'I was chasing a dream at 16 - now I am chasing reality' - Ruby Walsh
Ruby Walsh retired after riding his 2,756th winner last week but he has no intention of walking away from racing.
Ruby Walsh was not expecting empathy from his great friend and rival, Tony McCoy - which was just as well. "He just keeps laughing at me," Walsh says of McCoy, as he recalls his dramatic decision to dismount on Kemboy at Punchestown on Wednesday and retire on the spot.
Why "laughing"? Did McCoy think it unwise? "I'd say so," Walsh tells me. "But I said the very same thing to him the day he announced it. In him I saw the invincible. I'd watched what he had done to himself, what he had endured, how he'd coped. I thought the man was invincible."
The day after Walsh set loose a tide of emotion in the winner's enclosure at Punchestown, near his home, he walked back in as a pundit and racegoer. No escape to Barbados to take stock, no week in the house with the phone off to sort his memories.
And Punchestown is where I found him at the weekend, looking smart, healthy, and - frankly - relieved. He says: "It's almost like riding was a phase of my life that has come to an end. But life hasn't."
There was no difficulty in returning to the scene of his abdication?
"No, I love going racing. I've always loved going racing," he says. "I came here several times last winter on a Saturday with my kids before going to Naas on the Sunday. I went to all the local race meetings last winter when I was injured, and I brought the kids.
"To me as a fan of horse racing, when I retired on Wednesday, I wanted to come and watch the racing. And yesterday. And today. I was lucky enough to live my dream, but I'm a horse racing fan."
He did, though, read all the tributes, and they moved him.
"I did, and I was quite flattered. Reading those things was the only time I've got emotional in all of this. They were flattering and very nice things."
Quite soon you understand that this is an idol of National Hunt racing who is happy with his treasure: his 59 Cheltenham Festival wins, his 2,756 victories, all scored under the gaze of his father, Ted, himself a former jockey.
"I always had a jockey coach, from the age of 12. From the day I was born. I had my dad, who was a jockey. He coached me all the way through my career. I had a coach before I even knew what a jockey coach was.
"If I rode, what, 2,700 winners, say 12,000 horses - I'd say my father didn't see a hundred of those. That's all he didn't see."
This family bond partly explains why Walsh nominates Papillon's 2000 Grand National as his favourite win (Ted was the trainer). It also brought him in from the cold.
"I'd broken my leg in the Czech Republic, missed six months, was about to get back and broke it again, schooling. Not a full break, but it separated a bit.
"Out of sight, out of mind is the same in every walk of life. I went from being champion jockey in the 1998-99 season to falling off the face of the earth. I had a few rides in Cheltenham and didn't even look like riding a winner. I went to Aintree with one ride: Papillon in the Grand National.
"As well as winning the Grand National for my dad, with all the emotion that goes with that, two weeks later Commanche Court won the Irish National. Two weeks later he came here (to Punchestown) and won the Heineken Gold Cup - and all of a sudden my career was going in only one direction. That six-week period turned it all around."
This is a retiree with solid foundations in life, a sharp mind and relentless energy he intends to put to good use as an adviser at the powerful Willie Mullins yard and in the media.
"I was at Willie's this morning, I rode out two lots - a couple of bits of work. I'll continue to do that. I like being active, I like being fit. I'm not a huge eater, I never struggled with my weight, I'm not going to explode because I've retired - and I like being part of that team.
"I still have something to offer there with regards to planning and tactics and things like that and I'll continue to do that.
"I don't believe in being idle. Idleness? No. I don't believe in sitting around.
"I was there this morning and we were discussing what horses should stay in for the summer, what horses should go out to grass, what horses should go jumping fences, that sort of thing. But I've always been there. And I suppose, as a jockey, I was always advising anyway. I was included."
If you come looking for the kind of sorrow that haunted McCoy when he finally surrendered to reality, just short of his 40th birthday, you have come to the wrong racecourse.
The relief may wear off. Walsh may yet hanker after the champagne days. On Saturday, Benie Des Dieux, on whom Walsh took a crashing fall at Cheltenham, won under Paul Townend, the new No 1 at the Mullins yard.
"Obviously the prize money has come to an end, but as a jump jockey, anyway, when you start riding for the prize money - it's over. When footballers start playing for the wages, do they get picked? Jockeys don't either. If you do it for the money, it stands out."
He says he has no time for rear-view mirrors and the timing of his departure was impossibly stylish. Even Mullins says he was "caught on the hop" by the announcement. There were good reasons not to tell Mullins in advance.
"I suppose any person in a team anywhere, you have to keep making the boss believe you're up for it. So I didn't want to tell Willie I had doubts in the back of my head because that would have put doubts in his head. I knew I was up for it. But rather than having to convince anybody, it was easier to keep it to myself."
In his career Walsh was guarded about his riding style. Now he can tell all.
"I trusted the horse. And I believe the horse had as little interest in falling as I did. There were times when I trusted the horse too much - and maybe that's why I got hurt as often as I did.
But I kept trusting the horse because without the horse I was nothing. Horses are competitors, horses learn to win, horses get sick of losing. A horse can't talk, but it can tell you a lot."
To Paul Townend and the next generation, Walsh offers a message that also applies to his own life.
"The only advice I'd give him is, 'don't look back'. He will pick the wrong horse, he will make mistakes. Those things will happen. Look at the next race. Look for the next opportunity and get back in front. When you have a team of horses like Willie has - to be on the right horse every day, you can't. But on the day: don't look back."
For the revered king of Irish jump jockeys, the second half of a sporting life split in two has dawned.
"I didn't imagine the first half would be as good as it was. I'm looking forward to the next part. I started as a 16-year-old chasing a dream. Now I'm starting as a nearly-40-year-old chasing reality. But I know I have to do that." (© Daily Telegraph, London)