Ruby Walsh remembers his Grand National-winning debut on Papillon

RUBY Walsh is emphatic: “I never rode a horse that could jump better than him.” It’s such a bold statement from the greatest big race rider of all that I briefly query it in case I misheard the fast-talking horseman.

Ruby Walsh is exultant after winning the 2000 Martell Grand Nartional on Papillon.

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And the response is even more adamant. “I think he could have jumped around Badminton,” he adds. “Nimble. Unbelievable scope. An incredible jumper. I wouldn’t have minded a few more like him.”

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Qualities that readily apply to so many of the ‘horses of a lifetime’ which this jump jockey rode during a two-decade career before hanging up his saddle a year ago, the 40-year-old is referring to 2000 Grand National hero Papillon.

Ruby Walsh is the most successful big race rider in National Hunt history.

Walsh could be forgiven for being sentimental. This, after all, is the victory which effectively launched the horseman’s peerless career – he has more Cheltenham Festival wins to his name than any other jockey – and Papillon was trained by his redoubtable father Ted.

But he is not. “When you were riding Papillon, you were only riding tactics because he was going to do what he wanted to do,” the Racing TV pundit told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the first of his two National victories.

“The horse has as little interest in falling as the jockey on their back. I always believed the less interference the better. He got so close to The Chair in the National that he should have been in the ditch. Instead we cleared it. In trouble and out of it.”

Relaxed – and content to have retired on his terms immediately after Kemboy’s win 12 months ago in the Punchestown Gold Cup – Walsh is speaking from his family’s farm in the County Kildare hamlet of Kill.

Ruby Walsh retired shortly after winning last year's Irish Grand National on Burrows Saint.

Like the rest of racing, life is on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. He has been supervising his four daughters on their ponies. “The ponies and the lawnmower will be pleased to see the back of Covid-19. Every day is the same. But I do feel extremely lucky living in the countryside. We have land and a big garden unlike people in apartments with kids. That must be so difficult,” he says.

He is uncertain what he will be doing at 5.15pm – the National’s start time. But he does possess an encyclopaedic recollection of where he was on this weekend two decades ago. “Twenty years ago, I was twiddling my thumbs at Aintree on the Friday and the only ride I had there was Papillon,” he tells me.

It is difficult, looking back, to think there was a time when the mercurial Walsh was not the most sought-after rider in racing. He’d won the first of 12 championships in Ireland in 1998-99 – but this was the time, he points out, when Irish challengers at Aintree were few and far between.

This changed when Bobbyjo won the 1999 Grand National for the Carberry family. Ireland’s relationship with the National was renewed and Walsh, who watched the race with his great rival Barry Geraghty between races in Ireland, wanted to be part of history. “I knew Paul Carberry (the winning jockey) and I wanted to be him.”

It is 20 years since Ruby Walsh won the Grand National on Papillon. He then won the 2005 race on Hedgehunter.

Walsh also knew that Papillon could be the horse after chasing home Bobbyjo in the 1998 Irish Grand National. But first the then teenager’s father had to convince the horse’s American owner Betty Moran, a family friend, to enter the steeplechaser. And then the jockey had his first ill-luck with injury (it would become a recurring theme). He broke his collarbone at Dundalk in September 1999 and then his leg in a horrendous fall in the Czech Republic the following month. “I could feel my right foot flapping at the end of my leg,” he winces. “From going 100mph, it felt like you were starting again.”

By the time he had recovered, his early promise “chasing the dream”, as he put it, had stalled. “A jockey is only as good as their last winner. A footballer is only as good as his last goal. Out of sight, out of mind,” he explained.

Given this, he was able to enjoy a low-key National build-up despite Papillon being the subject of a sustained gamble and backed from 40-1 to 12-1 on both sides of the Irish Sea. He briefly cursed when the horse was number 13. “That day changed my opinion of 13 being an unlucky number”. And then National day. “It was always Des Lynam and the BBC. Grandstand from Aintree,” he emphasises.

Just being part of the programme meant the 20-year-old Walsh, riding in his first National, thought he had made it before he ventured out into the packed paddock. He was armed with the insight gleaned from watching reruns of past Nationals with his father – “more fallers on the outer early on and don’t get too close to the inner at Becher’s”.

“The only instruction Dad gave was to enjoy myself and just ride him like the horseman you are,” said Walsh, before explaining his relationship with his father whose Any Second Now was due to have been a leading contender for this year’s renewal.

“Dad was always easy once you were honest with him. If you f***** it up you said so. He expected you to do the right thing. If you told him what you were going to do, he was happy because he knew you had done your homework.”

Walsh’s initial plan was to get over the first safely – this was new territory – and Papillon was soon in his element. What did surprise him, however, was the pace of the race – “the fences come to you in a flash”. Even now Walsh has instant recall of every inch of the race – and the horses that were keeping Papillon company. Prominent, they did get too close to The Chair for comfort before jumping the Canal Turn so boldly on the second circuit that they risked losing ground to the pacesetters. Yet, after landing very wide, Walsh, already tactically astute, saw part of the next fence was dolled off – there was a stricken jockey – and those on the inner were at a disadvantage. “I lost lengths at the Canal, and thought ‘jeez, not good’, to being spot on at the next.” From then on, it was a question of patience.

They jumped the second last, and Walsh dared to think ‘I’m going to win the English National’, before clearing the last of 30 fearsome fences and setting out on the daunting run-in where Mely Moss, switched to the inner, began to challenge with Yorkshire-trained Niki Dee third for the late Peter Beaumont, who died this week.

“It’s only 20 to 30 yards from going past the water jump to the winning line but, believe me, it felt like 10 minutes,” said Walsh who, for the record, won the race in nine minutes seven seconds. “Even though we were winning, I thought he (Papillon) was never going to get there.”

He admits to being bewildered in the aftermath of the win – and then the adrenaline rush of the victory parade as two police horses led Papillion through the crowds to the old weighing room. “The crowds,” he said. “The people. The noise. So close. Nothing like it in sport.

“Just as we passed the entrance to the stable yard, I spotted Dad. He’d ridden in the National but never got beyond Becher’s. I knew what this meant to the family.”

Walsh can also remember every detail of the journey home that began with Champagne and a plate of chips at the airport – “the girl said all she was serving was chips so chips it was” – and the whole of Kill staying up to greet their returning heroes.

On the front page of every Sunday newspaper, Walsh did not look back. He then won the Irish Grand National on Commanche Court before partnering the horse to glory in the Punchestown Gold Cup. Three races in April 2000 had – literally – changed his life.

There is no doubt that Ruby Walsh would still have been destined for greatness if Papillon had not won the Grand National. He was that naturally gifted.

But the timing was significant. “It was the best day I ever had in racing. It put me back on the map and launched my whole career. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Even though I was champion jockey in Ireland, you didn’t get noticed in England. Now I could ride for owners like Sir Robert Ogden. All of a sudden, you are in more demand...”

And so it proved.

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