Ruby Walsh reveals what it's really like to ride at the Cheltenham Festival for maestro Willie Mullins

Ruby Walsh reveals what it's really like to ride at the Cheltenham Festival for maestro Willie Mullins

March 14, 2021

BY the time he slid from the saddle a final time, there wasn’t much about racing that left Ruby Walsh scratching his head.

Even less when it came to Cheltenham after a career that yielded a record 59 Festival winners.

But for all the triumphs, all the tears, one thing always amazed him.

It still does.

How does that superhuman training force Willie Mullins seem to pop up like a ghostly presence at just the right time — and how does he stay so damn calm with all that pressure on him?

There was always pressure on Ruby too, of course. His steely-eyed, approach-if-you-dare manner made that pretty clear.

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For Mullins, the man responsible for getting the horses there in one piece, that weight of expectation was even greater.

But as the clock ticked towards the opening race, no one would have guessed. It was the same every year . . . and every year left Walsh shaking his head in amazement and admiration.

For as the rest of the weighing room anxiously awaited the call to mount, Mullins would always appear from nowhere as the coolest cookie in town.

Pressure? Not a bit of it. Indeed, that was when the trainer was at both his calmest and finest — and if it was some sort of psychological masterplan, it worked.

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Now he away from the scene of battle, Walsh could chuckle at the memory, as he lifted the lid on what it was really like riding for the best in the business.

And he gives an eye-opening and enthralling insight into the softly-spoken king of Closutton who so rarely speaks above more than a whisper. In public, at least. Walsh revealed: “Willie is brilliant to ride for, especially when it’s the bigger meeting, with the bigger pressure.

“You’d be standing in the weighing room before the Supreme and he would land in late and ask ‘what are you doing in this?’

“He’d never tell you. I’d say I was going to ride it this way or that, and he’d just go ‘yep, sounds good to me.’

“He’d always say to us ‘it’s going to be a long week, things are going to go right, things will go wrong. When they do we’ll worry about it next week.

Just pick ourselves up and move on.’

“You’re thinking ‘it’s the biggest week of the year and this fella isn’t giving you instructions, so make sure you’re on the ball.’ It was almost like he was preparing you for the fall, letting you know he had your back and taking the pressure off you. That was the biggest motivation I had.

“He never dropped you in it, you didn’t drop him in it. You won together and moved on together. Willie sees it as a team, but he’s driving the bus — he’s in charge.

RUBY’S DIAMONDS

Mullins’ top dogs: Monkfish, Chacun Pour Soi and Appreciate It.

And at backable odds: Blue Lord in the Supreme, Ganapathi in County Hurdle.

Best value: Galopin Des Champs in the Martin Pipe on Friday.

Top jockey: Paul Townend. And Rachael Blackmore to win three or more.

Best English chance: Shishkin in the Arkle now Energumene is out.

“Ultimately, though, the buck stops with him and he doesn’t go missing when things go wrong — he stands up and I admire that.”

Those ‘wrong’ days have been few and far between. An all-time Festival training best of 72 winners is proof.

Of course there have been times to forget, be it falls or horrible injuries — and once again that is when the trainer is at his best.

Walsh added: “He always managed to appear, out of nowhere, at just the right time. I don’t know how, but he did.

“Once after breaking my leg and dislocating my shoulder, I looked up and he’s standing at the end of the bed in the ambulance room.

“There he was, under all that pressure himself, but he would be there for you at exactly the right time.

“Just a fantastic man.”

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Walsh will be at Cheltenham with Mullins again this year, only this time to give advice, opinions and pick-me-ups, alongside his duties as a member of the ITV Racing squad.

He is still part of the furniture at Mullins’ yard, riding out a couple of days a week, ready offer whatever help he can when asked — which is quite frequently.

So surely now, this week of all weeks, he gets a little misty-eyed at the thought of what he could still be doing at the age of 41? The answer is swift and leaves no room for doubt.

Walsh insisted: “I only want to be on a horse as it crosses the line and you turn to the crowd. I don’t want to be on at any other stage. I don’t want to be thinking how the race will be run or the tactics.

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“I don’t miss the worry of this weekend, hoping the horses stay sound, will I offend an owner by riding this or that.

“Yes I miss crossing the line in front, like every soccer player misses scoring goals or lifting a cup.

“But that’s about 0.2 of it and I don’t miss any of the rest. I was finished with being a jockey.

“I lived the dream, thankfully it never became a nightmare and I’ve moved on. I probably still am too competitive with my children, though. I have had to learn to let them beat me at basketball, to win the race, let my 11-year-old score the goal.”

RUBY WALSH is a Paddy Power racing ambassador. Read more at news.paddypower.com

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