He may be out on his own as the most successful jockey in Cheltenham Festival history but Ruby Walsh admits he still gets nervous ahead of the biggest week on the racing calendar.
First successful in partnership with Alexander Banquet in the 1998 Champion Bumper, Walsh will be looking to add to his sensational tally of 56 Festival wins this week.
But, though he admits to still feeling the butterflies, he believes that feeling of nervous anticipation is a good thing.
“I get them (nerves) and I think when you stop getting them, when it doesn’t mean anything to you, that will be the time to not be there,” the Irish Examiner columnist told sports editor Tony Leen.
“If there’s something you’re looking forward to, anything in life that you’re looking forward to, it makes you nervous, it makes you anxious. And anything in life that has you under pressure also makes you nervous, but I think the nerves I would have with Cheltenham is the looking forward, it’s not: ‘What if this goes wrong? What if that goes wrong? Or what if this is a failure?’ – I don’t ever look at it that way.
“Nerves are excitement, anticipation, it’s: ‘Will this ever come?’ You use them in the right way. But the nerves stay through the week. I always think the sign of that is on the Friday evening, no matter what kind of week you’ve had, you just seem to be wrecked.”
Two months short of his 40th birthday, Walsh knows he has more Cheltenhams behind him than in front of him. Not that he’s thinking in terms of the 2019 Festival being his last.
“I’m not heading to Cheltenham thinking: ‘This will be the last time I do this’. I don’t know what it is about retirement; I guess I’ve always felt that someday it will just dawn on me that I’ve had enough of this. I don’t have those emotions or feelings at the moment but I’m sure I will at some stage, that I’ll just think: ‘I can’t face that anymore.’
“Of course I’d like it to be on my own terms, before I get sacked or before I get hurt, but I think if you can keep performing at the highest level, with a bit of luck, it would be on your own terms.
It’s six years since Walsh made the decision to end his decade-long association with English trainer Paul Nicholls and commit solely to riding for Willie Mullins. That was a big decision, one made on instinct, on feel. He believes it will be a similar thought process when he eventually decides to call it a day.
“I think you know when you know with most things in life. You know when to do something, when not to do something. I’m assuming it will be the same for that, that someday it will dawn on me that I’ve had enough of this.
“That’s the way I was when I decided I didn’t want to be commuting between Ireland and England, it dawned on me at the end of the year when I had gone back to Ireland and had two or three weeks away from going to England and I was already thinking about October thinking: ‘I can’t face that commute again.’ I’m assuming, when I’ve had enough of riding, that it will be the same thought process.”
As for this week, Walsh has no hesitation in nominating OLBG Mares’ Hurdle favourite Benie Des Dieux as his most likely winner.
“Willie’s on record as saying we’re maybe not as strong this year as other years. We don’t have as many favourites as other years. She is favourite, she’s a deserving favourite, and she’ll take all the beating. Her work at home has been really good for a long time. She’s my best ride of the week.”
As for the rest of Team Closutton, Walsh admits he would love it if ageing stable favourites Faugheen and Un De Sceaux could to their two Festivals wins each.
“If I was going to Cheltenham looking for a fairytale it would involve Faugheen and Un De Sceaux,” he said. “Either winning would be fairytale-ish but, that said, both have great chances, they’re both in great order. They’ve been great horses to have been associated with and if either could go and win at another Cheltenham Festival I’d get a good kick out of that.”
Wouldn’t we all?