Ruby Walsh: The harder they fall

Chris McGrath talks to Ruby Walsh, the epitome of a resilient, reckless jump jockey, back to ride Kauto Star on Boxing Day after losing his spleen last month
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The Independent Online

Think of these men, perhaps, as the turkey is carved on Christmas Day. Not just because jockeys notoriously have to watch what they eat, sometimes to the point of mental disintegration. Think also of their singular understanding of this visceral business, of ruptured sinew and bone, of the fact that every day they cheerfully embrace the risk of butchery.

Hardly the most festive reflection, admittedly, as they prepare for their sport's own Christmas banquet. After all, the Turf promises few spectacles more vibrant than Kempton on Boxing Day, when a champion steeplechaser, Kauto Star, will seek his third success in the Stan James King George VI Chase under one of the great horsemen in Ruby Walsh.

But this, too, demands celebration, the way these men routinely tread the margins of mortal peril. For while the two who bestride the profession – Walsh and Tony McCoy – share a cadaverous pallor, they approach its hazards with the oblivious, rosy glee of Mr Pickwick himself.

Last month, at Cheltenham, Walsh hit the deck in a hurdle race. Because horses jump these lower obstacles faster, hurdling falls tend to be more dangerous even than those taken over the birch mounds at Aintree. Walsh was lucky to tumble clear of his mount, but then another horse caught him at the gallop. That evening, he had his spleen removed.

He spent the next six days in hospital. But exactly three weeks after leaving the ward, he was back riding. His demeanour was one of studious nonchalance, qualified only by discomfort with the fuss over the speed of his recovery. Another top Irish jockey, Paul Carberry, had required three months off following a similar operation.

"But Paul was left with part of his spleen," Walsh protested. "So they had to allow that to recover. I had the whole thing out, it's a different thing altogether. Your own body will only allow you to do as much as you're able. I don't think it lets you do things your doctor wouldn't let you do."

By a macabre coincidence, Walsh had been injured on the precise anniversary of a terrifying fall that might have left him in a wheelchair, or worse. Indeed, his mount on that first occasion had been killed, splaying heavily across him. In the event, Walsh got away with a dislocated shoulder and was back five weeks later, in time to ride Kauto Star to his second win at Kempton. Even so, it would be understandable were Walsh to make arrangements to ride elsewhere on the equivalent day next year.

"Ach, it can happen anywhere to anybody," he said. "I dislocated my hip at the 2001 Listowel Festival, and then broke my hip there two years later. I wouldn't want to be anywhere but Cheltenham that day, I know that much. Last year was a desperate fall, but this time was just unlucky. If that horse hadn't been right behind me, I would have got up and walked away. That's jump racing. It was the blink of an eye. You're a bit sore for a few hours, they rip it out [the spleen] and you're a bit tired after the surgery, but once you're out of the anaesthetic, you're grand. I had a tube down my throat a couple of days, that was a bit annoying all right, but no, otherwise you're grand."

Walsh confessed to only one anguish: watching his usual mounts being ridden by other jockeys. "At first you're excited, hoping they do what you know they can, because you know you'll be riding them [in future]," he said. "But 10 minutes after they've won, you're a bit sick. You go quiet for half an hour, kick the couch, boil the kettle 15 times."

And that, seemingly, is the whole secret. Asked whether mental toughness is even more essential than physical resilience, he shrugs.

"You don't really think of the risks," he said. "All you ever think about is riding the horse to the best of your ability, or you let someone else ride. Do that, and that's your ride gone. That's where you get the competitive edge, because you don't want to be sitting watching big races on television."

Last spring, McCoy elaborated the same point in this newspaper, but rather more baldly. "It's a bigger fear, not winning, than killing yourself not letting someone else past," he admitted. So it is true what they say. Sticks and stones can break their bones, and all that, albeit not quite as efficiently as horses. Nor is it even words that hurt, so much as one, insidious whisper from within – the sudden intimation, some day, that the barriers round their bravado might finally have been breached. Beyond these plunge chasms of rational instinct, where fear is acknowledged, indifference renounced, and you need to find yourself a new job.

The 1999 King George was won, on See More Business, by Mick Fitzgerald, who retired last summer following a fall in the Grand National. For seven hours he lay on a spinal board, on the cusp of paralysis. It was the second time he had broken his neck, yet he still hoped to ride again. Only when his surgeon explained that the next fall might not only leave him paralysed, but kill him, did the father of two young boys face facts. And now that Fitzgerald has retired, he finally acknowledges the abiding delusion. "You don't ever think it's going to happen to you," he says. "We all say we're aware of the risks. But it's bollocks. If you were really aware of the risks, you wouldn't do it. Not a chance would you do it."

McCoy is revered by his peers as the paragon of fortitude. Three years ago he was kicked in the face as he lay on the ground at Cheltenham, returning with four teeth missing and blood oozing from his gums. But he was booked for the day's hottest favourite within the hour, and nothing would stop him taking the mount. Yet these flourishes of valour are noticed only in men like McCoy or Walsh, who have guaranteed status and opportunities whenever they do need time out. It is different for those lower down the ladder, whose every disappearance sends them back to the bottom rung.

That is why one jockey admits to finishing second in one of the most gruelling races in the calendar, half an hour after breaking three bones in his hand. One of the reasons why, anyway. He remembers looking around the changing room, white and shaking, seeing no feasible replacement, and resolving not to let down his patrons. "I wouldn't have done it if the horse was a hard puller," the jockey says. "But you see lads doing things like that all the time, riding with cracked ribs, whatever. I rode with a broken wrist, because otherwise it was a three-month job.

"It's different for Ruby or Tony, they don't have to worry about rebuilding their careers. But if you only have a few opportunities, each one is precious, and if you get an injury at the wrong time you have to start from scratch. The one thing that would make you worry is if someone tried to ride after getting concussed. But I don't think any of us would allow that to happen."

Perhaps the man who best distils the unquenchable thirst of jump jockeys is Seamus Durack, who has broken the same leg three times but now seeks the biggest success of his career when he rides Snoopy Loopy against Kauto Star at Kempton.

Durack's second break, at Doncaster, replicated the first exactly. When the fracture showed up on the X-ray, he assured the doctors that they were looking at an old one, and drove all the way home to Berkshire. His one concession to the discomfort was to change his route for one with fewer roundabouts.

Next time, there would be no such ambiguity. His leg was dragged behind him, out of its socket. His femur was broken, his hip dislocated; bone splinters were meshed in the muscle. His doctor told him that he had a one-in-fifty chance of resuming his career. And even when he did return, it looked as though he truly belonged among the other 49. Inflamed tendons were snagging against bone, "like broken glass"; he could neither sleep, nor get out of bed; he began to compensate, distorting his posture, skewing his balance in the saddle, and starting fresh fires of pain all round his body.

Only in the last few weeks has he finally retrieved full physical freedom, thanks largely to research and exercises discovered by his own initiative. By any sane judgement, he should long ago have despaired of his thankless, reckless calling.

"After the third break, I did think to myself: 'That's it, that's my mind made up for me'," he admitted. "But within a few days I realised it would weigh with me for the rest of my life, if I walked away. That's what drove me on. I knew it would be more painful than anything my body had to put up with, if I did not achieve my potential. And maybe I still won't. But it would kill me if I didn't try."

In literal terms, of course, exactly the reverse might apply. By now, however, the austere lusts of the jump jockey should be becoming familiar. "You do need a reckless streak," Durack said. "When I came back, I was so tender all the time, it was in the back of my mind: 'If I fall, it'll kill me.' But when you get back your focus on winning, everything else goes out of your head, even your own safety. It's the same with boxers. They know they are going to get hurt every time they step into the ring. But their minds are only on one thing."

Durack reserves his greatest esteem for senior riders, who are better acquainted with the dangers but carry on regardless. Some younger riders owe their bravery to their innocence, but he also notices some of them taking too long setting up the final jump, when they should still be driving forward. "It's often the older ones who have the true grit," he said. "They know what can happen, and just don't care."

Among their number he presumably counts Walsh, who now needs vaccinations to redress the loss of his spleen, along with daily antibiotics – approximating to horse pills – for the next two years. In the meantime, he has become conversant with the functions of the missing organ, as a toxin filter. According to the vernacular, of course, removing your spleen should simply make you a nicer person.

Walsh is already too engaging for that, however. "Nah," he grinned. "Just makes you softer."