Is Ruby just one fall away from the end of his stellar career?
Published 16/07/2011 | 05:00
When news of Ruby Walsh's second instance of a crushed vertebra came to light on Wednesday afternoon, it was received with the increasingly familiar disbelieving groans that also greeted his second broken leg last November.
You can't help wondering just how much hardship one man can take, even if it is a jump jockey possessing the undying hunger and iron constitution that have been synonymous with Walsh's stellar career. After all, as the panel alongside shows, this is someone who has already defied a spectacular array of anatomical mangling.
Injury is an accepted part of a jump jockey's life. It's never a case of if you will get injured, but when, and how badly.
Ruby Walsh is no different in that regard. He might be on the best horse in the race more of the time than any of his rivals and he is probably the finest practitioner to have ever graced the saddle, but he hits the ground just as hard as the journeyman.
It's getting to the point, though, where it's beginning to look as if he doesn't bounce as well as he might. In particular, the catalogue of misfortune that has beset his body over the past 18 months is startling.
In that time, he has been sidelined for seven months, while two further months seems a realistic estimate for his current repair. That's a lot of down time.
For most jockeys, quite apart from the physical debilitation, the missed opportunities and associated insecurities that fester while you are hopelessly redundant are a heavy burden to shoulder. Jockeys thrive on confidence and self-belief, so doubt unavoidably creeps into even the steeliest of minds the longer you are out of action.
Walsh isn't immune from such anxieties. Nonetheless, at this stage of his career -- not to mention that by now he must be conditioned to cope with the helplessness of the situation, given his recent history -- he is unlikely to be beset by worry about falling out of favour while he is recuperating.
Yes, the racing world keeps spinning in his absence, but Willie Mullins made no bones about jocking Paul Townend off Hurricane Fly in favour of Walsh for the Champion Hurdle in March. A fit Walsh could always command such a departure.
He had ridden the Cheltenham favourite on one occasion since 2008 and had only just returned to race-riding after sustaining multiple fractures to his leg, but Mullins was willing to disrupt the excellent association that Townend had developed with the horse to have Walsh up for the big day. That is the kind of deference he has earned.
Still, a passage from the eight-time champion's autobiography that was published last year gives some idea of the obstacles that he is faced with every time he is out of the game, as well as the attention to detail that informs his natural skill set.
"It's not that you miss the winners," he explains, "though obviously that's a big deal. But you miss the day-to-day knowledge you pick up just by riding in races. You miss the little nuances of each horse, both the ones you ride and the ones you ride against.
"It means that you're playing catch-up all the way when you come back, that you're at a disadvantage to all the other jockeys as soon as the tapes go up. Physically you're fine, but form wise you're on the back foot. I have learned over the years to be more aware when I'm injured, to watch more racing and keep myself in the loop."
In that respect, this is a good time for Walsh to be out. Much as he might like to be on duty at Galway, he isn't going to lose sleep over what is essentially an off-season carnival; albeit one with two inordinately valuable prizes in the Plate and Hurdle.
Besides, a jump jockey's clock needs reconfiguring around the time of his projected return towards the end of September anyway. Better horses and worse ground start to materialise and that is when he really needs to be ready.
Walsh won't be long getting up to speed, while there is no reason to believe that the physical attrition will have any bearing on his ability to do his job. It has never made an iota of difference before, but, then again, every bad fall he suffers increases the possibility of his questioning how many more he is willing to risk.
Much as Walsh is a renowned tactician, whose studious approach is evident in the previous passage, marquee riders that operate at his level need to be able to rely on their own instinct in an intensely pressurised environment. The stakes are high and the pace unrelenting, so judgment cannot be clouded by indecision or second-guessing.
Ultimately, it is the prospect of one more bone-crunching fall that often retires riders of his calibre. Adrian Maguire (31), Richard Dunwoody (35) and Norman Williamson (34), for example, all had to cry enough before time.
They still had the best of horses to ride, but medical advice decreed that another forceful impact could have disastrous consequences. The prospect of further glory wasn't worth the potential cost; the game had been good to them.
No one knows for sure, but Walsh is unlikely to be at that point yet. Bad and all as a crushed vertebra sounds to you and me, he rode for three weeks with the same injury in 2006 before it was diagnosed, and was back in the saddle in time for Cheltenham six weeks after it was identified.
At 32 -- a year for every one of his record Cheltenham Festival haul -- there are a few more years in him if his mind and body are willing and able. The fact that he now has a young family wouldn't impact on any decision he might make in the same way that it might a normal human being. Jump jockeys are wired differently.
It's a precarious lifestyle, but, when you've horses to ride of such sheer quality as Hurricane Fly, Quevega, Big Buck's, Zarkandar and the old stagers Master Minded and Kauto Star, the only thing that will concern you is the question of whether or not you are equal to the task. For now, expect Walsh to answer that in the affirmative.
He isn't done with yet. All the same, by the time he next takes to the saddle, he might well be done with comebacks.