Ruby Walsh: hard to stop concussed jockeys from riding and taking risks

12-time champion jockey knocked out four times during golden career which ended this year

In the world Ruby Walsh inhabited until a few weeks before his 40th birthday earlier this year, he had become a rock star of risk taking. But he never saw it that way. In the end days he may have made the calculation more often than at the beginning. But for years the only thing that really mattered was driving in the fast lane.

A jockey’s world is calculated and safety driven. Horses aside, the riders, largely young men and a growing cohort of women, are also an unknown factor. Young and cavalier, they are not risk averse.

Sometimes it takes someone like Walsh and his challenging, home spun observations to set out contradictions in plain language. In his career he was knocked unconscious four times. But when he looks back at himself as a jockey on the rise, all he can see is a young man blind with ambition. That self he now recognises in others.

In Dublin to present a cheque of €50,000 on behalf of the Irish Injured Jockey’s fund for collaborative research to explore the effects of long term concussion, his is a pragmatic, willfully candid view of head trauma.


“I’m still not certain about how you ‘catch’ people for want of a better way of putting it,” he says. “Detecting it? Don’t know what the word is. I know as a jockey to the day I retired, I would have ducked it, hidden it, gotten away with it. I wanted to go riding the next day.”

Walsh has been part of the locker room for too long to speak the honeyed words of the board room. There is a no-schtick imperative to help. But his close up view can’t be dishonest. Young riders are, well, young.

“You couldn’t have talked to me at that age. I’d have tried anything and did anything to avoid it,” he says. “So I could say to you lads if you feel dizzy and you know when you stand up and you’re thinking ‘I fell a second ago and yet the horses are 12 seconds away, so where did those 11 seconds go? ’

“I can advise people to do that. But competitive sports people aren’t going to listen to me. I know I wouldn’t have listened to me and that’s the thing. I said this at a seminar three years ago. It’s going to be so hard to catch the people who don’t want to be caught.”

In racing if you are knocked out it’s a three week step down. For lesser head injuries it’s a few days or a week. Because of the way the sport works, a jockey stepping down for three weeks is not the same as a rugby player, who may miss matches but not the pay cheque.

The jockey stops working, stops earning. The rugby player or football player doesn’t stop earning. In horse racing there is additional incentive to buck advice.

“Because the recovery was always so structured in racing and a bang was seven days, you be thinking ‘ugh that’s tomorrow and that’s Tuesday and that’s Thursday.’ Then if you were knocked out that’s 21 days. Jesus, what’s on the next three weeks.

“In rugby you are also still on a contract. So Leinster are still paying you. So Munster are still paying your wages. We are self employed.”

Walsh rode 2,756 winners in his career. More than 200 of those were Grade One winners. He is the winning-most jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, retiring with a record 59 and rode a record seven winners on two occasions.

He was crowned champion National Hunt jockey in Ireland for the 12th and final time at the end of the 2016-2017 season with 131 winners, a tally that matched his previous best, a record he set in 2007-2008. That talented. But he fell often.

“Four times I was knocked unconscious. Do the maths,” he says. “2,700 (winners) by four is 13,500 rides probably. That’s working at a 25 per cent strike rate at 2,700 winners. So 13,500 rides and probably getting a fall one in every 20 (rides), 25 (rides) max. One every 25 (rides) probably getting a fall.

“Generally if you got knocked out, you had broken something else anyway and concussion didn’t matter. That last time I got knocked out was in Galway and I broke my ankle. So I know I’m out for six weeks because I knew I had broke my ankle.”

He praises horse racing for being the first to take the concussion seriously, not always ahead of it but always aware of it.

“Ruby has been peeled off the ground I don’t know how many times and he’s still the brightest person you could meet,” says Dr Adrian McGoldrick talking about, what this all is, risk assessment.

And he’s another man who knows what he is talking about.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times