Donn's Articles » Ruby Walsh

Ruby Walsh

Twelve months ago, different scenario.  Ruby Walsh was busy trying to cajole a broken leg back to full strength.

He wasn’t agonising over which of two fancied Willie Mullins-trained horses he was going to ride in the Irish Gold Cup at this time last year.  He wasn’t thinking about the race tactics that he would employ on Klassical Dream.  He wasn’t focused on how he was going to find the neck by which Sir Erec beat Tiger Tap Tap the last time they met. 

When you are used to being in the thick of it, it can’t be easy just looking on.  When you are the one who is usually pulling the strings on the course or on the pitch or on the court, the out-half, the quarterback, it can’t be easy sitting in the stands or sitting in the dug-out. 

You want the team to play well, you want the horses to win.  It’s not like when you were younger, when you were conflicted, when you were torn between wanting the horse to run well enough so that he would be worth riding next time, but not well enough so that the person who rode him in your stead might keep the ride.  It’s different when you know that you will be on board next time.

When you know that you are the starting quarterback as soon as you return from injury, you just want the team to get to the Super Bowl.

“It was disappointing not to be taking part last year,” says the rider thoughtfully.  “I’d love to have been out there.  Riding Min.  Riding Footpad.  I was delighted they won, I was just disappointed that I wasn’t on them.  I tried to make the best of it.  I enjoyed the weekend socially, I enjoyed it as an occasion.  I’m sure that I will enjoy it more this year though.”

Last year’s Dublin Racing Festival was the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival, the first time that the three disparate racing days at Leopardstown in January and February fused together to become one behemoth weekend. 

“It’s a brilliant concept,” says Ruby.  “It’s great for Irish racing.  Last year was like a trial, and the results held up at Cheltenham.  Eight horses who ran at Leopardstown went on to win at Cheltenham.  I thought that they would hold up all right, horses from the original three days always did well at Cheltenham, but it was good that they did.  People needed to see that. 

“They’re a bit unlucky this year, that the weekend is clashing with the Ireland/England match.  There isn’t any bigger gig in Irish sport at the moment, so it’s not ideal to be clashing with it.  It might be an idea to bring it forward a week, have it the week before the Six Nations starts.  People say that you shouldn’t be running scared of other sports, but racing is not the biggest show in town.  I wish it was, but it’s not.  So there’s no point in trying to compete with the biggest events.  In Ireland, people are sports fans.  They follow the big sporting events.  I wouldn’t see a problem with moving the Dublin Racing Festival forward a week in future years.” 

This year has been an unusual one in many ways.  The unseasonably dry weather has meant that many of the big horses have had their seasonal debuts delayed.  Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy didn’t make his debut until 10 days ago.  The 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Sizing John hasn’t made his yet.  And for the Willie Mullins horses, it has been a slower burn than usual. 

“The runs that the horses should have been having in November, they didn’t have until December.  And a lot of them improved from their first run.  Kemboy improved from Clonmel in November to Leopardstown at Christmas.  Killultagh Vic improved a lot from his seasonal debut.  Invitation Only improved from his run at Tramore on New Year’s Day to win the Thyestes Chase.”

That was a good day, Thyestes Chase day at Gowran Park.  Willie Mullins ran eight in the race, and Ruby Walsh was faced with the task of choosing one.  No matter how good a rider you are, you can only ride one in every race.  He chose Invitation Only, and he guided the Flemensfirth gelding smoothly to victory.

“It’s satisfying when you get it right.  There’s no way of knowing.  People think that I should know, but I don’t know.  You can’t know.  It’s just my opinion.”

What he doesn’t say is that his opinion is gold-sealed, borne out of a depth of experience and an innate horse sense.  And it’s a double-whammy.  As well as having his vote of confidence, every horse that he rides also has the benefit of his assistance through the race.  One of the best National Hunt riders that there has been, ever.  He is worth pounds.  Lengths.  Horses run for him. 

Balance, rhythm, strength, tactical nous, will to win, judgement of pace.  It is rare that you see Ruby Walsh in the wrong position in a race. Confidence in his horse. Confidence in himself.

“Confidence can play two ways.  Too much confidence is worse than too little I think.  If you lack a little bit of confidence, you end up being too eager, you try too hard.  But if you are over-confident, that introduces complacency.  I think it’s more about focus than confidence though.  If you’re on a bad run, you tend to focus on why you’re on a bad run rather than on the task.  It’s important to maintain focus.  It’s important to maintain concentration.” 

Ruby Walsh has been concentrating on this weekend for a while. 

“I’m looking forward to being involved.  I’m looking forward to competing in these big races.  To going to the start.  I love this feeling, the sense of anticipation.” 

As focused as a laser beam.

© The Sunday Times, 3rd February 2019