Tuesday 25 June 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Ruby Walsh reads pace of his career race to perfection'

 

Golden handshake: Ruby Walsh and trainer Willie Mullins celebrate with the Gold Cup after Kemboy's success at Punchestown
Golden handshake: Ruby Walsh and trainer Willie Mullins celebrate with the Gold Cup after Kemboy's success at Punchestown
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The expression fell from so many lips last night it all but carried the urgent tone of a church psalm being recited. Ruby, they said, was "getting out in one piece".

It sounded the least he was due after almost a quarter of a century of unassailable eloquence in the saddle; a lifetime of intimacy with danger and harsh stable routines that have left many retired jump jockeys with bodies that are little more than jangling bags of loose-fitting bones.

For 24 years he set a standard of race riding that, sometimes, seemed almost otherworldly.

Willie Mullins referred to him last night as having "a natural clock" in his head.

By that, he meant the ability to read pace in a race better than anybody else around; to settle a horse deep if that's where its personality suited, then come late through the field as if they'd been delayed at a railway crossing.

That was the essence of Ruby Walsh. The capacity to read precisely what was required and deliver it - note-perfect. The highest form of genius is that which is obvious even to the uneducated eye.

And you didn't need to know racing to recognise something different in Walsh on a horse.

Perversely, it was maybe the way his riding style revealed so little obvious strain or movement that communicated that difference.

Ruby always believed it was better to build a rapport with his mount than invite it into a wrestle.

The bare stats of his career carry astonishing weight: 59 Cheltenham winners (a record); leading jockey at the Festival 12 times (a record); 213 Grade One winners (a record); 12-time Irish champion jockey; a winner of 2,756 races, including all of the majors, including some left-field ones like the French Champion Hurdle, Australian Grand National, American Champion Hurdle and the 2013 Grand Nakayama Jump in Japan (the only European jockey to win the latter).

He has always been a man of fiercely independent spirit too, and maybe nothing communicated that better than the style of yesterday's shock announcement.

Even Mullins was momentarily "gob-smacked" as Walsh, just back in the Gold Cup winner's enclosure on Kemboy, announced to the champion trainer that he'd have to find a replacement jockey for the next race, remarking: "That's it, I'm finished!"

The two have forged an extraordinary alliance in recent seasons, with Mullins expressing the hope that Walsh might consider a future role on the training side of his operation in Closutton, though making clear he had, as yet, absolutely no idea if such a role would hold any appeal.

"But, wow, what a way to go out!" said Mullins. "All I said to him afterwards was thank you!"

Now 39, Walsh had given little prior indication of his intentions, though something about the way he was with his children at Aintree before the recent Grand National did suggest to Mullins that the idea might not have been a million miles from his thoughts.

Ruby has broken just about every important bone in his body and there comes a time for every jump jockey when they know enough is enough.

For all that, the shock of his announcement was palpable around Punchestown.

The sense of something, someone sacred leaving the sport, left many in tears, not least his father Ted and sister Jennifer.

Only Walsh's family - his wife Gillian especially - can truly know the investment of mind and body it has taken to become what Mullins describes as "the greatest we have seen".

And it didn't require any great leap of faith to see the truth in that.

Even his great rival Davy Russell admitted last night that Ruby Walsh was setting standards in the weigh-room that everybody else, essentially, had to chase. For, with that regal elegance in the saddle, that sense of almost poetic ease with a horse, came a kind of hell-cat defiance, a competitive fury that made him hard to beat even on an inferior horse.

"When Ruby was in the weigh-room, I rode better" said Russell. "Because I knew I'd have to."

Over the years some tried mimicking Walsh's style only to end up on the floor, realising too late that his greatness wasn't so much what you saw as what you didn't.

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