There’s no other race quite like the Grand National. The danger and excitement are obvious to even the most casual of horse racing spectator, but there is a lot going on behind the apparent chaos. Tactics, positioning and whatever measures are necessary to get home safely are constantly changing. Winner of the Grand National in 2000 and 2005 (on board Papillon and Hedgehunter respectively), Ruby Walsh talks to the Paddy Power Blog about the challenges of riding in the Grand National.
- What’s going through your head in the run to the first in a Grand National?
RW: Lots of things. Position is the big thing. ‘Are you close enough to the front?’, ‘have you got a good enough start?’. You’d like to run to the Melling Road and then ease back so you’ve got the horse on his hocks going to the first. But key to it all is you don’t want anybody in front of you. You want your own horse to get a look at it and you don’t want to get brought down. Wherever you have to be to make sure you’re as close to the front with nothing in your way, and back on the bridle.
- Do you have your own tactics on how to ride in the Grand National or is something that depends on the horse or how the race is unfolding?
RW: I do the same thing in most Nationals. I line up as close as I can to the inside where there’s a bit of room. I know that sounds a bit contradictory, but I tend to go where the others don’t because the less horses you have around you, the easier it is to ride.
- It’s the biggest field that most of these horses will ever run in. Do you find the horses are more on edge or harder to handle in the minutes before the tape goes up?
RW: The horses are more on edge, but more because of the fanfare than the actual number of horses. From the time you get on the horse until the time you actually start is the longest before any race. It takes about 25 minutes by the time there’s 40 horses paraded. It’s nearly three furlongs of a canter down to the first fence to have a look at it, you canter back, gather up forty horses and then try to start the race, it takes that bit longer than any other race.
The number of horses doesn’t really matter because unless you’re actually last, you tend not to see that many horses. Aintree is very wide, so they’re well spread out. Unless you’re actually travelling badly and towards the back, it doesn’t seem like there’s that many horses.
Shotgun Willy was one that never really took to it the year I rode him. We jumped off, I got a bad start and I was chasing them the whole way. He eventually pulled up going to Becher’s Brook second time around when I’d no chance. Last year I rode the Midnight Club and made a bad mistake at the third fence and it took him quite a long time to jump quick enough. He didn’t jump quick enough after that and I was always struggling. I’ve been lucky enough to ride some real course specialists in Hedgehunter and Papillon and even Kingsmark was a great ride, but I’ve had a couple of ordinary rides too.
- Do you think more about the risks involved in jumps racing in general and the Grand National in particular more now that you’re married and have young kids?
RW: The risk in the Grand National is probably no different to the risk you get in a novice chase or even more so, the top handicap hurdles. In the top handicap hurdles, you’re going that much quicker and the field is that much tighter, it’s more dangerous.
In the Grand National, the jumps are that bit bigger and there’s 40 runners, but you’re well spread out so you’re probably only going to bring down one horse and it’s the ones that you bring down behind you that do the damage. In a top handicap hurdle with 30 runners, you’re in the first four or five, you bring one down and all of a sudden you could bring down five or six horses. I don’t really think about the risk in the Grand National. If it happens, it happens.
- If you were calling the shots, would you change anything about the Grand National?
RW: They’ve changed a few fences at Aintree this year. They’ve reduced a few drops, brought one or two down in height, but I would have gone the other way. It’s like driving cars, speed kills. I would go up with the jumps and create an optical illusion. Not with the solid part of the fence, just with the top part of the fence, the spruce, to slow the jockeys down. The smaller you make the jump, the faster the people will go, the bigger you make, the slower they go. You add some spruce, you bring up the height, it’s only an optical illusion, but guys will slow down.
- Are there any fences you relish taking on in the National?
RW: First and foremost, you’re always hoping to get around. Every fence is a thrill if you’re lucky enough to ride in the National. You do look forward to getting over Bechers, jumping The Chair, getting a good angle on the Canal Turn, small things like that that are a small bit of self-satisfaction. Definitely when you get past Becher’s the second time, you think to yourself ‘phew, that’s Bechers and the Chair out of the way.’
- What are the fences that worry you?
The first. It doesn’t worry me, but until you jump the first, you don’t know how your horse is going to react. I’d a good idea when I went back with Hedgehunter the first, second and third time because he was so good at it, but in other years when you’re riding a horse that hasn’t gone around there before, you’re always thinking about the first. Is he going to attack it or is he going to back off and spend all day in the air? Or will he gallop on and turnover? You don’t know until you get there.