Saturday 22 July 2017

Ruby shines brightest of all

Vautour ridden by jockey Ruby Walsh on the way to winning the Ryanair Chase Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Vautour ridden by jockey Ruby Walsh on the way to winning the Ryanair Chase Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Ruby Walsh yesterday became the first jockey to ride 50 Cheltenham Festival winners and he goes into today’s finale needing just one to set a record of eight for a single Festival Photo: Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

The tendency is inevitable and overwhelming. It is to hang on the wall a picture by Ruby Walsh and then stand back to admire the exquisite brush work.

But this isn't good enough. It misses the point. What Walsh produces so relentlessly, and never more gloriously than here yesterday, is living art.

It may have points of great beauty, even some mysterious fusion of the will of a man and the whims of a horse, but it is also as functional as a well-aimed bullet.

There is more than anything his huge and empowering variety of choices.

We saw three more brilliant examples here yesterday when he moved to the stunning mark of 52 victories in the place which likes to think of itself as the ultimate arbiter of sublime and courageous horsemanship.

Each piece of work was filled with a trade mark of Walsh's career.

Spirit

Trade mark? Only in the sense that, like another old master, one of the Flat, Lester Piggott, he earns his living from interpreting at vital times the very spirit of the animals he rides.

It was once said of the Long Fella, by his boss Noel Murless: "As far as I'm concerned, what happens out there is a mystery shared only by the horse, Lester - and God."

Walsh's trainer Willie Mullins was of a similar disposition late into afternoon sunshine.

He pointed to Walsh's most recent work and shook his head in admiration. It certainly had all the familiar sweep of a classic mastery.

He claimed the JLT Novices Chase on Black Hercules with a coaxing touch of profound patience. The Ryanair Chase was secured by the simple, unobtrusive release of Vautour's withering talent.

The Trull House Stud Mares' Novices Hurdle followed seamlessly with the brisk easing of Limini into the perfect position for an unanswerable run.

It was a three-timer fit for the equine heavens and left Walsh 19 places ahead of his nearest rival Barry Geraghty. He was 21 clear of the retired Tony McCoy. And back 27 places in the mist of old legend was the immortal Pat Taaffe.

Walsh felt obliged to deflect some of the glow of tribute, saying, "I'm just the lucky guy who gets to steer the ship."

Mullins would have none of it. After seeing Black Hercules driven home, the trainer - now just one off his own record mark of eight wins in one Festival, declared: "It was a classy performance. I thought we were beaten at the second last when L'Ami Serge went by but once Ruby got him balanced and running he just powered up the straight.

"He would have been too free in the four-miler (the National Hunt Chase on Tuesday) so I'm glad we changed. I thought he was a stayer at first but then when he showed me what he had I began to think differently.

"Ruby is the best jockey I've ever had riding for me. From the time I first saw him as a seven-pound claimer he was different gravy - and he still is. I first saw him riding a winner at Gowran Park and was very impressed.

"When I next saw him I was meant to be riding one of my own but I got hungry and wanted to have lunch so I said to his father Ted, 'Where's Ruby?'

"He was at home watching television but he came straight over and rode the horse for me. My last ever ride was a winner and I beat him a short head and I came back in and said that I'd hang up my boots because that was enough.

"We couldn't know then all that would happen all these years later but I did know that Ruby was going to be a top, top jockey.

"His first winner for me was a little filly, who was a relation of Snow Drop (winner of the 2000 Triumph Hurdle) in an 18- or 19-runner bumper at Leopardstown and he came from last to first to win on her. It was a terrific ride and I thought then, 'That's the future'.

"It was only the second or third winner in his life. For a kid to give her a ride like that was just amazing. He just oozes class and he's always in the right place at the right time in a race."

There was much unease and some bitterness, of course, when Mullins decided that the right place for Vautour this week was in yesterday's race rather than the likely decisive duel with stablemate Djakadam in today's Gold Cup.

That undercurrent of resentment from punters who had been assured that if Vautour faced any challenge at all it was in the biggest Cheltenham race of them all was not too difficult to detect even in the aftermath of a stunning triumph. But the trainer and his rider had rarely made a tighter common front.

Walsh said that his decision would have been to leave the winner back home in Co Carlow. He explained: "When I rode him this morning for the first time since the King George he felt alive - that's the wrong way to describe it but there was power there, a hunger in him. If I was training him, and thank God I'm not, he wouldn't have been here, he would have been home in Ireland.

"That's why Willie Mullins is so good. He shuffled the pack and said, 'Put him in the Ryanair and see what happens'. It was a brave decision but the horse came alive on the day. He ran a blinder in the King George but his work had been very lethargic.

"When David Casey rode him on Saturday, he said his work was somewhere near right. He worked half all right with a cross nose-band on him. I wouldn't say he worked well."

Yet there it was out on the course, a blend of timing and strategy, some no doubt would say of a quite cynical variety, and the catalyst provided by a rider for whom the smallest nuance of movement or mood is a guide to vital performance.

Walsh reviewed the victory so coolly he might have been taking a hack in the gentlest meadow.

"When we came down the hill today into the straight for the first time he came alive - and then I was happy. I didn't want to press on too early because I was aware of the stamina of Road To Riches and I was thinking if my fellow starts to pull up he'll be coming back to me. I also knew Valseur Lido would be a strong stayer, but we rounded the bend and my horse opened up like last year. Incredible. He was tight at the last two but he was deadly at them.

"He jumped straight as a die, even though he had chances to jump left."

Enchanted

There was a glow, now, in the eyes of the man who seems to have left a little of himself in a valley he has so consistently made enchanted.

He talked of his good luck, and not least at being so firmly in the trust of Willie Mullins.

"It's amazing to get past 50," he said. "When I joined Pat Taaffe on 25 winners I thought that was unbelievable. You know I've been lucky around here. Lucky to be in the privileged position to ride for Willie Mullins now and Paul Nicholls in the past - without people like that backing me I wouldn't have got near that number.

"Of course I stand by Willie whatever he does. He is a genius."

The mutual regard can never have been quite so intense - or apparent. Ruby paints another masterpiece under the gun and Willie wears the dreamy look of someone gazing at the Mona Lisa.

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