Sport Vincent Hogan

Monday 9 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: Resilient Ruby saves punters from penury

Irish domination mercifully unsullied by tricolours, gloating and paddywhackery

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It is one of the great, clunking clichés of this festival for jockeys of Irish-trained winners to wear a tricolour back to the enclosure.

For some, the tradition has begun to grate a little. So much of this celebration of jump racing is about jolly co-habitation that the idea of our nationality paraded as a finger in the English eye seems to belong to a mindset formed on the spites of history.

The Irish at Cheltenham is really a story that has out-grown that kind of packaging.

In one sense, this St Patrick's Day confirmed it. Every race, bar the bumper, carried a story written in emerald green ink, six Irish jockeys victorious in seven races, three Irish trainers triumphant. The day followed a dramatic narrative that didn't need the bright paint of paddywhackery to bequeath it colour.

Ruby Walsh, typically, was at the epicentre of it all.

His final steps to a place in steeplechase history took him to all the cold, dark places that make this game perhaps the hardest there is in sport.

Within half an hour of watching his tearful sister Katie ride her first festival winner, he was being tossed to the Gloucestershire turf in a fall that prefaced maybe the most miserable hour he has endured in this magical pocket of the Cotswolds.

Flopped

Quel Esprit's fall was bad, but, in the next, Citizen Vic's proved fatal. Then Master Minded flopped in the Queen Mother. If Ruby was of a sensitive disposition, he might have been inclined to cross the road to the cottage the family rent and climb into bed, the sheets pulled high above his head.

Yet his whole career has been a triumph of resilience and patient persuasion. On Tuesday, he provided embattled punters with a late rescue from looming penury with that record-equalling victory on Quevega and, here again, he would deliver Sanctuaire with the most sublime exhibition of balance and authority in the saddle.

Pat Taaffe once said that a length gained at the last is worth a hundred yards on the run-in and the man who has now replaced him as the most successful festival jockey of all time put flesh on the bones of that theory here.

Ruby is, instinctively, flippant about his place in history. Yet connoisseurs of the game will surely recall yesterday as one of those days that franked his place with the Gods.

"Look, that's horse-racing" Walsh shrugged impassively after Sanctuaire's victory in the Fred Winter. "They're not machines. You can't turn them on, then turn them off again. You get a few falls and you get up. One gets beat and you keep going."

It was, by any standards, an extraordinary day. As the light began to drain away, Ruby's father Ted confessed: "I'm coming here since 1968, I'm a die-hard racing man and, if I was going to drop dead, I would like to drop dead right here. Outside of Ireland, this is the place I would like to be buried."

The sight of daughter Katie on Poker de Sivola eclipsing Nina Carberry on Becauseicouldntsee in a startling finish to the amateur race had deposited a lump in the throat of more than just immediate family. Katie and Nina stay together during festival week. They are close friends.

Yet, as Katie put it: "We're the best of mates, but out there is out there!"

Previously, her greatest day in racing had been leading Papillon up for the 2000 Grand National, the horse -- of course -- trained by Ted, ridden by Ruby. Yet this glory was specifically hers. Indeed, the sight of two Irishwomen surging up the Cheltenham hill, way clear of the chasing posse, brought a palpable tingle through the grandstand -- one lost only on the stewards, who subsequently slapped both with bans for excessive use of the whip.

Yesterday's marquee winner was Barry Geraghty in the Champion Chase, delivering Big Zeb to the prize with masterful aplomb. On Tuesday night, his wife Paula had scolded him lightly for seeming a mite preoccupied. "Probably just taking things a little bit serious" he smiled. "You know it's a tense week and you just want to get a winner..."

Yet Big Zeb tranquilised the field with his jumping and Geraghty captured the essence of what it was that took him clear. "He's probably a bit like Moscow Flyer in that he's got balls," he explained. "He'll take a chance and he'll do something stupid. He won't duck out of one.

"There's probably a fine line between being a great jumper and being a bit of an eejit or a bit of a lunatic that would miss one. You need a lad who'll throw caution to the wind and he did that today. So, you just roll at them and take them as you meet them."

The connections had been confident then? "Only a madman would be confident coming here" interjected a deadpan trainer, Colm Murphy.

Yet Paula Geraghty clearly understands the mental side of National Hunt. Within half an hour of Big Zeb's win, Barry was back in the winner's enclosure with Spirit River.

Like buses...

Big victories too for Jason Maguire on Peddlers Cross in the Novice Hurdle and, memorably, Davy Russell, who got Weapon's Amnesty up in the RSA Chase with the stealth of a pickpocket.

And Russell took the opportunity to defend the honour of young Brian O'Connell, whose performance on Dunguib in Tuesday's opener came in for such scathing criticism from Channel Four's resident loudmouth, John McCririck.

"As a colleague to Brian, I've been in his position" said Russell. "I've been young, starting off too. And I would have been very insulted by the comments made on television this morning. One thing maybe if it was aimed at me or Ruby or Timmy Murphy or Tony McCoy. We can take it on the chin.

"We're not at the bottom of the ladder, but he is. He needs help. Those things shouldn't be said, because we're sportsmen and we don't deserve that. And Brian O'Connell did not deserve that.

"He (Dunguib) wasn't the best horse on the day. If you lost your money on it, take it on the chin. He had to take it on the chin. He lost as much as everybody else. For someone like John McCririck, who doesn't know one end of a horse from the other...

"Look, if he's a punter, let him take it on the chin. A good, solid man would take it on the chin."

It was a stirring and entirely appropriate expression of weigh-room solidarity on a day that had become an ode to Irish horsemanship.

Nine out of 13 races so far won by Irish jockeys, then.

Yet few enough tricolours worn like officers' tunics to the winner's enclosure. Little enough jingoism.

Signs, maybe, that we're just growing up.

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