Racing: As a black year ends, the Gold dreamer rides on

The Interview - Ruby Walsh: Tragedy put racing in perspective for an Irish jockey. Nick Townsend meets him

You haven't been National Hunt racing until you've experienced the unique charm of Bangor-on-Dee. It was a celebrated television commentator who famously observed, when reporting on a race from this splendidly idiosyncratic Welsh locale: "And they come past the stands. Except, of course, there aren't any stands." As for the finishing post, it's not only at least a hundred yards away from where most spectators stand on the grass slopes, but at right angles to them. So, the finishing sprint takes place towards you, not past you.

Take away the modern restaurants and bars, and little has altered since 1869, when Fred Archer rode his first winner here, as a 12-year-old weighing 4st 11lb, on Maid of Trent. Racegoers then had to take the judge's verdict on trust. These days, a giant screen reveals all, and as the favourite for the novice hurdle, Garde Champetre, appears out of the gloaming, his partner, Ruby Walsh, produces the whip like a conductor with baton to command a dramatic crescendo. Except that this gifted horseman uses it to coax a rhythm rather than beat time, and the galvanic response is sufficient to claim the £4,000 prize on the nod of the French-bred gelding's head, although a photo is announced.

The rumble of approval when the result is confirmed echoes like a drum roll across the hillside. "When they call you the right side of a photo-finish by a short-head it's a great feeling," declares the young Irishman. "It seems to magnify the difference. Mind you, if I'd have been beaten a short-head, I'd have been eating at myself all the way home that I should have done something different. As it is, I'll probably be saying to myself that I should have won by a neck."

Constantly demanding more of himself. That is the Walsh nature, one dominant in the genes inherited from his father, Ted, the 11-times Irish amateur champion jockey, and more latterly Grand National-winning trainer and loquacious RTE racing pundit, who was his inspiration. "I was seven when he won the Foxhunters [at the Cheltenham Festival] on Attitude Adjuster in 1986, but I still remember it well," says Walsh Jnr. "I idolised him. I thought he was great. No, he was great. He rode over 500 winners as an amateur. If it wasn't for my father, I wouldn't be where I am today."

He adds: "My dad's taught me loads. What kind of horses to be riding, what way to ride, the ground, tracks, dealing with owners, you name it. Even today after riding at Bangor, I could go home and he'd probably say, 'I hear you went too fast on Jolly Giant'. And he'd probably be right. Even now, he puts me right. I hope he always will."

Jolly Giant is the day's only loser for Walsh; finishing fourth on a raw afternoon at this National Hunt outpost. However, the victory on Garde Champetre has completed a double for the Walsh-Paul Nicholls jockey-trainer combo from three participants. Both handler and rider are flying. Walsh's success rate of over one winner in four is assisted by the fact that Nicholls boasts one winner from every three runners.

Never mind Ruby Tuesday. Just about every day sparkles with promise where this engaging character is concerned. The new year cannot arrive quick enough, with Cheltenham Festival and Aintree offering him rides on Nicholls' star- quality chasers, including Strong Flow, Azertyuiop and Thisthatandtother, and numerous talented hurdlers.

We speak after his afternoon has finished. Walsh awaits a lift back to Lambourn, where he stays when over in England, although "home" is Carlow, ideally placed for him to ride for his father, Willie Mullins and Frances Crowley. Today, Tony McCoy is his chauffeur; tonight, the provider of his lodgings.

They say that rivalry is particularly keen between the two. Walsh denies the suggestion. "You can't be going to the last, looking over your shoulder, seeing McCoy and thinking, 'Oh, God, I've got to be stronger on this'. It doesn't matter whether it's a seven-pound claimer, an amateur or Tony McCoy [in opposition], you still know they're going to be hard to beat. You treat them all the same."

Nevertheless, his much-lauded compatriot provides a stimulus for all the jump fraternity. "Richard Dunwoody was king when I started out. Then McCoy came along and raised the bar, and I've got to get up to his level now."

Walsh has been well-schooled, first by his father, then by trainer Enda Bolder. "He [Bolder] was brilliant. Dad sent me down there and he taught me how to stay on a horse; to sit quiet, not move, do the right things. You never stop learning. The day you think you can't improve is the day you should retire. I know I have to be neater in the saddle, get a bit tidier, and get fitter."

He is too harsh a critic. The previous day at Folkestone had provided a prime example of a jockey blessed with balance, confidence and sense of timing. In the opening novice hurdle Walsh brought Lord Lington through so "quietly" that the horse would have scarcely known he had been in a race. "I love taking my time, creeping through, just watching what's going on in front of me and sneaking gradually closer," says Walsh. "That's how I get my kick."

Such horsemanship has already won him, at 24, a Grand National, on Ted Walsh's Papillon, in 2000. His target now is not, as may be presumed, a championship. "I want to win a Gold Cup," declares Walsh. "That's my ambition. Always has been. I came close when [his father's] Commanche Court was beaten less than two lengths by Best Mate [in 2001]. Strong Flow is the best I've had for a while. He's exciting. He could be it, couldn't he?"

The exhilaration at the prospect is betrayed by his voice. But when? The crucial question is whether Nicholls plays his coveted ace a year ahead of schedule. The plan, ostensibly, is for last month's Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup victor, still only a six-year-old, to contest the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at next year's Cheltenham Festival and be aimed at the 2005 Gold Cup.

But should Henrietta Knight's two-times Gold Cup victor Best Mate display evidence of vulnerability in Friday's King George VI Chase at Kempton, who knows? Strong Flow himself will run at that meeting, but probably in the Feltham Novices' Chase rather than the centrepiece.

"He's a very talented individual," says Walsh of Strong Flow. "He has the class, the speed and he jumps and stays. He has everything if he remains sound. But he has to have luck. Paul [Nicholls] and Barry [Marshall, the owner] will decide when he goes for the Gold Cup. But whichever year it is, I'd love to ride him."

Injury permitting. That is always the unspoken addendum. Particularly at the end of a year bordered in black. One in which two young Irish jockeys died following head injuries suffered in falls: the 22-year-old Flat apprentice Sean Cleary and Kieran Kelly, 25, who in March had won the Royal & SunAlliance at the Cheltenham Festival.

"That is the reality of the job," says Walsh. "This summer was definitely the hardest I ever had. The atmosphere in the Irish weighing room was just desperate. I knew Kieran extremely well, and I remember the day we heard that he'd died, we were all at Gowran Park. There was an awful sense of loss. It could have been any one of us. It drove home to you how lucky you are just to walk home every day, regardless if you ride a winner or not." He pauses. "How crazy it is, when you're getting upset with yourself, just because you got beaten on one. What matters?"

Maybe that explains why Walsh does not dwell on mere hindrances like fracturing his hip, as he did in the summer, or the two broken legs earlier in his career. "The first question I asked the doctor last time was, 'How long?' He said, 'That's a fracture and that'll be eight weeks'. You look at him and say, 'Is there any way you think you could make it six and a half?' That's the way jockeys think."

Walsh smiles wryly. "You put the dangers out of your mind," he adds. "If you went out to ride thinking about it, you'd pull up going to the first. You probably wouldn't get on a horse. Would you reckon that Michael Schumacher feels fear driving a car doing 200 miles an hour? If you go into a race with any fear you get hurt. It's time to give up." He continues: "But perhaps because you know the dangers are ever-present it makes you more determined to achieve what you can and appreciate the good days."

Like Aintree, and Papillon. "I still have a look back at it sometimes. It was a dream come true that day. No, not a dream. A fantasy. Just special. It's so different to any other race, with its history and stature."

You remind him that the Gold Cup may just be comparable. Walsh nods. He has been close enough to inhale a whiff of the sensation. Now he wants to gorge himself on it.

Biography: Rupert 'Ruby' Walsh

Born: 14 May 1979 in Co. Kildare.

Main trainers: Willie Mullins, Ted Walsh, Paul Nicholls.

Major victories: Grand National (2000, on Papillon for father, Ted). Irish National. Scottish National. Cheltenham Festival wins: 3.

Background: at 18 emulated his father by winning the Irish amateur title. In his debut season in 1998-99, rode 96 winners to take the Irish championship.

Hazards of the job: riding injuries include a broken collarbone, a fractured hip and a twice-broken leg.

Seasonal progression: 1999-2000: 24 wins (Ire). 2000-01: 85 wins (Ire). 2001-02: 97 wins. 2002-03: 158 wins. 2003-04 (to date): 80 wins.

Comments