I don’t remember horses not being in my life. I got a pony, Pebbles, for my seventh birthday. I got a better pony, Flash, when I was nine. He was kinder. Flash was easy to ride and catch. The first fellow was too clever, and too mean.
After you ride your first racehorse you realise you can do it, and you want to do it more and more. It’s so exciting: the buzz, the thrill, the adrenaline. During my Leaving Cert year I ended up being champion amateur jockey in Ireland, and I got a half day from school every Thursday to go racing.
I had my first ride in Leopardstown a couple of days later, and I finished fifth. I rode the same horse three weeks later, and he was second, and it went on from there. I went straight from school into a man’s world. I was a boy in a man’s world. You have to grow up fast. You know your career isn’t going to last as long as everyone else’s, so you have to condense a lifetime into a short time. You just live for the day, and that moment.
The proudest moment of my career was winning the Grand National when I was 20. My dad [Ted Walsh] had trained the horse [Papillon], and that gave me the most pride. People often think jockeys get attached to their horses, but we don’t. The trainer has a much bigger emotional attachment to the horse than the jockey, because they spend so much time together. The jockey just gets on and off.
I got married to Gillian when I was 26. We had been going out forever, and either a relationship moves on or it moves away, and it was time to move on. We have three daughters, so there will be a lot of opinions in this house. Parenthood is a huge responsibility. You think you have responsibilities in life – mortgage, car repayments or whatever – but all of a sudden you have a child and you are completely responsible for everything that happens to them.
Having children didn’t make me think about the risks of racing; it made me want to work harder, to provide better. You manage failure through experience. It happens to you and you learn to deal with it.
As a jockey you’re only going to ride a winner every three times if you’re lucky, so you’re riding more losers than winners. You learn to deal with the losing of a race better again as you get older, because it takes its place in the list of priorities in your life when you have a wife and children.
In life there are more disappointments than highs, but I’m not an up-and-down kind of person; I’m fairly consistent. I don’t like lazy people. I don’t like people who shout and roar about what they’re entitled to. I hate gossipers. I value honesty and loyalty, and I admire clever and successful people who have a work ethic.
In my 20s I decided that religion wasn’t for me. I don’t go to Mass. I would have liked to see the Vatican doing more about the wrongs that went on in the church. You’d like to think there is something else, but the realist in me thinks that when you’re dead it’s over. I’m not saying I don’t believe in God, though. There could well be a God there.
I see myself riding for another five or six years. I would always have been aware that a jockey is always only ever as good as their last race. I’m not the kind of guy who ever had five-year plans. Sports is always about today, and that’s the world you learn to live in.
Article appeared in The Irish Times