8 December 2002
With an imposing mix of strength and balance, the Irishman is going places
Nature or nurture? With a champion that is usually the question. With Ruby Walsh, at 23 already four times Irish champion and winner of the Irish and Scottish Nationals as well as his unforgettable Aintree success on Papillon in April 2000, the question does not apply. He has both.
Lean and lithe at 5ft 10in and 10st, he is athletic and determined enough to have played scrum-half in the Leinster Cup final and won a Gaelic football schools medal in the Dublin County Final as a 17-year-old. That is the perfect physical background for the blend of strength and balance and competitiveness which this season has seen top British trainer Paul
Nicholls arrange his stable plans around Walsh’s availability, while back in Ireland his main employer, Willie Mullins, said: “I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of him, and that includes Tony McCoy.”
But in all sport the body is nothing without the head. In Walsh’s case it is already a grey one. If you meet his father, Ted, you will know why. For sure Ted, as 11-times champion and rider of a world-record 600 winners as an amateur, had achievements to be a beacon for his eldest son. But as anyone who has listened to this most silver-tongued of all the racecasters on the planet will soon realise, Ted Walsh has a mind which rockets across the firmament at a million miles a minute. There is no horse or jockey or trainer or track or issue on which Ted cannot give you an instant opinion. By now Ruby Walsh has studied enough for a professorship.
He is lucky his father was wise as well as enthusiastic. That meant exposing him to good role models, good riding disciplines rather than letting young eagerness run riot. It is notable that while Ted let Ruby ride in “schooling bumpers” (practice races on the Flat) as young as 12 and 13, his son only ever had three rides in the point-to-point field with its more agricultural style and often more hazardous mounts. “I wanted him to be alongside good fellas,” Ted said. “Brendan Sheridan used to ride for us and Ruby would watch him and learn to use his whip in both hands and to sit into his horse. Straightaway I could see that he didn’t look out of place.”
The first race ride came soon after Walsh’s 16th birthday in May 1995, the first winner at Gowran Park two months later on a horse called Siren Song, whose finishing effort was matched by the cheering sprint of father Ted, who had also trained it. Next season Walsh was champion amateur for the first time. Exactly five years ago yesterday, he rode his first English winner when Master Jamie took the William Hill Hurdle at Sandown, and he then followed a second amateur crown by turning professional and taking that senior championship at the first attempt.
Since then Walsh’s efforts have been increasingly in the spotlight’s glare. The start of the 1999-2000 season was marred with injuries, the end of it crowned with those Irish and English Grand National triumphs for Papillon and Commanche Court. The 2000-2001 season earned him a second Irish championship while last season saw his association with the Paul Nicholls stable climax with a treble on Scottish Grand National day at Ayr in April.
Now the Nicholls connection is on a busy enough basis that while Walsh has already logged 54 Irish winners to be third in his native table, he has also booted home 32 winners (from just 97 rides) over here. This double shift suggests some stress-laden logistics, but Walsh seems to sail through it as easily as he smuggles a horse over a fence. His sister, Jenny, has acted as his agent since he turned professional. His house in Carlow and his parents’ in Kildare are less than an hour from Dublin Airport, as is his friend and host Tony McCoy’s home near Faringdon, which all visiting Irish jockeys seem to use as a hotel.
But statistics and logistics are not even the half of it. The interesting thing about Walsh’s riding is how he does it. What’s more, his increased presence here this winter has begun to make seasoned watchers realise there might not just be life after McCoy but real competition while he is still around. A P McCoy is, for many of us, the most dominant single presence to throw a leg across a jumping horse, his coiled up determination and his ability to literally fire his partners at the fences something which is almost frightening in its intensity. Walsh does it differently.
He rides deeper, quieter, more folded around the horse. “Dad always said that if you have got big, long legs you have got to use them,” Walsh said after completing a four-ride, one winner stint at Exeter on Friday. “He also said to sit quiet and I used to do a lot of schooling of young horses over banks with Enda Bolger in Limerick. You had to let them sort themselves out and go with them.”
Friday’s winner had come with just that approach, the novice Epervier D’Or being nursed round and then sent clear when the lessons were fully learned. But two long slogs up the Haldon hill in defeat spoke eloquently about the other side of Walsh’s armoury. “He is incredibly strong in his body,” said Mullins, a champion rider himself. “He gets hold of a horse between his lower leg and his back and can really push them home. At 23, there is still a bit of improvement, a bit of tightening to come, but he is a match for anyone already.”
Some of us self-important Britons might think Walsh needs to come here full-time to fulfil his ultimate potential. But apart from the fact that the present system means he is riding top horses from both sides of the water, Ted Walsh offered an even more important caveat. “I have tried to impress on him,” he said in father-philosopher mode, “that these big days don’t last forever, of the importance of enjoying the riding while it is there.”
His son’s smile suggested that this advice has also been heeded.