Wednesday 13 November 2019

Katie Walsh proving to be very much more than Ruby's younger sister

The eyes have it: the famous award-winning portrait of Katie Walsh Photo: SPENCER MURPHY/COUNTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
The eyes have it: the famous award-winning portrait of Katie Walsh Photo: SPENCER MURPHY/COUNTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES

Jim White

Spencer Murphy’s photograph of Katie Walsh has become a familiar sight around London.

To be found adorning advertising hoardings in Underground stations, on the side of buses, in magazines and newspapers, the picture which won the 2013 Taylor Lessing Award has been used all year to promote the National Portrait Gallery.

And what a magnificent image it is. The Irish jockey, sister of fellow jockey Ruby, daughter of trainer Ted, is pictured apparently directly after a race, her face covered in mud, her silks filthy, an exhausted look in her eyes, a study of weary commitment.

Except it is entirely faked.

“It was taken at Kempton Park,” Walsh says. “But not on a race day.

"They converted the owners and trainers bar into a studio. They asked me to bring my silks from my last race, not washed. That’s not mud on my face, it’s make-up. They just chucked the stuff all over me.”

But what about her expression? She looks so finished, so spent, surely that cannot be false.

Surely that can only be the consequence of the most gruelling of rides.

“Yes, I was knackered all right,” she says. “Fella had me in the studio for an hour and a half.

"By the end I was giving it, ‘What are you on about, just take a picture won’t you?’

"So yeah, that is a real look in my eyes of, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

When she first saw the result of all her posing, however, she was, she says, dismayed.

“I looked like someone who doesn’t know where her next meal for her 12 kids is going to come from as she waves off her husband on the boat to America,” she smiles.

“It’s so sad looking. Now I understand it, now I see what other people see, I realise the value in it.

"But at the time I thought, ‘What are you trying to do?’ To me, it was too serious. It just wasn’t me.”

The real Katie Walsh, she insists, is nothing like the picture. “Well for a start I’m not smiling, which isn’t me,” she says.

“You know people have said there’s hunger in my eyes there, but the hunger I have is a different type. It’s a competitive one. It’s a hunger to be good, to go places amongst the men.”

Walsh has been doing that all right, as a leading amateur jump jockey.

In 2012 she came third in the Grand National, the highest position any woman has achieved in the most demanding race in the world.

“Listen, don’t get me started on the National. I’m a terrible crier and that’ll get me weeping for sure,” she says.

“I set off with one aim in mind: don’t fall at the first. When I was still in the saddle after the first it was fence to fence.

"Suddenly I was over them all. Then, after I cleared the last, I had this amazing feeling: 'My God I’m going to win the National'. I had it for about 10 seconds. Then I got overtaken.”

She does, though, think that it is only a matter of time before a woman does win a major race. “Why not?” she says. “That said, when I look at the top lads – McCoy, Barry Geraghty, Ruby – I’m nowhere near them.

"I’m not the height of them, I’m not as strong as them. I’m good, but I know if we’re on two horses of the same quality and it’s nip and tuck going for the line, my brother will come out on top every single time.”

It was watching her brother that first sparked the passion in Walsh.

She remembers coming to the Cheltenham Festival as a 12-year-old and crying her eyes out when her brother won.

Horses were already central to her life, but being a jockey only really became a possibility when her father entered her in a couple of bumper rides as a 16-year-old. From there, she quickly blossomed.

“I was at Punchestown one day and Willie Mullins asked me if I wanted to ride in a ladies’ race.

"When Willie Mullins asks you, there’s only one answer. I won it. I was delighted with myself.

"Then Willie said would I like to ride at Aintree in a mares’ bumper. It was the same year Ruby won the National, and it went from there.

"I started to ride Willie’s bumper horses. And I got to ride some great horses, some great tracks. It’s been a dream come true.”

She admits her initial chance came because of who she was. “Yeah, the first time I got to ride was because of dad’s connections,” she says.

“But believe me, if you were crap, Willie Mullins is not going to put you on something because you’re Ted Walsh’s daughter or Ruby Walsh’s sister. No chance.”

And from the moment she started racing, she says she has never encountered any condescension among the male jockeys because she is a woman.

“From the first day I went into the weighing room, it was people I’d grown up with as friends, people I’d gone out with at weekends and the respect was enormous.

"Those people know how tough it is even to ride out, never mind to win. They aren’t going to look down on anyone who gives it a go.”

This year she will be giving it a go at Cheltenham again. She has been riding there every year since 2011.

Taking time off from her normal routine of helping in her fathers’ yard and selling bloodstock, she will be participating as an amateur.

Which means that even if she were to win every race she enters, there will be no financial reward.

“Not a penny can you take as an amateur. You do it for the love of it,” she says.

“Either that or because you’re mad.”

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