The Big Interview: The best of times for Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry

Katie Walsh with Nina Carberry. Pcture: Caroline Norris

Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry were amongst the premier National Hunt jockeys of their generation, and given how their careers travelled such similar trajectories, it was fitting they retired within 24 hours of one another. Here, they talk to Daragh Ó́ Conchúir and reminisce about the glory days.

They seemed to do everything together, the achievement of one inspiring the other to new feats. They removed the stigma surrounding female jockeys, becoming punters’ pals without that ever being their goal. Cheltenham, Aintree, Fairyhouse, Leopardstown. Irish Grand Nationals. Grade Ones. Sisters-in-law. Retiring on winners within 24 hours of one another at Punchestown in April.

Nina and Katie. Katie and Nina. You all know who we’re talking about.

Daragh Ó Conchúir: Did the outpouring of love take you by surprise when you both retired?

Nina: I suppose it was always gonna end somewhere, but it was nice to see a big reception at the end of it all and how well we were taken in by the industry. It was quite humbling really to be so well received. It was sad to go but it was time to move on as well. For me anyway.

DÓC: Did you take time to reflect on all you had achieved?

Katie: I started after Nina. Nina was firing in winners left, right and centre and I was going ‘Sure that looks class. I’d love to have a go at that, if I could.’ I never dreamt… I suppose we both never dreamt it would go the way it went.

Nina: No. It just landed that way I suppose. You’re definitely happy with the way it went. Obviously it’s sad that it’s over but you kinda keep looking forward. I’m happy with what I achieved.

Katie: I was happy to retire. I had done everything I wanted. I looked back before I retired and thought ‘I’m happy with all that now’. There was nothing else left for me I really wanted to do or really wanted to ride in. My biggest fear was going on forever and not knowing when to stop.

Nina: Yeah.

Katie: And people…

Nina: … wondering when you’re going to stop, and not getting rides anymore and looking for rides. I just cringe at that.

DÓC: Go out while still…

Nina: … riding well and people wanted you. Not when you’re at the end of the burner and nobody wants you anymore.

Katie: It was our own decision, and two separate decisions as well. They just happened to be at the same time.

DÓC: You hadn’t a specific time in mind Katie, only to go out on a winner.

Katie: Wherever I rode the next winner, I was gone. I didn’t think I’d ride one at Punchestown. I was lucky enough it all fell into place. Noel (Fehily) was meant to ride it and Danny (Mullins) was sore after getting a fall. I just happened to be walking through the weigh room.

DÓC: Almost identical to how you got Thunder And Roses for the Irish Grand National.

Katie: Yeah, ‘cos (husband) Ross (O’Sullivan) was going to run Call It Magic so I said I couldn’t ride Lion Na Bearnai. When he changed his mind, I went through him for a shortcut. Rang back for the ride on Liona Na Bearnai and sure that was gone. You can imagine the atmosphere in my house!

Nina: Oh. My. God.

Katie: Fantastic. The phone rang then, the morning of declarations for Thunder And Roses.

BOWING OUT: Nina Carberry, left, and Katie Walsh are presented with flowers after retiring at this year’s Punchestown Festival. Picture: Caroline Norris

DÓC: You got Antey up by a nose. Did you know you were up?

Katie: I thought coming down to the last I was going to win. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be a nose. I asked Barry (Geraghty) and he thought he was up so I definitely thought I wasn’t up then. I looked up at the big screen and saw I was on it. I thought ‘I’ve a chance here’ as usually they’re right.

DÓC: Was the first thought when you heard ‘No 2’ that it was finished?

Katie: Yeah. There were the few seconds before it when I was thinking ‘This could be it now. This could be the last time.’

DÓC: And then?

Katie: I suppose… I suppose… I just thought it was great. It was great to get up first, to ride a winner. Then I was thinking ‘Where am I gonna get this?’ Everyone was there. Our whole family was there and Punchestown is so…

Nina: I think it’s sad though.

Katie: It IS sad.

Nina: It’s SO sad.

DÓC: That’s three times you’ve said how sad it is Nina. You must be regretting it.

Nina: No! But it is... It’s an end of what you’ve been doing so long.

DÓC: Your last one came on Josies Orders the day after Katie.

Nina: He actually just got touched off on the Thursday in the La Touche. Enda (Bolger) had him entered for the Saturday and so I said ‘Grand, hopefully now.’ Because it was always gonna finish on the Saturday. If he’d won on the Thursday he mightn’t have run again but it was nice to go out on a winner.

Nina Carberry

DÓC: And your thoughts coming in?

Nina: It was sad. I was happy I retired injury free but it was the end of an era really and on to the next part.

DÓC: Was it through racing you became friends?

Katie: I met Nina when she led up (Grand National hero) Bobbyjo.

Nina: We knew each other from a long way back.

DÓC: But as regards being friends?

Katie: The weigh room. And she fancied my brother. She was trying to get in with the sister.

Nina laughs and puts her head in her hands.

Katie: It was a hidden agenda. I thought she was my friend.

Nina: Oh Gawwwd!

Katie: We would have gone on holidays together when we were younger, before there were any boyfriends. We all would have gone to Kusadasi, back in the day. We grew up together, along with another bunch of friends that don’t race ride. It was great fun.

DÓC: You were tremendous role models for young women. You would have just wanted to be treated normally but were pushing through so many glass ceilings and that was important. I sometimes wondered though when there was so much focus on female jockeys ahead of something like the Aintree Grand National, that it was piling on the pressure.

Katie: I don’t think so. I never felt any pressure.

Katie Walsh

Nina: You’re only getting interviewed because you’re a girl but it’s actually more publicity. Isn’t it Katie?

Katie: The media are always looking for the angle. Organisedconfusion was fancied (for the Irish Grand National), wasn’t he? So Nina was going into that thinking ‘I’ve a right chance of winning this.’ Whereas I was going in thinking ‘This is gonna be great craic !’ Everyone lines up in an English National and an Irish National feeling they have a chance. But when you’re riding at 30-1 shot or 40-1 shot, there’s no real pressure.

DÓC: Well that’s good. Sometimes I wonder if the coverage is patronising.

Nina: Sometimes, a little bit.

DÓC: Okay, if a woman wins an Aintree National, it’ll be a landmark feat. But generally, your name gives away that you’re a girl, and girls watching will be inspired by that but it’s overdone for me a lot of the time, especially in England.

Katie: You’re always gonna have that so there’s no point pulling rank against it either. We definitely didn’t play up to it... I mean we’re not feminists.

Nina: No!

Katie: By no means. We did something we loved and we didn’t think we were great because we were females doing it. But I absolutely love going out to dinner and Ross paying for it. I like, and I’m sure you’re the same, for Ted to open the door and let you walk in in front of you. So we’re not battle-hardened, burning bras or anything like that. We were lucky enough to do something that we loved.

DÓC: Rachael Blackmore has taken it to a whole new level.

Nina: She has taken every chance that has come. She can’t be doing any better than she is. She’s in with Gigginstown and they’ll keep driving her. Hopefully, touch wood, she won’t get injured. That’s the only thing that would stop her now. She’s on the best horses now. That’s all it takes. Getting into the position to ride these horses and she’s getting them across the line. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.

DÓC: Nobody apart from herself and Shark Hanlon thought it was a good idea when she did turn pro.

Nina: At the time, no-one was doing it but looking back on it from her point of view, she was able to do very light, she wasn’t getting any rides as an amateur.

Katie: No rides. And she was point-to-pointing every weekend, riding horses I wouldn’t even lead up.

Nina Carberry

Nina: But she was gaining experience all the time, so when she turned, she was claiming seven off 9-10. She was a very strong rider at that. If she turned earlier and didn’t have that experience, she mightn’t be… Katie?

Katie: I’d agree. I think most of those conditionals are far too young. She was what, 26? You’re a different person at 26 than you are when you’re 19. She can talk. She’s a very good talker. Everyone loves her. She keeps her head down. She’s very measured and doesn’t want to be all over the paper.

DÓC: Working at Ballydoyle must be one hell of an experience Nina. Give me one thing that stands out about Aidan O’Brien.

Nina: Whatever about him being a trainer, he’s a brilliant manager; organiser. Nothing seems to faze him. There’s so much going on but he NEVER forgets. You could be on a young horse out the back and you’d be thinking ‘I’d better remind him this lad is only doing one’ but he’d remember. There’s so much going on. It could be Ascot week, he has to get on the plane and this fella still knows that this horse has to do one canter. And organising the staff. He’s ahead of it all.

DÓC: Would you like to work in an operation like that Katie?

Katie: I was always here Daragh. I’ve been here since I left school. I love working at home. To be able to go to Willie (Mullins’) a couple of days a week, when I was, I loved doing that as well. Now, I’d love to go and ride out in different places and see how different people do it but it’s hard to get away from here when you have outside (the racehorses) and breezers as well. But I’ll try to make the effort. I’d love to go to Gordon (Elliott)’s and to Joseph (O’Brien)’s. Just to see how they do it. There’s loads of places I’d love to go for a day. But do I regret not going away to work in another place? No.

DÓC: You had a trainer’s licence Nina and then took over from your late father Tommy.

Nina: There weren’t enough horses to keep it going so I went as assistant to Noel (Meade). That was an experience.

DÓC: Is it something you’d do again?

Nina: I might do. I wouldn’t close the door on it. It would be more so to run and sell. It’s very hard to make money and it’s very hard to compete but I wouldn’t close the door on it anyway.

DÓC: What horses from your careers would you have soft spots for?

Katie: I’d a big association with Thousand Stars, winning the County Hurdle, was second on him in an Aintree Hurdle, won a Prix La Barka on him. He’s out there in the field. When he retired, they asked me if I’d like to have him. I said I would. I did the Racehorse To Riding Horse on him at the RDS. He’s a lovely horse to have around. A couple of horses were very good to me. A bit like Nina…

Katie Walsh

Nina: You can’t just name one. On The Fringe for me and Garde Champetre.

Katie: I had Battlefront. You rode Battlefront as well?

Nina: I rode a winner on Battlefront.

Katie: I rode seven point-to-point winners on him one year and Nina one, we’d a great year heading off with him every Sunday. It was great to have him. I won a two-mile chase on him at Punchestown. I used to ride Never Compromise in the banks races early in my career. He was unbelievable. And obviously Seabass was huge.

DÓC: Riding for your fathers was always special I’m sure.

Nina: Yeah.

Katie: Ah yeah. Special when they win! Not so special when it doesn’t work out!

Nina: If we didn’t have our dads? My dad gave me my first three rides. He kept a horse for me, Mr Murchan. He was actually named after the doctor who saved Paul when he done his spleen. Paul collapsed in Timmy Hyde’s in Cashel. Timmy rang up the doctor, Mr Murchan. He came from Clonmel and only for him Paul would have died. He knew straight away what it was, he was operated on and they saved him.

After that we had a horse we really liked. He was one of those that showed loads at home but didn’t really do it on the track but I finished third on him for his first three runs. It was great to get the experience. Only for Dad.

DÓC: Garde Champetre was brilliant.

Nina: The amount of wins I got out of him. He was just class. He was brilliant. He used to just show every time, didn’t he? On The Fringe because John Thomas (McNamara) always thought the world of him. When John Thomas got injured he always wanted him to do well. It was great for John Thomas, he got a great kick out of that.

DÓC: That was very emotional.

Nina: Very emotional.

Katie: Sure you were very friendly with John Thomas. Nina was down there riding out.

Nina: I learned so much off John Thomas. He’d rarely tell you a whole lot but you’d be learning from him the whole time.

DÓC: Any funny stories you CAN tell me?

Katie: Nina cut the snot off me one day.

Nina: Oh Jesus.

Katie: She knew she was doing it as well. We didn’t travel in the same car that day!

Nina: Oh my God! I’ll never forget that.

Katie: I wouldn’t do that.

DÓC: Never, I’d say.

Nina: I don’t know what got into me.

Katie:Oh yeah… I know what got into you!

DÓC: You shouldn’t be trying to get up her inside.

Katie: I wasn’t even poking! She came out of nowhere like a viper. Wiped me out.

Nina: I was lucky it wasn’t up the straight or I’d have been done.

DÓC: You have had wonderful careers and it’s been fun listening to you talk together about it, even in general terms. The bond between you is obvious.

Katie: We were very lucky to have each other. We were in the ladies’ room together.

Nina: The year I won at Cheltenham on Dabiroun, the next day I fell off the favourite (Karanja at the start in the Champion Bumper). The first person I see is Katie and sure I started bawling. Only for that support in the weigh room after, you’d be just left there in the room on your own. There was only us two.

Katie: There has been days like that…

Nina: … where you need someone just to sit with you and not even say anything. I hope Rachael has that. Someone she can come into and give out about something.

Katie: Oh Jesus we tore the back off the whole lot of them!

Nina: You know the way you need to sort things out in your head before you even go meet another person. Otherwise you come out and say stupid things.

Katie: We’re hard on ourselves but Nina was especially hard.

DÓC: All jockeys are the same; if you don’t win, you think you should have.

Nina: The thing about our thing was we were only getting one ride and that’s hard to get over if you’ve ridden bad. Whereas the likes of Ruby and Paul could go out straight away.

Katie: We’d great fun, great craic.

Nina: On to the next part.

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