"They're galloping down the back straight, he has her in the canter, A look at her up the jumps, be Gad, she's like a ballet dancer...
"Hey Ruby hold her back, give her the craic and up she'll go"
The Ballad of Ruby Walsh, by Christy Moore
The main street of the small town of Kilcullen, Co Kildare, supports three betting shops, evidence that this is the heart of Irish horse-racing country, a hop, skip and a water jump away from the tracks at Punchestown, Naas and the Curragh. In Bardons pub on the main street, there is a further clue; a genuine racing superstar has just walked in, and nobody has turned a hair, not because none of them know him but because they all do.
There are those who say that A P McCoy is the greatest jump jockey of all time. But there are others who reckon that he's not even the best of his generation, not in the age of Ruby Walsh, horseman supreme, balladeer's inspiration and Bardons regular, who exchanges greetings with the landlady and ushers me to a corner table. He orders a Diet Coke and a Coronation chicken open sandwich, which will be his only meal of the day. While admitting to a weakness for McDonald's, he says that eating is just a habit, and one meal a day no hardship. The only appetite he finds hard to satisfy is for winning big races, and the biggest is almost upon us.
It is Grand National week, and until Wednesday Ruby was not the only member of the Walsh family due to be riding in the great Aintree steeplechase. Alas, his sister Katie was denied her debut with the withdrawal of Our Monty. "I was excited for her," he says, "but glad I was riding so I wouldn't have been able to watch her. I'd have too much on my own mind to worry about her."
All those things on his mind tomorrow afternoon will really boil down to just one preoccupying thought: how to win. Walsh knows better than any other current jockey what it feels like to win the Grand National, and his two victories, on Papillon in 2000 and Hedgehunter in 2005, feed his yearning for a third. As stable jockey for the champion trainers of both Ireland and England, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, he had his pick of top chasers, but it was the latter who got the unwelcome phone call; Walsh had decided to ride The Midnight Club, trained by Mullins.
"We try to be fair, me and [his other sister] Jennifer, who's my agent, but Paul and Willie both understand I can only ride one, and without that understanding, it [the dual relationship, unique in the racing world] wouldn't work. I phone them up and they'll say X, Y and Z, and I'll say A, B and C. They make it work as much as me and Jennifer do. For the National, What A Friend, Niche Market and The Midnight Club were probably the big three to choose from. I'm happy with the one I've chosen. He has a good weight, a bit of class, and anyway the decision's made. There's no point worrying about the other horses."
In a sense, though, and more than any other race in the calendar, the Grand National is all about the other horses. "Yes, you need a lot of luck," Walsh muses. "It's a great race to be part of, but only if you're having a good ride. Papillon, Kingsmark [on which he finished fourth in 2002], Hedgehunter, they were great rides. But when you're not having a good ride, there are horses everywhere and you're not making your own decisions. You're living on scraps, taking the gaps presented to you."
He won't say whether The Midnight Club offers him as good a chance as he's ever had over Aintree's 30 fences, not because he's being coy but because this is the Grand National and anything can happen. "When you go to the [Cheltenham] Gold Cup on the best horse, you think to yourself, 'if I do A, B, C, D, E and F, and don't mess it up, I'll win'. You don't think that at the start of the Grand National. Everything has to go right. Even the preliminaries, the crowd noise, can finish the race for you."
The satisfaction of winning the Gold Cup, which he has done twice on Kauto Star, is greater, he says, than that of winning the Grand National. "But," he adds, "you get more acclaim and recognition from winning the National." Since acclaim is not what this beguilingly modest man craves, it's safe to say that Cheltenham yields more happy memories than Liverpool. And yet his illustrious career holds no happier memory than passing the Aintree winning post 11 years ago on Papillon, trained by his father, Ted.
"That was a hugely special day. I'd been out for five months with a broken leg, and it was my only ride of the whole meeting. To have the ride I had, to work out the way it did, with my whole family there... the enormity of it wasn't lost on me. Fairy tales don't come true but that's the one day in my life that a fairy tale did come true. It was my first ride in the National, and I'd been watching the race for so long. I never thought I'd win one."
The first Grand National he remembers watching on television was the 1988 race, won by Rhyme 'N' Reason. He was eight years old. The following year he was there in person, with his dad, who had a runner.
And that boyish excitement has never diminished. "I love the build-up, cantering down to look at the first fence, and then the tape goes up, and that charge to the Melling Road, 40 horses pretty much abreast. The rush of it, it's like Pamplona," he says, eyes shining.
Last year he missed out on the rush, having fallen in the Aintree Hurdle earlier in the day. So it was sitting in the casualty ward at Fazakerley Hospital, his arm broken in three places, that he listened over the internet to the commentary that told him his great mate, McCoy, had finally broken his Grand National duck. "It was a pretty ordinary commentary, on Radio Liverpool or something. In the whole of the first circuit he named one faller, and he even got that wrong. So it was hard to tell how exciting the race was. But yeah, it was a great result for AP, for JP [McManus], for Jonjo [O'Neill], for racing."
He was able to congratulate McCoy in person later that evening, when he returned, arm in plaster and contemplating weeks if not months out of the saddle, to the Radisson Hotel. Their well-known mutual regard is a credit to racing, much as that of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal has been to tennis these past few years, and it is manifestly heartfelt. "He's a good man, a good person, good to other jockeys in the weighing room," says Walsh of McCoy. "I've learnt a lot from the way he conducts himself. You never see him in the paper for anything but good reasons. He's a role model for everyone, a fair, honest rider who conducts his life in the same way."
McCoy swallows his last mouthful of Coronation chicken sandwich. It has barely hit the sides; food as fuel rather than pleasure. I know that many others have tried, and failed, to ignite so much as a single spark of tension in the relationship between him and McCoy, but it nevertheless seems worth pointing out what he is used to hearing, that he is the superior horseman.
"It's about riding winners," he says, flatly. "And he's got over 500 more than me." A pause. "I suppose in a sense I live for bigger days more than lesser days, the days that get my blood up. I can go to any midweek meeting and ride the same way, but the satisfaction of winning is different. I ride lots of winners per year but I will judge myself by the number of Grade Ones I won rather than actual races. AP's maybe slightly different, but his record is incredible. The next generation doesn't usually work as hard as the generation before, so the guy that beats AP's record will have to buck a trend. He'll need an unbelievable work ethic."
What McCoy also has, and Walsh shares, is a remarkable capacity to bounce back from injuries that would sap the strength or the spirit of lesser competitors. Even by Walsh's own standards, though, last month's Cheltenham Festival came alarmingly soon, scarcely 10 days, after his recovery from a broken leg. Even Nicholls, who knows his man's depth of resources, arrived at Cheltenham wondering whether Walsh would be race-fit. And then the 31-year-old phenomenon went and won five of them, finishing the week as leading jockey. It was practically worth another ballad.
"Bones fix," he says with a shrug, when I ask him about the many breaks and ruptures he has sustained. "As long as it's not the head or neck, everything else mends. My spleen came out [following a fall at Cheltenham in 2008] but rather that than the kidneys. It's not something you're blasé about. You'd rather not lose your spleen, but it's gone, and it won't be coming back."
All the same, he is a father now, of 18-month-old Isabelle, and in three weeks his wife, Gillian, is due to give birth again. Surely the risks of his profession must have come into sharper focus since becoming a parent? "It makes me feel more responsibility," he replies. "It's been great being around Isabelle this winter, it stops you feeling sorry for yourself. But all it [fatherhood] does is make me work harder, because she and Gillian have to be provided for."
There's clearly not much chance of getting Walsh to ruminate on mortality, so instead let's ruminate on the nearer-term future. Does he ever wonder when he might call it a day as a jockey? "No, retirement is a long way off," he says. When it does finally come, I venture, it's hard not to imagine him becoming as canny a trainer as his old dad. The glimmer of a smile. "Some days I think I'll train, and the odd day I'll think I won't," he says, gnomically.
Whatever, with his peerless knowledge of runners and riders, and the Aintree course, let's get back to Saturday's big race. If he weren't on The Midnight Club, which ride would he covet most?
"That's a difficult one. What A Friend should be a great ride, Bluesea Cracker has a chance, Ballabriggs probably has a chance, and Don't Push It is not without a chance. He bombed round there last year, and I was second on Hedgehunter on top weight the year after winning the National. So I'd probably ride him. Obviously it's not ideal to be riding with top weight, but some day the top weight is going to win the National. Nothing's set in stone, not in horse racing anyway."
The nearest thing in racing to a stone-set certainty, however, is that Ruby Walsh, if he stays fit, will keep on winning big races. And the bookmakers seem to think that the next one will be tomorrow.
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