Thurles, 2010. There’s a modest crowd out for the races. It’s cloudy, the ground is soft and the bookies are chattering easily with one another as they slowly hoist the odds for the opening race. The jockeys have been ambling into their changing rooms slowly, some in gabbling pairs, some sullen and heads low.
We didn’t see Ruby enter. He must have slipped in through a door at the back. An elderly couple are standing close by, craning their necks excitedly every time the door to the jockey’s enclosure creaks open. ‘We’re waiting on Ruby’, says the lady in Australian. ‘We’ve followed him all the way from Cheltenham’. Her eyes sparkle with giddy anticipation, a hint, perhaps, of a schoolgirl who once chased The Beatles down streets with her mouth at full scream. ‘You see, horses don’t jump in Australia …’, began her husband. And then Ruby strolled out the door. ‘Ruby, Ruby, Ruby’, whispered the Australian lady.
The five [later 12! – ed.] time Champion jockey was calm but running a little late. It was 2:25pm and in 20 minutes he was due to ride a horse called Black Harry for Willie Mullins at the meeting’s opener. He paused for long enough to stand with the Australians while the camera clicked. Far from screaming, the lady was so star struck that she didn’t say a word. Ruby was ours for seven minutes and three seconds. We walked and talked. James sat him in the stand and took his photo.
It had been a busy month for the most successful National Hunt jockey in Irish history. Six days earlier, he had been crowned ‘King of Cheltenham’ when he notched up his 25th win, more than anyone else in the 108 years since the festival began. At the 2009 Festival, he had ridden a record-breaking seven Cheltenham winners over the four days which placed him in pole position to seize the crown in 2010. But Ruby would be first to admit that for a while it looked like he might not have even been top jockey in his own household during the Cheltenham week, as his younger sister Katie galloped home with two wins.
Rupert Walsh was born in Naas on 14 May 1979. His father Ted was Ireland’s leading amateur jockey eleven times, and won four races at Cheltenham. He is a racehorse trainer with an Aintree Grand National under his belt. Ted is also one of RTE’s foremost racing presenters, well known for his blunt and well-informed humour. And judging by Ruby’s own acclaimed performance as his father’s deputy during the coverage of Punchestown 2010, the younger Walsh can certainly consider a future as a television pundit.
Ruby’s quietly-spoken grandfather and namesake Ruby Walsh snr grew up in Kildorrery, County Cork, and later ran a pub with a livery stable in Fermoy, Co. Cork. During the 1950s, the Walsh family spent two years in the USA where Ruby snr’s brother Micky trained jumpers. Ruby Snr obtained his training licence in 1956 and rented stables in Chapelizod. He later moved to Kill, close to the Goffs sales arena in Co. Kildare, and began operating as a small-time trainer with twelve stables. Ted and his wife Helen, daughter of a Garda sergeant, moved to Kill in 1984 where they raised their four children on the small farm which now runs to 60 acres. Ruby Snr passed away on New Years’ Day 1991. ‘I knew him well’, says his grandson. ‘He was a lovely man’.
Ruby was a boy of many sports, a Man United fan, and a gifted scrum half who once got an Under-16 trial with the Leinster rugby team. But the world of the gee-gees was engrained deep within him. As a schoolboy he rode out for Enda Bolger, the cross-country specialist trainer. He was 16-years-old and a seven pound claiming amateur when he first met Willie Mullins. In November 1995, Willie was due to ride an awkward filly called Young Fenora at Leopardstown. He took a punt and offered the ride to Ruby who duly sailed home to victory. ‘I wouldn’t know a hurler or a footballer if they hit me in the face’, said Willie. ‘But I know a jockey and I just thought to myself, that’s not ordinary stuff.’
When the 1996-97 season ended, 18-year-old Ruby was Ireland’s top amateur jockey. He won the title again the following season and turned professional. In 1998, he opened his account at the Cheltenham Festival with a win on Alexander Banquet in the Champion Bumper.
The first year of the millennium was to be an astonishing one for the Walsh’s. Ruby rode the bay Papillion, trained by his father, to win the Aintree Grand National, the holy grail of the National Hunt and the world’s richest steeplechase. It was Ruby’s first crack at the race but, as he says, it’s not always good for the nerves to know what the jump ahead is going to be like.
Sixteen days later, father and son won the Irish National at Fairyhouse with Commanche Court. Ruby thus became the first jockey to complete the Irish-English National double since Tommy Carberry nearly thirty years earlier.
In 2005, Ruby scored an extraordinary hat-trick, winning the English, Irish and Welsh Nationals. [i] He also nearly won the Scottish National, but was beaten by a short head. Nonetheless, the fact that he had previously won the Scottish National in 2002 makes him the only jockey currently riding to have won all four Nationals.
Ruby’s brilliance stems from his ability to create a vital synergy between himself and the horses beneath him. He understands how to read their temperament and he has the power to keep that chemistry going through to the final sprint to the line. ‘The horse has to go along with you’, he says. ‘If he doesn’t, you’ll win no race.’
In just over ten years, the Kildare man has won over fourteen hundred races, including his 25 wins at the Cheltenham Festival. As well as his five Cheltenham Champion jockey crowns, he has won the Irish jump jockeys’ title seven times since his professional debut in 1998. ‘Hey Ruby, hold her back, give it the crack and up she’ll go’, as Christy Moore sings in his charming ‘Ballad of Ruby Walsh’.
His command of the sport is such that he is able to persuade Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, the champion trainers of Ireland and England respectively, to share him as their stable jockey. He has been blessed with many extraordinary mounts, most memorably the Nicholls trained Kauto Star with whom Ruby has won two Cheltenham Gold Cups and four King George VI Chases.
National Hunt racing is surely the only sport in which an ambulance pursues the performers as they race. Ruby has lost count of the number of times he has been catapulted from the saddle and crashed to the ground. I am given a short topographical tour of his body as he pinpoints the injuries that helped turn his hair grey – dislocations, breaks, fractures, crushes, severances. He once returned to racing 28 days after his spleen was removed. ‘There’s no stopping’, he says, his dark, mischievous eyes looking briefly exhausted. ‘Save maybe ten days in June’.
And then he was off. Black Harry came fourth, which would have been fine if it hadn’t been a five horse race.
As for Ruby, he broke his left arm the race before his friend Tony McCoy won the 2010 Aintree Grand National. At least that gave him two months off to contemplate life as a TV pundit and to kick back with his wife Gillian and baby daughter Isabelle at their home in Calverstown, County Kildare.
Extracted from ‘Sporting Legends of Ireland’ (Mainstream, 2010) by Turtle Bunbury, with photographs by James Fennell. The book was nominated for the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year Award 2010.
Ruby Walsh was Irish jump jockey champion twelve times between 1998 and 2017. At the 2009 Cheltenham Festival, he rode a record-breaking seven winners over the four days. He equalled that record at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. With 58 wins at Cheltenham, he is comfortably the most successful jockey in the Festival’s history. By the time he retired in 2019, Ruby Walsh had become the third most prolific winner in British and Irish jump racing history behind Sir Anthony McCoy and Richard Johnson.
[i] Ruby won the Irish on the 2006 Grand National winner, Numbersixvalverde, the Welsh on subsequent 2007 Grand National winner Silver Birch, and the English on Hedgehunter.