Papillon and Ruby Walsh
Papillon and Ruby Walsh

Grand National thrill lives on for former Aintree hero Ruby Walsh

Ruby Walsh won all there is to win during his illustrious riding career – but as far as he is concerned, one day in Liverpool 23 years ago ranks above any other.

It is coming up to four years since Walsh retired from the saddle and he is widely recognised as one of the greatest National Hunt jockeys of all time.

Walsh’s achievements speak for themselves. He is the most successful jockey in Cheltenham Festival history with 59 victories at the showpiece meeting on his CV, including two Gold Cups on Kauto Star, four Champion Hurdles and three Queen Mother Champion Chases.

But while all those big-race triumphs were special, Walsh feels the Grand National is on another level.

“It’s definitely one of the big ones and probably still ‘the one’,” said the 43-year-old.

“From a purist’s point of view you always think of the Gold Cup, but from an objective view of the sport, the Grand National is much bigger. It’s more appealing to a wider, public audience and it’s just an incredible race.

“If you ask people about horseracing, they’ll mention the Derby and the Grand National and the National is a unique contest.”

Walsh was a fresh-faced albeit already greying 20-year-old when he first tackled the world’s most famous steeplechase in millennium year aboard Papillon.

Trained by the rider’s father, Ted, the horse brought strong form claims to Aintree, having previously finished second in the Irish Grand National and he was a heavily-backed 10-1 shot on the day.

Papillon jumped like a stag over fences that were far more formidable than they are now on his way to a one-and-a-quarter-length victory over Mely Moss, sparking scenes of unabashed jubilation from Walsh.

“It doesn’t feel like yesterday,” he said.

“My standout memory from the day is the feeling I had in the last three strides crossing the line, knowing he was going to win. That is a feeling you’d never forget.

“Papillon was an incredible jumper, but I don’t think you ever go out in a Grand National thinking about winning. You’re glad to be there, it’s such a hard race and even on Papillon, it’s just great to be part of it.

“You’re just glad to be riding in it. You don’t go into it thinking ‘this could win’, I don’t think that thought ever went through my head.

“To be there in 2000 and ride the winner of the Grand National for dad, that was the greatest moment of my career.”

It is hard to believe it now, but in the early part of Walsh’s career an Irish-trained winner of the National was a rarity.

That is certainly not the case now, with the balance of power in National Hunt racing at present very much with the raiding party, as exemplified by the fact the last four winners of the National have been from across the Irish Sea.

Walsh said: “Bobbyjo won in 1999 and Papillon won in 2000, but all through my childhood Irish horses didn’t win the Grand National, they could barely compete in it.

“Irish racing changed in the late 90s and and Ireland changed as a country. Horses cost plenty and when money flows into the country, horses come with it.

“Irish racing has had an unbelievable 25 years and we’re enjoying it. As long as our trainers can keep attracting the financial investment from owners, that gives you a big chance. But if that stops and swings back to the other side of the Irish Sea, so will the success.”

Walsh went on to claim a second National verdict aboard 7-1 favourite Hedgehunter for Willie Mullins in 2005 and even though the race is run over a marathon distance, he feels tactics can prove crucial.

“You need a bit of luck and to me, you go wherever there’s less horses,” he added.

“If you stand at the start and 30 want to go up the inside, you’re better playing against 10 on the outside than 30 on the inside. I suppose that’s a numbers game – you open your eyes and see what’s happening, go where there’s less and bring down the risk.

“Even when you’ve jumped three and think ‘yeah, this horse is liking it’, you still have 27 to go and one mistake is going to finish you.

“I didn’t ride many that didn’t take to it, possibly Shotgun Willie and On His Own the second time he ran in it, but I had some great rides over the fences and it’s an amazing feeling.

“I did have a couple of rides where I was thinking ‘how much further am I going to get’. My Will finished third in the National, but he didn’t get off the ground three or four times! I’ve had good rides and few hairy ones too, but that’s the joys of it I suppose.”

The National has a habit of throwing up a good tale, something Walsh believes is part of its magic.

He said: “From Mouse Morris winning it with Rule The World in the year he lost his son, with a young David Mullins riding him, to Emmet Mullins winning last year with Noble Yeats, there’s always a personal story.

“What Rachael (Blackmore) achieved winning it on Minella Times was incredible, Paul Carberry won it for his father Tommy Carberry on Bobbyjo and I was lucky to win it for dad. Small yards win Grand Nationals and Tommy Carberry, dad and Jimmy Mangan winning it with Monty’s Pass epitomises that.

“It doesn’t always have to be the greatest horse that wins the Grand National, something well handicapped can take to the place. That’s why it’s such a unique race.”


The famous fences are not the fearsome structures they once were, but remains a special event.

“I think the modifications to the fences have been really good. It’s a much easier race, yet the amount of spruce they put on the fences just creates an optical illusion as they’re still big and green,” he added.

“It’s an optical illusion now more than being a massive test, but I think it still works and it’s still a great race.

“It’s such a big day, a huge crowd and such a build-up and such an atmosphere – it is a special day for jockeys to partake in.

“Most people riding in it are professional athletes and to be performing on a stage, almost like a Premier League footballer or international rugby player in front of 70-odd thousand people, you don’t get to do that very often.

“When you go out to ride in the Grand National, you almost feel like you’re walking out into a pitch in one of those great stadiums and it’s a special feeling to be part of it.”

More from Sporting Life

Safer gambling

We are committed in our support of safer gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.

If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline / GamCare on 0808 8020 133.

Further support and information can be found at and

Like what you've read?

Next Off

Sporting Life
My Stable
Follow and track your favourite Horses, Jockeys and Trainers. Never miss a race with automated alerts.
Access to exclusive features all for FREE - No monthly subscription fee
Click HERE for more information

Most Followed