Ruby on verge of being Festival's greatest ever jockey
'It's 99pc the horse - all you can do is not make a mistake'
You can divide successful athletes into two types: peakers and plateau-ers. The plateau-ers keep up a frighteningly high standard from day-to-day, winning leagues, winning series, topping orders of merit and player rankings. The peakers are those who can find something beyond all that -- but only on the greatest of occasions.
Ruby Walsh is a peaker. Oh, he does the day-to-day stuff supremely well, and so does Roger Federer and the pre-hydrant Tiger Woods. But if Federer, Woods and Walsh are brilliant at the routine of the lesser victory, all three go beyond mere brilliance at the biggest moments their sports can offer.
Federer, Woods -- that's lofty company for Walsh. The general sporting public are only vaguely aware of him. He can walk across Paddington Station without having to reach for a pen -- I saw him. There are only a handful of days a year when National Hunt racing reaches beyond its comfortable niche. But it's those days Walsh was made for.
I got a slightly panicky phone call: "I said I'd fix everything up, but Ruby just took your phone number and said he'd do it." He's done it. He couldn't be bothered with the 'my people, your people thing'. He cut through the bulls**t and called; fixed a time and a place. Had to be at Heathrow, not London, but got the train in anyway. That was courteous; simpler, too; less buggering about.
That's how we found ourselves in the Paddington Hilton, him with a cappuccino, spoonful of sugar, too. Well, he doesn't have to watch his weight quite as much as a Flat jockey. He ate the free biscuit, too. And talked. You are already in a position to make an assessment of the amount of bulls**t, the amount of sporting psychobabble.
I was impressed long before we talked about horses. A horsey person looks at horses in a specialised way. You look for the way a great rider presents his horse at a jump. It's not a thing you can put your finger on; alas, it's not something you can imitate. It's that from 50 yards out, the movement of rider and horse over jump is smooth, uninterrupted, flowing. The rider does nothing special, nor does the horse, yet there they are, flying, bunching, gathering and galloping away. I've seen it in John Francome, in Mark Todd, the three-day eventer, in Ruby Walsh.
Horsey people say: "He can see a stride a mile out". But that's bullls**t, too. Apparently. "Three strides out is as far as anyone can see a stride," Walsh said. "You hear young guys talking, I saw a stride here, I saw a stride there. Well, I can't see one from that far away. Never could."
So don't expect any guff about the mystical bond he has with Kauto Star. "I've been with horses all me life, and I know that horses are far more likely to remember someone who's not been nice to them. Because of fear. I walk into his box, he doesn't think, ah, here's that grey-haired Irishman."
Walsh, like so many in racing, got it through nature and nurture both. His father, Ted, is a trainer. As a boy he rode ponies, as a teenager he rode work and schooling sessions, as a 16-year old he rode races, before he was 20 he was Irish amateur champion twice.
Which explains the opportunity and the competence, but a peaker must go a long way beyond competence. Walsh has won two Grand Nationals, his first, Papillon, when he was 20. Two winners at the Cheltenham Festival this week and he will be the most successful Festival jockey in history, beating the record of 25, held by Pat Taaffe. Arkle's jockey, no less.
So yes, it does help to have a good horse underneath you. How much difference does the jockey make? "It's 99 pc the horse," Walsh said, destroying the mystique of his profession. "All you can do is not make a mistake. That's the case if you're riding the best horses. I'm not like an Olympic athlete going out there to excel. I'm just hoping the horses are going to excel."
If there is more to it, Walsh refused to go there. He needs to believe that his skills are straightforward, even mundane. You often meet top athletes who are deeply aware of their own specialness, and use this sense of self as a weapon, to devastating effect.
But Walsh has a deep need for his own ordinariness: "I don't think I've won a race that any of the top eight or 10 jockeys wouldn't have won." Sure, it's all about the 99pc that the horse puts in, plus the fact that Walsh didn't make a mistake. Perhaps greatness here is making fewer mistakes even than the best eight or 10 jockeys.
When a great rider presents a horse at a fence, it looks as if he is doing nothing at all. That's because he is doing nothing at all. At least, that's what Walsh said of his own method. He learnt to ride on a series of great ponies; his father would tell him: "That pony knows more about jumping than you'll ever learn, so what the hell are you interfering for?"
As he jumped his pony -- his favourite was called Flash -- so he jumps Kauto Star, one of the greatest steeplechasers that ever looked through a bridle. "I'll relax a bit with my legs and trust the horse to find a short one and pop. I find that when you interfere you get crossed wires. I find that when you physically correct them you lose too much ground."
Balance, trust, feel. A racehorse gets to a race ready to explode. Walsh is supremely gifted at making them do the opposite. Calm before the start: easy during the early parts of the race, keeping the best till last. It's all in the sympathy of body position and hands, mysterious messages passing along the reins, nuances of weight-shift.
Horses, like jockeys, must handle the stresses of big occasions. They can be powerfully affected by the human excitement all around them. Walsh can, at least to an extent, immunise them against stress. "But the good ones find something from the occasion. The horses who are mentally strong are usually the good ones. It's as important as talent." The same thing is true for the 1 per centers in the partnership.
It's rare to meet a great performer who is so dismissive of his own talent. Perhaps this is an aspect of the jump jockeys' life: pain is an aspect of daily routine. No one escapes. Walsh broke a leg, broke it again, and then came back to ride Papillon to victory in the Grand National of 2000.
He had his spleen removed -- got a kick in a hurdle race -- and rode 27 days afterwards. "When you're sucking the gas, dealing with the pain, the biggest pain is the mental one -- the rides you'll be missing." I suggested that all riders, even the best, are one ride away from loss of nerve. "That wouldn't be the best thing. But the one thought in everybody's mind is that you're one ride away from loss of life."
He's known four jockeys who have died. The possibility of death, the certainty of injury -- these things make jump jockeys unlike all other professional athletes. "You know that every week, somebody won't be driving his car home one night." There's a dark side to jump jockeys, a dark side to jump racing. The shadow of the next fall makes for a humility unknown in less exacting sports.
Walsh has a great book of rides for the Cheltenham Festival and he is, in his ultra self-contained way, fizzing with anticipation. Anxiety, too. "I hate making mistakes," he said, a sudden ferocity revealing the driven person behind the cappuccino-sipper.
He has big ambitions for Cheltenham. "One winner. Drawing a blank would be a sickener so ... one winner. And walk out in one piece."