Grand National 2016: 18 hour days, but it’s not ‘work’ for Katie Walsh

Story highlights

Walsh rode Seabass to third place in 2012

Part of a famous equine family, she relishes her work

She says the sport has been male-dominated for too long

CNN  — 

It may be as long as 18 hours between clocking in and clocking out on an average working day, but jockey Katie Walsh says: “I don’t think I work.”

Horses are all the Irish jockey has ever known, with her trainer father Ted having guided Papillon to victory in the Grand National in 2000, with the horse being ridden by her older brother Ruby.

“Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all skipping and jumping around,” says Walsh, who achieved third place in the National, arguably the world’s toughest – and certainly most famous – jump race on Seabass in 2012.

“If you find it hard getting out of bed early in the morning, then this isn’t for you.

“There are those mornings where I wake up and look outside at the weather and think to myself: ‘I can’t believe I have to go out in that,’ but I absolutely love it.”

Growing up around the family yard, she recalls sitting on a pony in the family field and imagining winning the National.

It is an event in which the family have flourished, and for Walsh – the highest female finisher in the rich story of the race – the dream of winning the famous race in Aintree, Liverpool, still resonates. In Saturday’s National she will ride the Willie Mullins-trained Ballycasey.

At the age of 15, she experienced the taste of victory as groom to Papillon, a moment she says still feels like yesterday.

“It was just unbelievable with Ruby riding him, Dad training him,” she recalls. “The years have flown by, but I remember it so well and the aftermath and celebrations.

“We took a ferry back that night and I remember getting home to the yard the following morning at 9.30 and there were just cars everywhere.

“Sky News were parked on the lawn and most of Ireland’s cars appeared to have been abandoned there. Everyone was there – people kept calling in for weeks. It was a very special time.”

Wind the clock forward to 2012, and Walsh came within a whisker of tasting what would have been a historic National victory only to miss out to Neptune Collonges.

In that race, she recalls having a conversation with brother Ruby who was riding alongside her as they approached the Chair, one of the more notorious fences on the course, but also being oblivious to the crowd cheering her and the other front-runners in.

“The best way to describe it is like a TV switching on and off,” she says. “I was aware of the noise before the start and moments after the race was over, but I just didn’t hear it the rest of the time.

“It was a crazy race for me, and for a second I thought I was going to win it.”

Race days for Walsh, from the National to the recent Cheltenham Festival – often referred to as “the Olympics of jump racing” – are some of the toughest.

“I usually ride the last race on the card, the bumper race,” the amateur jockey says. “But you’re usually getting to the course before the first race to walk it. For the lads traveling to the UK, some of the trips to get there are about six hours.

“Usually I’m racing in Ireland, and that tends to be no more than an hour and a half journey time.

“In the winter, that’s fine as it gets dark early so the last race isn’t that late – but in the summer I might not ride until 9pm. That then usually means you don’t get in until 12.30pm and then you go again the next morning and that will have been having got up at 6.30 am. They can be long days.”

Every morning, the alarm goes off at 6.30am, with Walsh in the car by 6.45am and at the yard and ready for work by 7am. She will work from 7am until 1pm with a break for lunch “if things aren’t crazy,” followed by work from 2pm to 5pm.

But what exactly does that work involved?

“Anything that needs doing, really,” she says, matter-of-factly. “The horses have to be worked, so you’ll go out on the gallops riding them, but then there’s the usual yard duties, our usual routine.

“Everything we do is building to the weekend’s racing on Saturday and Sunday and then we start all over again on Monday morning.

“It might sound it, but it definitely doesn’t get repetitive although I know it’s not for everybody.

“It’s hard, physical work and I don’t have many weekends free – but I love it. It’s not my work, it’s my passion, and I feel very lucky that I do this as a living. I love what I do.”

Walsh knows she is in a minority as a female jockey, but says she gets treated as “one of the lads” come race day.

Our interview takes place at virtually the same moment as Victoria Pendleton rides her first winner on Pacha Du Polder since making the switch from bike saddle, as a former track cyclist, to horse saddle.

Pendleton’s efforts warrant praise from Walsh, who is a Ladies Day ambassador for the Grand National and is asked in virtually every interview about what it is like to be a female jockey.

“It’s no one’s fault, there’s just more men doing it,” she says. “It’s a bit like the fact that you get more women hairdressers out there. It’s just the way it is. Most girls don’t want to be a National Hunt jockey, and I don’t find it remotely chauvinistic.”

But despite the rough and tumble of what is a hard sport, Walsh says: “I turn up at the racecourse, get changed to race and then I’m back in my dress right afterwards.

“I like to be feminine in a male-dominated sport, and I love the fashion side of it.”

It seems impossible that Walsh could ever entirely escape horse racing on any given day. As well as her brother and father being immersed in the equine world, her husband Ross O’Sullivan is a racehorse trainer. Another Walsh brother is married to jockey Nina Carberry.

“Sometimes you do have to make a conscious effort not to talk about it, and I know a lot of people that just can’t stop,” she says. “I actually find it quite easy to switch off and talk about something else.”

But for now, all the talk centers around Aintree and Grand National week.