Monday 23 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Ruby's quiet genius knows no bounds

After latest day of Cheltenham glory only calamity can prevent Walsh from taking his sport to another stratosphere

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

ON THE Saturday after Cheltenham ’09, Ruby Walsh was booked for six rides in Naas. He’d just had a record seven winners at the Festival and Paul Nicholls could not understand where he would find the energy for his home track. He rang Ruby that morning. "I’m knackered," said the champion English trainer. "I honestly don’t know how you can ride today."

Walsh said that there would be no great mystery. Riding was easy when you had access to good horses. That day in Naas, Ruby fancied his chances.

As the thunder of fresh acclaim rolled off his slight frame in the Cotswolds yesterday, it was tempting to wonder what altitude Walsh is destined to take his sport to. Last year, he overhauled Pat Taaffe’s all-time record of 25 Cheltenham winners. After yesterday’s triple, Ruby’s mark now stands at 30.

Only something calamitous can surely prevent him taking it to another stratosphere.

But then that’s essentially the rub with jump racing. Calamity is forever tugging the jockey’s sleeve. A crashing fall and badly broken leg in Down Royal last November put him on the sidelines for four months.

Returning

And last Wednesday in Naas, Ruby hit the deck again for the first time since returning, the newspaper pictures making the blood run cold.

Yet, he walked away with bruising and a cut beneath his right eye that, by yesterday, had calcified into a purple scab.

Ruby’s association with two of National Hunt’s most powerful stables, occasionally, stimulates little shellbursts of resentment. No one came to the Cotswolds this week with a better book of rides. Yet, no one was entitled to.

Maybe Mouse Morris put it best some years ago when observing: “Anyone else could have that ammunition too, if they were good enough.”

Certainly, Willie Mullins did not hesitate in putting him on Hurricane Fly in yesterday’s feature. Paul Townend had won six Grade One races on the extraordinary gelding and, in any other set of circumstances, it would have seemed insane to break that partnership.

Ruby’s last ride on the horse was at Auteuil in May of ’08. Yet, that too offered a glimpse of what it is that makes him different. To make the weight that day, he had to get down to nine stone 11, the lightest he’d been since 16.

Why did he do it? Because he could.

Yesterday, Walsh won his first ever Champion Hurdle on Mullins’ Frenchbred star and book-ended the achievement with victories on Al Ferof in the first and the brilliant mare Quevega, in the sixth. By day’s end, he had the pink armband of leading rider in his care and few doubt that he will keep it now until the week’s business is concluded.

The place seems to grow small around him. Each time he came to the winner’s enclosure his instinct was to dismiss the victories as mere babysitting jobs on exceptional horses. Yet, Mullins was inclined to a more considered view.

He’d found it desperately hard to take Townend off Hurricane Fly and would have known that, outside the stable, people couldn’t but wonder about Ruby’s readiness for the Festival.

Yet, as Mullins put it: “I would rather Ruby half-fit than most others fully fit.”

As compensation, he has promised to arm Townend with the ammunition to win the jockeys’ title this year and the harmony of the arrangement was reflected in the weigh-room. Townend made a point of giving Walsh the smallest detail of Hurricane Fly’s eccentricities and that was important.

The horse is “hyper” according to Mullins and went down to the start lathered in a foamy sweat. “Paul rides him every day and I know it’s hard for him,” said Ruby. “He’s done a wonderful job with him.

“But he couldn’t have been better to me in the weigh-room. He said x, y and z might happen and look out for this and that. You know that’s a big thing for a young man to do.”

The greatest compliment people pay to young Townend now is that he has the same, analytical way of riding that characterises Walsh.

At the Festival especially, so many riders leave their brains in the weighroom. The great ones bide their time, letting their authority seep quietly into the horse beneath them. It hardly seemed a coincidence that the first three home in the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle yesterday were Walsh, Barry Geraghty and AP McCoy.

Geraghty would, actually, finish second in the first three races.

Yet, the way Ruby delivered Al Ferof from a mile back spoke of race-riding brought to the realm of chess. The 10/1 chance was never really in the picture until they arrived at the bottom of the hill.

Nicholls said the victory sign-posted Ruby’s unique mastery of timing. And Ruby?

“There wasn’t much judgment,” he said with a laugh that had a cackle to it. “They were going too fast for me. I couldn’t keep up. You can only go as fast as you’re able. You know, in fairness to him, he was probably off the bridle for most of the race. His jumping was super and that’s what really kept him in it.”

Then Ruby suggested that is was probably Nicholls’ advice that made the difference. He’d intended riding him much the same as he rode him in last year’s bumper (aggressively), but, in the parade ring, the trainer suggested holding something in reserve.

“No, sit him in a little bit further and let him settle if you can…” said Nicholls. And that’s what they did. “I guess his tactical call was right,” smiled Ruby. “And that made it easier for me to sit in even a bit further.”

Like Mullins, Nicholls understands what he has in his first-choice jockey.

The day before Ruby got married to Gillian, he rode a horse of Nicholls’ at Uttoxeter. The trainer had offered him the opportunity to bypass the assignment, yet Walsh was adamant. “It was a race that was worth winning,” he would recall later.

Yesterday, just as the Irish were all but drawn to the red glow of Sacred Heart lamps and three opening blanks, Hurricane Fly's victory set in train a resounding comeback for the invading army.

Mullins admitted that he only truly relaxed about the race as he helped Walsh into the saddle. “At least it was his concern from there on in,” smiled a man who now becomes the most successful Irish trainer at Cheltenham still living.

Walsh described the horse later as “quite keen” and in need of “a bit of riding.” Some in the paddock, watching him head down to start, thought it more than that. The horse looked uneasy in his skin.

Yet, Walsh delivered him, just as he would then deliver Quevega to an imperious three-in-a-row in the Mares Hurdle, despite the horse making an unholy leap at the last. “This is what you come back for, what you work for,” grinned the 31-year-old later.

“When you’re sitting in the gym, staring at yourself in the mirror, it’s what you’re thinking about. Being here.”

He thanked the people who had helped him through a wretched winter; David Moore the surgeon, a Mister McMullen in Belfast, the IRFU physiotherapist, Brian Greene. And then, with a faint flutter in his voice, he mentioned family.

For the essence of Ruby Walsh is maybe the support he enjoys from those closest to him. Part of his routine after a day’s racing is a stark and brutally honest debrief with his father, Ted. Yesterday, Ted was in the broadcast tower that overlooks the winning enclosure, giving his familiar clenched fist salute.

“I can’t have been that easy a guy to live with for four months, so fair play to Gillian,” said Ruby.

The daily communicants of National Hunt had missed his smile too.

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