HE STOPS rolling the paddock to take the call. It’s early March and Ruby Walsh is enjoying a day off at his home in County Carlow. It’s a simple joy. One that couldn’t be further removed from the maddening crowds of the Cheltenham Festival next week, so this work is an easy pleasure.
“You want to see these lines I’m rolling,” he laughs. “The grounds men in Old Trafford would be proud of these lines. I reckon I’ll stay at it until two o’clock and then that’s me, done.”
If Carlow represents a retreat from race-riding then his rural home is a jewel-like sanctuary. Ruby has a family now, a growing one. That spells lots of things to enjoy outside of his day-job where his billing as a superstar has long been established.
“I just like getting home in the evening and closing the front gate,” he says. “Spend time with the family. Work on the few acres I have here. Roll the paddock, you know.”
It almost sounds like Ruby Walsh is thinking about retirement. He isn’t. It doesn’t need to be considered yet. But in the world of the weigh-room, his progress towards the door is steady and closing.
When he rode his first Cheltenham winner on Alexander Banquet in the 1998 Champion Bumper for Willie Mullins, he was seated just inside the entrance. This year represents Cheltenham number 13 and his lap of the room is a lot closer to the end than the beginning.
“I thought about it more when I started,” he says. “I was new. I was looking along the line at some of my heroes like Richard Dunwoody and Charlie Swan. It’s seniority. I know the last place on this line is out the door. It’s like any sport, the young guys come through, but right now I feel good. Okay, there are a few creaks and strains in the morning but I’m self-employed with a family to provide for. I get up. I go to work.”
Ruby works in two different countries for two different masters. He’s been with Willie Mullins in Carlow since he was 17. Willie is almost his second auld fella, while his relationship with Paul Nicholls has been soldered tight through storied success on horses like Kauto Star and Big Bucks.
He doesn’t feel the strain of working in two countries. He only sees perspective.
“You know, flying from Ireland, I can be at racetracks in Britain quicker than a lot of jockeys living in Britain. You find a routine. Riding great horses makes that routine very easy and I guess when you get older, you get wiser in how you do things. I don’t fly at 6.30am anymore. If I have to I’ll want to fall asleep at lunch-time. These days I go the night before. I ring AP [McCoy] and just tell him I’m staying.”
Ruby’s relationship with perhaps his only true peer in the sport is a friendship long forged. With friendship you find your level. Both are winners, incomparable in styles – Ruby is credited with being the greater horse man – but with the same desire for success.
And Ruby’s appetite for the big days remains insatiable. What else could drive a weekly beat that bridges the Irish Sea?
Yet his enthusiasm is dampened by candour. Ruby talks short sentences in a low voice with a style that says ‘you know yourself’.
“I love riding the big winners in Britain. Coming back to Ireland and riding the big races on a Sunday. I love that too.”
Ruby was working over in Paul Nicholls’ last week. He was schooling Kauto Star, the horse he loves more than any other.
Kauto and Ruby took a fall that was described by Nicholls as “awful”. Ruby describes the worry of whether the two-time Gold Cup winner will race or not as a cloud. But he says: “There’s a chance” the horse will race.
Not a good one or a great one “just a chance”.
Kauto’s powers of recovery are not to be discounted. How could he after a comeback that makes Lazarus look tame. Beaten to his fifth King George VI Chase by Long Run, pulled up weeks later at Punchestown, Kauto Star corrected his decline with a sixth King George in December.
Despite Ruby’s vast knowledge of the world where he’s a totem, he struggles to explain Kauto’s return. “Even Paul Nicholls would struggle to explain it I think.”
But the magic with Ruby is he seldom struggles at Cheltenham. He holds the record for the number of winning rides – 32. And he holds each of those victories dear.
He remembers when Irish wins in the Cotswolds in March were the exception. So when they came they were special. He remembers Attitude Adjuster, which was ridden by his dad Ted, winning in 86 and watching from his sitting room in Kill, County Kildare.
He remembers all the Gold Cups from then until now and the two he’s won are cherished.
It’s the pinnacle, the greatest test and the greatest feeling for a jockey. But lesser races at the festival can make you feel that way too.
He’ll never forget his first – Alexander Banquet, the acclaim of the winner’s enclosure and while his personal fortunes have changed since then, the festival remains the same.
Far beyond the gate in Carlow, Cheltenham is a place of magic for Ruby Walsh. When he started out there he was lucky to get four rides over the week. Last year he rode three winners on the first day and his win on Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle lifted the lid on Prestbury Park.
He plays it humble now. The realism of his profession means he can’t play it any other way. In Cheltenham, you don’t take anything for granted.
The week before you just think about making winners happen. Then you think about coming home again, seeing the family and closing the front gate.
Because the paddock has to be rolled in April too.