Along with AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh is the pre-eminent jump jockey of his generation. He has won all four of the home Nationals, including the English Grand National twice. But his finest accomplishments have been reserved for the sport’s greatest meeting, the Cheltenham Festival. He’s won 32 races there, making him by a distance the most successful jockey in Festival history. He’s been the top jockey there six times in the last eight years, including 2009 when he rode a record seven winners.
Nobody, then, will be more excited than Walsh to see the Cheltenham Festival looming up on the horizon. The racing will be covered, as ever, live on Channel 4 from 13th-16th March. Here, Walsh looks back over his career to date, and looks ahead to what should be another cracking four days of racing.
Do you have any idea how many races you’ve won over your career?
Um… somewhere around 1900?
Out of that list, which ones stand out for you?
To me it’s the big races – two Grand Nationals, 30-odd Cheltenham Festival winners, Irish Grand Nationals, Hennessey Gold Cups. It’s all the big races. I love the big day, and I love the big winners. I suppose if you were to make me stick on a couple, it would be the Grand National on Papillon and the Gold Cup on Kauto Star. They’re probably the stand-outs.
Papillon was presumably made more special by the family link as well?
Oh absolutely. I was only 20, I’d had a rough year, I was out for six months with a broken leg – sport is a fickle world, and it doesn’t take much to be forgotten about. I guess Papillon came at the right time for me to help relaunch my career. And the Grand National is a race you only ever dream about winning, you never think you will. So to win it at 20, the first time I’d ridden in the race, on a horse trained by my dad – it was something special.
What do you think’s been your best performance in the saddle?
I tend to remember the bad ones more than the good ones. I’ll let other people judge my good performances, I’m only critical of my bad ones.
Who’s the best horse that you’ve ridden?
Kauto Star. Five King Georges, two Gold Cups, four Betfair Chases – he’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse, and I’m lucky to have been able to ride him.
Is it important for a good rapport to exist between a horse and rider?
I wouldn’t think so. One horse to the next doesn’t vary that much. I suppose to know the horse and have an understanding might help, but I don’t think a rapport is needed. It’s not like War Horse or anything like that.
The weighing room always seems like a friendly place, compared to the hostility between rivals in other sports. Why is that?
Respect, I think. Not everybody gets on, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like one big happy family, but everyone has respect for the next guy, because along the line, everybody gets injured. We all know how dangerous it is, we all know there’s good days and bad days, and with that we have respect for each other. I suppose that’s why we get on. Every time we go out,. There’s a chance we could come back in the ambulance.
For two guys at the top of their profession, you and AP McCoy have a very good relationship, don’t you?
When we go out on the track, neither of us expects an inch from the other. We know that what happens on the track stays on the track. We’re not friends on the track, but we are friends off it. I don’t expect a favour from him and he doesn’t expect a favour from me. That’s pretty much the way with every jockey, what happens on the track stays on the track. When you’re off the track, it’s your normal life.
Cheltenham’s coming up in March. What is it about the Festival that makes it so special?
Everything, the whole year, is built to Cheltenham. It revolves around Cheltenham. No matter what kind of year you’re having, a winner at Cheltenham can save anybody’s year. It’s the highest profile, it’s the highest pressure. Everybody wants to win every day, but at Cheltenham they want to win even more – owners, trainers, jockeys – it’s the place everyone wants to win. It’s so prestigious, it’s the making and breaking of every year.
You’re the most successful jockey of all time at Cheltenham. What’s your secret there?
I ride for the two best trainers. Paul Nicholls is the Champion Trainer in England, Willie Mullins is the Champion Trainer in Ireland. They just seem to have the best horses. They’re brilliant trainers with the best horses, and I guess I just have more chances than other people.
2009 was an unforgettable Cheltenham Festival for you [Walsh rode a record seven winners]. How do you rate your or anyone’s chances of emulating that feat this year?
I don’t know if I’ll do it this year, or if anyone else will, but it’s only a matter of time before somebody else does it and betters it. Records always get broken. It’s a great one to hold, but how long I’ll hold it for I couldn’t tell you. I’d love to emulate it, but I realise how lucky I was to do it once.
Of the horses that you’re on for the festival, what’s your banker?
[Thinks for a minute] My own banker is Big Bucks [in the World Hurdle].
And what about of the horses you’re not on?
[Another thoughtful pause] I’d say Sizing Europe [in the Queen Mother Champion Chase].
You’re 11-8 on to be the leading jockey at the Festival. Do you feel any pressure when you hear stuff like that?
No. Being 11-8 on means I’ve got some good rides. I’m happy to be 11-8 on.
How do you rate Kauto Star’s chances this year [in the Gold Cup]?
He has a chance. It’d be wonderful. But I understand the task in hand, and it’ll be very hard to beat Long Run. He’s an incredible horse, he was a very good winner last year, Cheltenham really suits him. I think he’ll be a hard horse to beat on the day. Kauto’s 12 now, he’s not getting any younger, he’s a fantastic horse, but I’m well aware of the task in hand.
What do you like about Channel 4 Racing, and what do you think it’s done for the sport?
It’s huge. Having our sport on terrestrial television every Saturday is a massive thing. They get people interested. They produce a really good programme, they’ve got good people working for them, and when I’m not riding I enjoy watching it.
Channel 4 Racing’s coverage of the Cheltenham Festival is from 12:30pm – 4.15pm from 13 – 16 March.