“YOU aren't in uniform, you're invisible.”
- Baseball great Nolan Ryan on retirement.
HIS adult life unspooled as Cheltenham's artist-in-residence, poet laureate of the Cotswolds, the epic lyricist of that murderous and venerated incline.
But Ruby Walsh, after a small eternity as Middlemarch's towering figure, won't be in uniform this year.
He is seven days out from his first Festival as an ex-jockey, yesterday's champ, Nolan Ryan's invisible man.
Sure, he will do his broadcast work, where a rare flair for distilling things down to their essence makes him such a compelling figure. And, he will be down in the storied bowl at dawn, among the dew-sweepers helping Willie Mullins prepare his equine soldiers for battle.
But it is not the same, it can't be; the matinee idol is now but a humble stagehand.
Gone is the buzz of 70,000 serenading the headline act, that intoxicating, ear-splitting Kaiser Chiefs chorus of "Ruby, Ruby, Ruby" raining down from the stands like a clap of celebratory thunder.
All that will be left next Tuesday is the ghosts of his glorious past swarming all around him.
And, you suspect, an empty chamber in his soul.
At a bone-deep level, how lonely and crushing must that truly feel?
To know that you will never again do what you did better than anybody else in history, that the days of holding the vast audience in the palm of your hand in that place where you so often rose up as an unstoppable force are over?
Lost and gone forever.
A superior artist, a Da Vinci in dazzling silks, will instead find the title deeds to the studio where he brought his masterpieces to life now in somebody else's custody. A new signature will be on the week's greatest works.
Ruby reconfigured the coliseum in that divine Gloucestershire valley as his own private storehouse of wonder – 11 times leading jockey, an unrivalled 59 victory dances – but the jolting truth is that it is no longer his playground.
The access code to the arena where the full contours of his genius were most eloquently revealed, where he was a second skin to Kauto Star and Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Big Buck's, Quevega and Vautour, are stolen away by time.
Walsh, wise and logical, is the very opposite of a slave to sentiment. He felt it was time to go last April. And so, he went. On his terms. At the peak of his powers.
His body language since has not been that of the tortured ex-pro who has tumbled into a sudden, black void.
Still, so many athletes – his friends AP McCoy and, just last month, Ronan O'Gara among them - describe leaving the arena as a kind of dying, a moving-on that is not really a moving-on at all. A new life of limbo.
A solitary place where it is hard to sing Edith Piaf's most famous chorus with any real conviction.
Even if Ruby insists he indeed has no regrets, this is Cheltenham: A holy place, the sacred shrine to those for whom National Hunt racing is so much less a sporting pursuit or a lifestyle choice than a religion.
So the suspicion is that a little involuntary shudder – call it sorrow, nostalgia, a lament for how it used to be – will, Coronavirus permitting, roll down Ruby's spine as the brutal truth confronts him.
Every direction in which he sets his gaze, his old life will invade the present, the graffiti of all those old glories spray-painted to every blade of grass.
Cheltenham in March was the place he seemed most vibrantly alive, a sanctuary from doubt, the dance floor where he elevated the communion between jockey and beast to the highest form of self-expression.
For many of us, the flame lit when he coaxed an animal to offer the very best of itself was something magnificent and imperishable.
What endures, even now, is the flawless computing of a tactical plan: As if the timepiece in his brain was carved from Swiss quartz.
A supreme stylist, somehow dapper and polished in the furious frenzy of that final exhausting climb, Walsh on the shoulders of a half-tonne beast was a study in grace.
A Vogue cover-shot.
It was Ali transformed into half-butterfly, half-bee; Messi slaloming past defenders as if they were no more than poles on an Alpine slope; Shefflin bending another Croke Park Sunday to his will.
Of course, because he is human and because it is a brutal, unvarnished trade, there were lowlights, too. All those falls and injuries and maddening cameos.
The last fence separation from Annie Power in 2015; the broken bone when Al Boum Photo crumpled in a heap and pulverised the jockey's leg two years ago.
But on the best days, it was as if Ruby was playing a Stradivarius while the rest were plucking an elastic-band.
This year, though, he will make no music.
And you wonder what emotions that will stir in a natural-born competitor, the finest horseman many of us had the life-affirming thrill of watching go to work?
In Donald McRae's marvellous A Man's World, a remarkable portrait of the prizefighter, Emile Griffith, the author describes one scene which brilliantly, bleakly describes the addiction to the narcotic of life in the arena.
Griffith, a five-time world champion in his mid-thirties and a fading force, has just lost to Tony Licata, an opponent he would have licked in his prime.
Holding an ice-pack to his battered face, his handsome features succumbing to age and the dark trade to which he has given his life, Emile is asked what it is that is whirling through his mind.
His answer is both gorgeous and heartbreaking and, you wonder, if it might resonate with Ruby Walsh.
"I would like to try waltzing with him again," says Griffith of his young conqueror, the old warrior clinging to the past, terrified to let go.
And fearing nothing, not even a knockout punch, so much as the thought of being invisible.