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What it takes to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, from a jockey who did it twice

Ruby Walsh won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice in 2007 and 2009 with horse Kauto Star (PA)
Ruby Walsh won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice in 2007 and 2009 with horse Kauto Star (PA)

Ruby Walsh is a retired Irish jockey with a 20-year career of triumphs behind him. He is the third most prolific winner in British and Irish jump racing history – behind only Sir Anthony (AP) McCoy and Richard Johnson – and has made the transition into television as a racing pundit.

He is a 12-time Irish National Hunt champion jockey and was the leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival 11 times, including a streak of five in a row from 2013-2017.

With ability, skill, class, and a joyous personality to boot Walsh knows a thing or two about triumphing at Cheltenham. He won the headline race twice, in 2007 and 2009, claiming the Gold Cup on Kauto Star, who he lovingly describes as ‘a horse of a lifetime’.

Speaking with The Independent, Walsh explored some of the finest moments during his racing career and explained just how significant it is to win at this meeting.

“I was very lucky to get into a position as a jockey whereby I had lots of good rides at the Cheltenham Festival. I didn’t ever think as a kid that I would get into that position,” said Walsh who comes from a horse racing family in County Kildare, Ireland.

“My dad rode four winners there and it was what I dreamed and hoped I’d be able to do as I grew up, that I would have rides at Cheltenham and be lucky enough to have a winner there.

“I never dreamt that I could have the success that I had. As I got older and started to gain that success, Cheltenham was how I judged my season. It’s where the biggest races were, it’s where the most attention is put, it’s where jockeys feel like Premier League footballers.”

Walsh watching the gallops at the 2024 Cheltenham Festival (Adam Davy/PA Wire)
Walsh watching the gallops at the 2024 Cheltenham Festival (Adam Davy/PA Wire)

Walsh described the atmosphere of the racecourse and how the sheer number of people spectating, unlike most other meetings, created a nervous yet sensational feeling at the Festival.

“You are performing in front of 70,000 people, that doesn’t happen very often in horse racing,” he explained. “It’s the biggest event where all the eyes are on you. I didn’t realise until I went to Cheltenham as a spectator in 1995 just how big the Gold Cup was, how different the atmosphere was, how different the crowd was compared to every other race.

“When I was younger it made me more nervous, as I got older I learnt to appreciate it and enjoy it. I was brought up in racing, I was lucky in that sense. I knew that what I was doing being a jockey was only going to be a part of my life and it was never going to last forever.

“I had to get the most out of it and enjoy it as much as I could while I had that privilege. This was the one meeting a year where this would happen. I loved it in the end, absolutely loved it.

“I don’t look back and think I miss it, I look back and think how lucky I was to have had it.”

Walsh and Kauto Star soaking up the Festival atmosphere after their second win (Getty Images)
Walsh and Kauto Star soaking up the Festival atmosphere after their second win (Getty Images)

Walsh’s first winner at the Cheltenham Festival came in 1998 when he triumphed in the Champion Bumper with Alexander Banquet. More success followed in 2003 and 2004 as Azertyuiop helped Walsh win his first Arkle Chase and Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Yet, his greatest victories at the Festival came in partnership with Kauto Star. The horse on which he won both his Gold Cups.

“I’d grown up watching Dawn Run, Desert Orchid, Charter Party and The Thinker but I never thought I would be winning a Gold Cup,” he said, “To do it on Kauto Star in 2007, then to lose in 2008 and have another go in 2009 was amazing.

“I read in the paper that Paul Nicholls was talking about this horse and the very last line he says: ‘I think he was the horse of a lifetime’. So, I texted him and said: ‘Don’t think it, he was the horse of a lifetime’. He was the horse of a generation, to think that I was the one that got to ride him.

“He was an incredible racehorse, five King Georges, two Gold Cups, two Tingle Creeks, four Betfair Chases. He had class, he had speed, he had stamina, he had the mentality, he had the attitude, he had the durability, he had soundness, he had longevity.

“He was like [Rafael] Nadal or [Roger] Federer or Tiger Woods or any of the top athletes in the world, Kauto Star was like them. He just had everything and to be able to say I rode him. Yeah, that makes me happy.”

More information about the Cheltenham Festival can be found at thejockeyclub.co.uk.