Ruby Walsh is sitting in the lobby of a Dublin hotel. A knowing grin is spreading across his face as he listens to questions about 40th birthdays and thoughts of retirement, falls at Thurles, Naas and Punchestown, age and grey hair and broken legs, and leaving Cheltenham in an ambulance.
Ordinary people have a habit of foisting their ordinary expectations and worries, ordinary parameters for ordinary lives, on extraordinary sportsmen such as Walsh. In the last year or so the narrative that he has had to listen to over and over again is that he should turn his back on his brilliant career to escape time’s advance.
As he is talking, a stranger’s hand appears as if on cue from over my shoulder and reaches out for his. ‘Be safe the next couple of weeks,’ the fellow says, with a meaningful look, a funereal tone and a firm grip. Walsh thanks him for his concern.
Thirty-nine-year-old jockey Ruby Walsh is gearing up for the 2019 Cheltenham Festival
Everyone seems to be fretting about him as Cheltenham approaches. It makes him smile. Everyone wants to hurry him towards the finishing post of his racing life. When the stranger moves on, I conform to type and ask Walsh if he is thinking about his legacy yet. Or what people will say about him when he has retired. ‘Grumpy old b*****d,’ he says.
He plays up to that persona every so often. He has a laconic way about him, certainly, but if you like dry wit and a man who is not so carried away with his image that he is beyond some nice lines in self-deprecation, you will like Walsh.
He does not feel the need to boast or defend himself. He is content and self-contained. He needs to be prodded about his legacy. He is not filled with the same dread of leaving his sport that gripped his friend AP McCoy. Maybe that is because he has no intention of quitting any time soon.
‘I don’t think about legacy,’ he says. ‘When you’re gone, you’re gone. This is sport. It’s not about the past. It’s about the future. When you’re retired, it’s about who’s coming next.’
People mean well when they worry about the way he keeps coming back for more despite the broken bones. Walsh is a racing deity, one of the greats of modern sport, not just National Hunt racing. He has ridden 58 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, more than any other jockey. More than McCoy and Richard Johnson combined.
However riding over jumps is not a forgiving pursuit and it has not stopped battering his body. Walsh is a smooth stylist in the saddle, the racing purists’ favourite but, like many of his rivals, he has levels of mental and physical resilience that inspire disbelief in normal people.
Racing legend Walsh spoke exclusively with Sportsmail ahead of Cheltenham this week
‘However brilliant Ruby is, people have no idea how tough he is,’ McCoy told a journalist as he watched Walsh being helped to an ambulance after he broke his leg in a fall at last year’s Festival.
Between November 2017 and October 2018, Walsh was only injury-free and available to ride for 39 of 338 days. In that period, he broke his wrist, his right leg, twice, and suffered an injury to his vertebrae. He fell at the last on the favourite twice on the same afternoon at Naas in November and again on the punters’ favourite, Faugheen, at Leopardstown in December.
Through it all, Walsh does not let the demons gather. ‘I have no self-doubt,’ he says. ‘Maybe the more people start to doubt me, the more I feel I have to prove. Not self-doubt, just prove them wrong. What’s that? Stubbornness?’
He fixes me with a stare and waits for me to answer. I mutter an inconclusive response that does not change his opinion.
‘Stubbornness,’ says Walsh again. ‘It’s always about the next ride. You learn from a very young age to look forward. The past can’t be changed. It’s what’s next and how you can affect it.
‘Does it get harder as you get older? I don’t think so. I’m sure it does for other athletes because you physically start to slow down, but as a jockey it doesn’t matter how slow we get because we were never really moving that quickly anyway. We’re more like golfers. Does golf get harder?’
Irishman Walsh laughs off suggestions that he should retire due to the danger of racing
Injuries are a jump jockey’s constant companion but, when you are 39, others start to worry about their impact on you on your behalf. They start mentioning the fact that Walsh has four daughters, as if he is somehow being irresponsible by continuing to ride. He has a withering put-down for that. ‘They’re not the first jockey’s kids in the world,’ Walsh told the Irish Times.
He has an answer, too, for those who talk of the sport’s dangers. ‘Yeah, but it was dangerous when I was 19,’ he says. ‘It’s no more dangerous now I’m 39. I knew the dangers of this game long before I started at it. I knew everything that would come with it. The injuries, the falls, the highs, the lows. I knew what could happen.
‘My girls love going racing and watching me ride. I’m sure they hate watching me fall, the same as my wife, Gillian, does, but I can’t change that. I’m a jump jockey. There are going to be falls. Hopefully there are going to be winners. There are definitely going to be losers. There are no guarantees you won’t fall. You hope not to get hurt but you can’t really control that either. That’s why I do it. I love it.
‘People have been asking me when I was going to retire since I was 30. It has been happening more since I was 35. It’s happening more now. It’s the same for any sportsman.
‘I feel like when you answer a question, you’ve answered it. Why do people keep asking it again? I’ve already answered it. How many times? What do they want you to say? I’m obviously not giving them the answer they want but I don’t have any other answer.
‘When you do something and you like doing something, why would you stop doing it? That’s the question I ask myself. I still love competing
‘ I came back last year for Cheltenham. I had six or seven rides and rode two winners. That’s a good strike rate for Cheltenham. The two I rode that should have won, won. The rest of them ran to the best of their ability. So you are thinking: “Why would I stop?”
‘It doesn’t get any easier recovering from injuries but that hasn’t changed. You just get on with it. You analyse why did an injury happen? Well, I know why it happened: the way it fell, I ended up with my leg caught under its neck and it rolled over and half a ton is going to break your leg.
‘Move on. Fix it. Let’s go. So you know why it happened and then you do the rehab and get back and see how it’s going. You go back and ride a winner and you give a few horses rides and you think: “You know what, I haven’t lost it yet,” and away you go.’
Walsh is one of racing’s most popular jockeys and has been dubbed the ‘King of Cheltenham’
Walsh laughs when I call him the King of Cheltenham. ‘I’m Irish,’ he says. ‘We have no king.’
He concedes at least it is not a bad record he has at the Festival. ‘I’ve been lucky there,’ he says. ‘I’ve had great days there.’
I suggest that not even he could get lucky 58 times and he smiles again.
‘Maybe not,’ he says softly. ‘I like it round there. It’s incredible.’
He won his first race at Cheltenham aboard Alexander Banquet 21 years ago and, since 2004, he has been the meeting’s leading rider 11 times, with four Champion Hurdles, three Champion Chases, five World Hurdles and two Gold Cups. His partnership with the trainer Willie Mullins is as strong as ever and Walsh is aiming to add to his tally this week and in years to come.
‘I hope I can f***ing add to it,’ he says. ‘I better be able to add to it. It is tighter this year than in other years. The one outstanding ride I have is Benie Des Dieux. If that can win and I can bag another one, it’ll be a good return.
‘Sooner or later, somebody will ride more Cheltenham winners than me. But so what. That’s all records are. Someone’s going to run a faster time than Usain Bolt some day. All you can do is set the best in your era.
‘The only record that won’t be broken is AP winning the jockeys’ championship 20 years on the trot. That’ll be around for ever.’
Walsh, on board Nichols Canyon, celebrating victory in the Stayers Hurdle back in 2017
There is a companion to the concern for Walsh that has accompanied him into his late 30s and it is one for which he reserves special disdain. Sometimes, his falls are greeted with cynicism and slander by a particular breed of racing fans on social media, fans who have accused Walsh of deliberately jumping off horses.
It got to the point where Walsh, who is an ambassador for Paddy Power, made a spoof video with the bookmaker that floated the idea of him driving round to the house of a Twitter troll and confronting him on his doorstep.
Walsh and Paddy Power take the troll on a drive in the country and Walsh sits in the back of a flatbed truck with him as it travels along a dirt path at 40mph.
Walsh tells the troll to jump and waves some cash at him but, terrified, the man cowers in the back of the truck and promises he will never send a tweet to Walsh again.
‘Not so easy, is it?’ Walsh says to him before the truck stops and lets him out. Walsh chucks a €20 note at him. ‘C’mon ya hero,’ he sneers at him. ‘Get a taxi.’
The story was staged but Walsh put plenty of feeling into it. ‘I wish we could have found a real troll,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure health and safety would have allowed us to use a real troll. The world we live in, you can’t knock on someone’s door and drag them out into the road.
‘Everything with Paddy Power is tongue in cheek. That’s why I like being an ambassador for them. It’s “take-the-p**s-out-of-whatever-you-can”. There has to be some sense of humour somewhere. You can’t be deadpan all your life. What I was highlighting was the stupidity of what can happen on unregulated platforms. All of a sudden, they have become so important but really, they have no importance.’
We talk for a while about James Cracknell, the Olympic oarsman and double gold medalist, who is attempting to win a place in Cambridge’s Boat Race at the age of 46. What drives men like him and Walsh? What is it that compels you to strive? What is it that breeds defiance of time?
Walsh falls off Al Boum Photo in the RSA Chase on the second day of the Festival in 2018
‘It’s just those wins, however infrequent they may become,’ he says. ‘Winning is what hooks you in the first place and it’s what’s hard to give up. It’s not a fear of losing. I think a fear of losing holds you back. If you’re afraid of losing, then you’ll also be afraid to win.
‘I don’t think I was ever afraid of losing. I don’t like losing but I knew when I started that losing was going to be a huge part of my life as a jockey. Even if you are successful as Tony McCoy was, you lose more than you win. You have to be able to deal with the losses.
‘What is it that keeps you going? Are we just dreamers? Does every kid who is athletic want to be a sportsperson and all of a sudden you start living that life and you are living the dream and you don’t ever think you want it to end? There’s that part of it, too. I don’t know how you describe it. To win at Cheltenham and Aintree, those big meetings, it’s just different. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.’
Walsh will fly over from Ireland to Cheltenham on Sunday. He loves the way the excitement builds. ‘From my early 20s,’ he says, ‘I have learned the more people that are looking at you, the shorter the price your horse tends to be and the more chance it has of winning. So that has never bothered me.
‘I don’t like being on 100-1 shots because I have less chance of winning. The spotlight on me to perform does not bother me. When you get up on a horse, that’s gone anyway.
‘The first race is a two-mile novice hurdle so I’m at the start and whether there are 90,000 people looking at it or nobody, I’m still riding that horse in the novice hurdle. Then away you go. Make your decisions and live by them and you’ll be a hero or a villain.’
The Festival™, presented by Magners, runs Tues, March 12 to Friday, March 15 at Cheltenham, a Jockey Club racecourse. Tickets are available from www.thejockeyclub.co.uk/cheltenham. Ruby Walsh is an ambassador for Racing TV (www.racingtv.com), the only place to see all 28 races live and in HD
DAY-BY-DAY CHELTENHAM GUIDE
by Marcus Townend
Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air tries to become the sixth horse to win the Champion Hurdle three times but faces a potent challenge from Irish mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina.
Tasty side dish
Emotional scenes guaranteed if trainer Kayley Woollacott, who took over her Devon stable after husband Richard committed suicide last year, wins the Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase with her talented gelding, Lalor.
Altior is a very short price to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase for a second year running and extend his winning sequence over hurdles and fences to a record-equaling 18 races.
Tasty side dish
Grand National winner Tiger Roll will join an elite group of four-time Festival winners if he lands the Cross Country Chase for a second time. His other two previous wins were in the Triumph Hurdle and National Hunt Chase.
Paisley Park’s rise through the ranks this season means he is favourite to land the Stayers’ Hurdle for trainer Emma Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth.
Tasty side dish
Bryony Frost could break new ground as the first female jockey to land a Grade One race over fences at the Festival on Frodon in a competitive Ryanair Chase.
Native River and champion jockey Richard Johnson are back to defend the Gold Cup but must see off rising stars Clan Des Obeaux, part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, and Presenting Percy.
Tasty side dish
Joseph O’Brien, son of top trainer Aidan, was a prolific Flat jockey, winning two Epsom Derbys and a 2,000 Guineas. Now he is eyeing his first Festival win as a trainer with Sir Erec in the Triumph Hurdle.