Ruby Walsh is in good form. In fact, for a man who has spent the morning having an elderly lady repeatedly call him a ‘dickhead’, he’s in remarkably good form.
Ruby has had a ‘Full Irish’ placed in front of him for the entire morning of the video shoot. So the scent of assorted fried bacon products must still be in his nostrils when we sit down at Power Tower to talk about the 2012 Aintree Grand National. But if it’s sparking some hunger-induced narkiness, he’s keeping it well below the surface.
As ever at this time of the year, the strength of the Mullins and Nicholls yards means Ruby (32) has a strong hand to choose as he decides on the one most likely to carry him up the famously-long Aintree run-in ahead of the others. It’s not public knowledge at the time what he’ll plump for and we begin our ham-fisted attempts to pry the information from behind his tightly sealed lips.
‘You’ve got a good lot of options for Aintree. Have you narrowed them down at all?’ enquires the Paddy Power blog with all the stealth and guile of an elephant with a drum kit.
It turns out the information isn’t quite the ‘guard it with your life’ secret we’d pegged it for. “I ride On His Own,” Ruby pipes cheerily, as if he’s trying to end the least threatening interrogation in history before he collapses in a fit of laughter.
In recent weeks, there has been extensive speculation that he might ride the well-fancied Seabass for his dad, Ted Walsh in the world’s most famous jumps race. The father and son partnership teamed up to guide Papillon to glory in 2000. “No other achievement will ever come close to winning the Grand National for my dad,” Ruby relfected on the feat back in 2009. The possibility of matching it will have to wait, however, as it’s not really an option on this occasion.
“It’s difficult for me to ride for my dad because I work for Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls,” he explains with characteristic pragmatism. “They both have two horses they fancy in the race and at the end of the day, they’re my bread and butter. If they fancy theirs, I’ll have to ride for them.
“I’ve had great days, but winning the Grand National for my dad is something I’ll probably never replicate because whatever way you look at it, blood is thicker than water. To win the biggest jumps race in the world at your first attempt, for the man that gave you more opportunities than anyone else, that won’t be beaten.”
Twelve success-crammed years have passed since that victory and the sheer volume of big race victories Ruby has amassed puts the scale of the statement into perspective.
Maybe it’s a relief not to bring the baggage of a parent-child relationship into one of the most high-profile arenas of professional life? ‘No’ is the short answer, but in the longer version, it becomes clear that emotion is never far away on the occasions when the partnership does come together.
“It’s not any different when it comes to pressure, but for myself, I know how much it means to dad, so I don’t want to mess up for him even more than I do for other people,” Ruby admits. “You never want to mess up, but it probably hurts more when I mess up for him because it is personal.”
Ted Walsh has developed a reputation as a straight-talker over the years. As a pundit for both Channel 4 and RTE He’s not shy about expressing opinions even of those opinions burst some bubbles and bruise some egos.
And those egos may belong to family and close friends. To do it in the insular and slightly claustrophobic environment of jumps racing, particularly Irish jumps racing is tricky. The fact Ted isn’t now living his life as an alienated hermit suggests he’s not often wide of the mark and his assessments – more often than not – stay on the right side of the line between constructive and bitchy.
Clearly, it’s something Ruby has experienced more than most in the last 32 years, but it’s not a source of childhood trauma.
“Dad will have his say on everything I do riding-wise regardless of whether it’s his horse or not,” explains the two-time National winning jockey. “He’s the best coach and ally I have, whether I’m doing things right or I’m doing things wrong, whether he trains it or he doesn’t, he always tells me where I’m going wrong.”
His dad has had several runners in the Grand National since Papillon’s success that Ruby hasn’t been able to ride due to his bread and butter commitments.
But few can have looked more attractive a ride as Seabass. With seven wins in a row and having less than 11 stone to carry, the horse is sure to attract more than his fair share of 50p each ways on the day of the race, but for once, it won’t be down to Ruby’s presence in the saddle.
So it won’t be dad’s horse, but how does Ruby identify the one that’s going to give him the best chance of victory? “I look for horses with a bit of pace,” he says, throwing a grenade in the direction of conventional Grand National wisdom.
Normally proven stamina and an ability to get around the unique fences are cited as the key attributes to look for, so speed rarely comes into the equation.
“I know the National is four and half miles and you have to stay, but you have to have pace. If you can’t travel well within yourself and get into the right positions, it’s a difficult race to ride in. When you’re riding a slow horse, you’re always chasing, the jumps seem bigger, you’re looking for strides, but if you’re riding a horse that can lie up, that has a bit of speed, it so much easier to ride the National,” says Ruby.
With so many choices for every renewal of the National, has Ruby ever plumped for the wrong one? With luck playing such a huge role in deciding the outcome of the always chaotic marathon, it would be understandable, but again, he hasn’t spent long licking his wounds.
“I’ve ridden horses that have finished seventh or eighth when maybe I could have been on the one that finished third or fourth, but I’ve never not ridden horse that went on to win. Not yet at least. It’ll probably happen this year after saying that!”
Likewise, Ruby hasn’t come away from Aintree kicking himself for a poor ride on too many occasions. But with his appetite for big race wins, he surely couldn’t be happy with the entire history of rides in the famous contest.
“The second year I rode Papillon,” Ruby answers with a haste that suggests the mental images are still vivid in his mind, “the year of Red Marauder and the heavy ground.”
That year was a real slog. The ground was heavy (a surprisingly rare occurrence in modern Grand Nationals) and the eventual winner is well clear of Smarty who is treading water in second. The BBC footage paints a remarkable picture. After they jump the second last, there’s a wide angle shoot. The other runners (including Ruby and AP McCoy on Blowing Wind) are nowhere to be seen. They aren’t even in the same postcode, but Ruby gives the impression it could have been different if he’d been a little more careful on board the defending champ.
“There was only seven of us left standing when I got brought out by a loose horse at the third fence on the second circuit. Only two finished first time, myself and AP remounted to finish,” Ruby explains.
“AP maintains he was very unlucky on Blowing Wind, I maintain I was very unlucky on Papillon, as do 37 other jockeys that day. But if I could have got to the back of that ditch, with so few horses left, and Papillon was such a good jumper around there, that’s probably my biggest regret.”
If he did do something wrong that day, you can be sure Ted wasn’t long waiting to tell him about it. And 11 years on – for all his records, prize money, Gold Cups, World Hurdles, King Georges and Grade 1s, it’s a safe guess to say nothing has changed. If Ruby doesn’t guide On His Own to victory this Saturday, he’ll hear all about it. Even if he does, you get the feeling Ted will find highlight something that can be worked upon. And it’s conversation Ruby won’t mind having.
“As they say, hindsight is a fool’s foresight,” he surmises. And it seems the foresight will begin all over again the moment father and son meet after Saturday’s big race.
Tomorrow: Ruby Walsh talks us around Aintree’s famous fences