Aintree and Roc de Prince, your father’s was a small yard and there was great excitement about just having a horse in the National.
PK: Five years later he trains a winner — Commanche Court — at Cheltenham and it changes the mood in the house. People started talking about him for the Triumph Hurdle. He was on the front of The Irish Field. The Irish Field! For a horse of ours to be on the front page of The Irish Field was a huge thing. So there’s this real appreciation later, when you achieve success?
RW: There is, and even now . . . like with all of the ammunition that Willie has, you would hear him saying to Patrick (his son): “I’m telling you, enjoy it, because it won’t always be like this.” He appreciates what he has. And for us, those times, those horses — Commanche Court, Rince Ri, Papillon — were incredible. You’re thinking, ‘Here we are with 20 horses and this is what we’ve done! How is this happening?’ These were things you read about!
PK: There’s a fantastic passage in your book where you describe the win on Papillon: Ted came up alongside the horse and just put his arms around my waist and hugged me. We waited for the rest of the field to file back in and headed down the walkway last. Just as we passed the entrance to the stable yard, I spotted dad in the crowd. He was in tears. He’d ridden the National but never got beyond Becher’s. I knew well what this meant to him. Greatest day of my life. You’ve had a lot of big winners since, is that still the one?
RW: It is, yeah. I suppose because it was so unexpected. I didn’t think he was going to win. The result never entered my head. The only plan was how I was going to ride him down to the first, and if he jumped the first, what I was going to do at the second and the third. It didn’t go any further after that (laughs). So I didn’t think it would happen and when it did it was just . . . everything . . . the winning, the trip home, that night, the next day, it was just . . . incredible. As you get older, the more winners you ride, the more you expect to ride, but when I was younger just riding in the Grand National was the thrill, and here I was riding Papillon for dad!
3 The price of fame
An investigation into the use of anabolic steroids to dope racehorses has revealed that huge quantities have been illegally imported into Ireland. The Turf Club and the Department of Agriculture have established that John Hughes, a former state veterinary inspector, imported in excess of 250kg of Nitrotain, a banned anabolic steroid which is used to enhance the performances of racehorses and greyhounds. The quantity of steroids imported by Hughes was enough to administer 62,500 doses. - John Mooney, The Sunday Times, June 1, 2014
PK: In 1997 you were champion amateur for the first time and your rival was Philip Fenton.
RW: He was, yeah. Philip was a generation ahead of me, and would have rode with dad as well, but he was a very good amateur.
PK: You know what the next question is.
(In November 2014, Fenton was disqualified from training for three years after being found guilty on eight charges of possessing banned animal medicines, including anabolic steroids, at a district court hearing in Carrick-on-Suir.)
RW: Yeah, I think, ‘Great, they caught him.’ There’s no place for it. I’ve no time for it. I just think they should be catching more. It’s as simple as that.
PK: Do you think he was the only one?
RW: Judging by the quantities of stuff that was brought in I’d say no, but that said, did it all end up in racing? Or did it just end up in horses? I don’t know.
PK: As a jockey, would it make any difference to you if the horse you were riding was on steroids?
RW: It would make a difference financially in that if I were to ride a horse to win the Gold Cup and he tested positive, my 7.8 per cent is gone down the Swanee. It’s the trainer’s responsibility to train (the horse), feed him, look after him and get him fit. I’m only paid to ride him. But I hate to see it. I don’t want it in racing. It shouldn’t be there and I wish the Turf Club would catch more.
PK: Because it was a Department of Agriculture investigation that unveiled all this, not the Turf Club.
RW: Yeah, exactly, so why is there such a regulatory budget going to the Turf Club?
PK: If they’re not policing it?
RW: Yeah. They send guys down to breathalyse us and drug test us, and that has to be done obviously, but the only performance you can really enhance is the horse. So they have to be policed more rigorously. Don’t get me wrong, you have to police the jockeys but the one that pulls up with their lungs bursting is the horse, not the jockey.
PK: Have you seen Fenton at all?
RW: No, I haven’t seen him.
PK: What did you make of the response within racing when it happened?
RW: Shock was the general consensus. I remember the word broke in Navan that someone had been arrested and no one knew who it was, but yeah shocked, surprised. I wasn’t shocked with the verdict, or with the ban. People argued it different ways but to me there has to be zero tolerance. The punishment has to fit the crime and it’s a massive crime. I was angry that the Turf Club didn’t catch them. Why didn’t they? They’ve set up a drugs task force since and I haven’t seen any results. They catch the odd jockey for cocaine, and the odd lad for being over the breathalyzer limit but by all means get (the dopers) and stop them.
PK: Do you think the trainers would welcome that?
RW: I think they should.
PK: That doesn’t mean they do. The word I’m hearing is that the greatest resistance to all this (the controls) is coming from the trainers.
RW: Well there shouldn’t be. The ones I know wouldn’t resist it.
PK: Smoking and drinking has always been a huge problem for jockeys given the demands of shedding weight. Did AP drink?
PK: He never did?
PK: Some of the stuff in Richard Hughes’ book was shocking.
RW: Hughesy would have been one of the last of the lads that burnt (the candle) at both ends but times change. (Peter) Scudamore started to change it over jumps, Dunwoody brought it to a new level and then he (McCoy) came along — squeaky clean and 110 per cent competitive — and brought it to a different level again. Now I’m not teetotal, neither is Richard Johnson, but you can’t compete with someone who has gone to that level if you’re burning it at both ends.
PK: You smoke?
RW: It’s the worst habit I have.
PK: I didn’t know until I’d read Richard Hughes’ book.
RW: Yeah, I smoked for weight when I was a kid — a bullshit excuse.
PK: Yeah, that’s what he says: “For the majority, cigarettes are an alternative to food. Some jockeys, such as Ruby Walsh, have poured scorn on that notion. Ruby is honest enough to admit that he smokes because he enjoys smoking and he has no desire to give up. If I’m being similarly honest, I would say that I fall into the same category as Ruby. I started smoking when I was a young lad because that’s what young lads, especially young lads in racing, seemed to do.”
RW: When was that written?
PK: It was published in 2012.
RW: But it was probably written in 2011 — that’s a lifetime ago. I wish I had never started.
PK: Do you?
RW: Yeah, I will give them up.
PK: Talk to me about fame. In November 2009, Tiger Woods made headlines around the world when he drove his car into a fire hydrant. Eight months later you’re on the golf course with him?
RW: Yeah, that was strange. I was on holidays, sitting by the pool with Gillian — actually I was injured at the time — and AP rang: “I’m playing in the JP (McManus) Pro-Am next week do you want to caddy for me?” And I said, “Yeah, why not?” Then he texted me the following day: ‘I’m playing with Tiger.’ And I just laughed, “Yeah, right!” But he was. So we went down and Gillian and Chanelle walked the back nine with us. Gillian said, “I’d hate him to be married to my sister but he’s a really nice guy.”
RW: And I guess that summed it up. He spoke to us the whole way round and we were slagging him. I can’t remember what hole it was — the 15th or 16th maybe — but Tiger hits it on to 12 feet and AP is right on the edge of the green. He says to Tiger: “What do you think?”
“You’re three-putting,” Tiger says.
“My man won’t three-putt. Do you want a bet?” I said.
“How much?” I said.
And he looks at me: “Whatever makes you nervous.”
RW: I said, “You’re all right, Tiger,” and of course McCoy three-putted. But he was a really nice guy.
PK: It must have been interesting standing that close to him?
RW: It was. I remember walking off and thinking, ‘God, I’d hate to be that famous.’
PK: That was my next question.
RW: Yeah, I’d never seen anything like it — people clambering over the rope trying to touch and grab him. I remember saying to AP: “Jesus! Wouldn’t you hate to be that famous?”
PK: Difficult to stay sane in that world?
RW: How do you live a normal life? You can’t. He doesn’t have a normal life. I’m lucky, I can go into the butcher’s in Kilcullen or down the road to the local pub and we’ll chat about whatever is going on and I’m just another fella.
PK: But you’re still recognised.
RW: (Laughs) Because I’m grey.
PK: How do you feel about that? I don’t have the impression you have ever been that comfortable being ‘the great jockey.’
RW: I never rode for fame. I rode for Ruby. I rode because my dream as a kid was to ride in the Grand National and to ride in Cheltenham but I was lucky enough to win, and with that comes fame. Some days I’ll walk along and be nice as pie to everyone, and more days I’ll walk along and hope no-one says boo to me.
PK: You’ve said — and I don’t know if this still applies — that your worst day in racing was when Kieran Kelly died.
RW: There’s no doubt. He used to sit between me and Barry Geraghty in different places, and was the same generation as us and it was just . . . Whatever about going to a hospital and feeling sorry for a lad with a broken leg, to stand outside a church and watch a family carrying a son in a coffin. It can’t get any worse than that.
PK: How bad was John Thomas?
(After an outstanding career and on the verge of retirement, his friend JT McNamara was paralysed from the neck down at Cheltenham in 2013.)
RW: Yeah, that was tough, unbelievably tough. To have gotten so far and come so close to getting out . . . well, not getting out, but to have come so close to deciding he was going to do something else and for that to happen was just shocking.
PK: Do you ever think about it?
RW: I suppose I think the same as I always thought — it won’t happen to me. Daft way of thinking isn’t it?
PK: You wouldn’t do it if you thought anything else.
RW: Probably not. You can take all the precautions you want but you can’t prevent it. Since I started you can see a huge difference in the helmets, and the back pads, and in the safety limits of the jumps and running rails but you still can’t prevent it.
PK: What does Gillian say?
RW: I’d say she worries at times . . . I know she worries at times. She was in Killarney when I broke my neck and Aintree when I broke my arm and Cheltenham when I lost my spleen and Down Royal when I smashed my leg. She sat where you’re sitting now, cleaning all the needle insertions from the Ilizarov frame with wipes. So it’s been hard on her but she’s a realist. She knows I’ll get hurt but hopes that every time I do I’ll get up.
PK: And it can’t be too easy for your dad? He has you, obviously, but he also has two daughters — or a daughter and a daughter-in-law (Nina Carberry). I would imagine he feels more protective of them than he does of you?
RW: I would be disappointed in dad if he didn’t. I prefer riding in the same races as Katie so I don’t have to watch her. I’m not in anyway chauvinistic. I don’t believe men can do this job any better than women because in my mind 95 per cent of riding is tactical. But it’s also physical. My bone density wasn’t as strong as AP’s, or Barry Geraghty’s, but it’s stronger than most women. And that’s what it comes down to — the falls. I don’t think women will ever be as successful over jumps as men because of the falls and having to ride with broken ribs and broken wrists and broken fingers. And that’s why I hate watching Katie and Nina ride over jumps.
PK: You said in your book that you hoped to be still riding in five or six years’ time — that was six years ago.
RW: I hoped right.
PK: Is retirement on the radar? I don’t get a sense that it is.
RW: You’ve a good sense (laughs). No, I can’t see myself retiring any time soon. Physically I’m still as strong and as fit and my nerve is still as good. I’m older, probably cleverer, and tactically more aware, so the only thing I have to guard against is that I don’t get sloppy.
PK: A lot of guys do lose their nerve. The word you used earlier was ‘bottle.’
RW: (laughs) Well that’s what it is.
PK: That happens, does it?
RW: Oh yeah, you see plenty of lads drifting away in their mid-20s. Their nerve is gone. It’s the repetition of falls, the repetition of injuries, the repetition of knocks. They just don’t fancy getting pummelled (laughs). It’s the thought of it more than the actual fall itself that frightens them. But you can’t think about it.
PK: Is one (fall) in eight the average?
RW: It’s gone up a bit actually to about one in 12. If you could just get them in the winter when the ground is softer it would be better.
PK: There was always this sense of you and McCoy as the ‘men’.
RW: It’s easy now, isn’t it? (laughs) I’ll miss riding against him. I think there are some wonderful riders but I’ll miss riding against AP.
PK: What was it about him?
RW: The sense of achievement when you came out the right side of a short head with him — you knew you still had it.
PK: Was that as good as it got?
RW: Yeah, when you could nail him.
PK: And what about now? How does that feel to be ‘the man’? You travelled to the Australian Grand National in August. It was billed as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Australia’s best steeplechaser of recent times (Bashboy) and the world’s best jockey.”
RW: (Laughs) Thank God I won, I would have been booed out of there.
Sunday Indo Sport