Ruby Walsh was not expecting empathy from his great friend and rival, Tony ‘AP’ 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 phone-off to sort his memories. And Punchestown is where I found him at the weekend, looking smart, healthy, and – frankly – relieved. He said: “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 go 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,” he says. “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. The embrace between Ruby and Ted after Kemboy’s Punchestown Gold Cup win affirmed that this was a father-son tale of sporting domination.
Walsh celebrates after winning the 2000 Grand National riding Papillon Credit: PA
Walsh with his father Ted and Papillon. His strong family bond is one of the reasons why the 2000 Grand National is his favourite win Credit: Reuters
Walsh says: “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. I had a coach every day of my life who watched every race in my life. If I rode, what, 2,700 winners, say 1,200 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. He explains: “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 advisor at the powerful Willie Mullins yard and in the media. “I have Racing TV and I have the Irish Examiner and Paddy Power and hopefully I can expand on that. You have to start somewhere,” he says.
“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.
Walsh says: “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. I won a lot of prize-money. But 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.”
Ruby Walsh, with wife Gillian and daughters Isabelle, Gemma, Elsa and Erica after he announced his retirement this week Credit: PA
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. Walsh laughs at the suggestion he was copying Sir Alex Ferguson, who left Manchester United (Walsh’s team) after the 2013 title win. “Good luck and thanks,” he says.
“You can try and plan for that [the big farewell] but Voix Des Tiep was very lucky not to fall at the last two races before Kemboy, so if he fell and I broke my arms and my shoulder – that was the way I was going to be going out. You have to get lucky. Not everybody gets the fairytale exit. You’re well aware of that in sport. Gillian [his wife] was always saying – you won’t get that fairytale ending, and I was always slagging her, saying – well, I’ll try for it.”
The reasons for him going are not hard to find. They start with injuries, which defeated even McCoy, 20 times the champion jump jockey. “I broke a lot,” Walsh concedes. “Who knows what my body will say to me in five, six, 10 years time. I dislocated my hip in 2002 or 2003 and I remember surgeons thinking I’d do well to get 10 more years. It’s never given me an ounce of trouble.”
It was only three or four strides from the finish on Kemboy when Walsh thought: “This is it. What was it like? It was happy. To me, I’d gotten the perfect exit and I was delighted to get it. I was relieved, then.” There were good reasons not to tell Mullins in advance. Walsh says: “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 that I had doubts in the back of my head because that would have put doubts in his head about how up for it I was. I knew I was up for it. But rather than having to convince anybody, it was easier to keep it to myself.”
“AP set the standard that all of us had to to try to achieve. I got to ride with him, live with him, and he was my idol” Credit: PA
In his career Walsh was guarded about his classy riding style. Now he can tell all. “I trusted the horse,” he begins. “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 believing in the horse, I kept trusting the horse because without the horse I was nothing. I trusted that we were on the same page, both looking to do the same thing. Horses are competitors, horses learn to win, horses get sick of losing. A horse can’t talk but it can tell you a lot.”
For punters and purists alike, the loss of Walsh and McCoy inside four years is hard to stomach, but Walsh speaks encouragingly of the next generation. “It’s not just jump racing – me and AP and Richard Johnson and Davy Russell and Barry Geraghty. That’s every sport,” he says. “There’s some wonderful jockeys. Paul Townend’s a brilliant jockey. Rachael Blackmore – it’s incredible what she’s achieved. And Jack Kennedy, for a young fellah, is dynamite. But there will be more. I’m gone. Davy is nearly 40, Barry is nearly 40 – we are at the other end of it, and young lads will see the opportunities.
“I have huge respect for AP. AP set the standard that all of us had to to try to achieve. I got to ride with him, live with him, and he was my idol. He made working in England so easy for me. He could have made it difficult – but he didn’t.”
To Townend, Walsh offers a message that applies to his own life too: “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. That race is over. 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 silvery, bony, revered king of Irish jump jockeys, the second-half of a sporting life split in two – as all such lives are – has dawned. Walsh is not perturbed. He says: “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.”
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