Thursday 17 October 2019

Festival deja vu so painful for Walsh as Benie Des Dieux takes costly tumble

Benie Des Dieux, ridden by jockey Ruby Walsh, comes crashing down at the last in the Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival yesterday. Photo: PA
Benie Des Dieux, ridden by jockey Ruby Walsh, comes crashing down at the last in the Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival yesterday. Photo: PA

Paul Hayward

Ruby Walsh is synonymous with the Cheltenham winning post, but there is another patch of turf that bears his signature. His fall after the last flight on Benie Des Dieux revived the ghastly memory of an identical tumble on Annie Power four years ago.

Same race, same stable, same owner, Rich Ricci, who said: "I just don't want the trolls to attack Ruby - he's the best jockey in the world. It happens, it happens. I just hope he's protected from the same nonsense he got the last (time). That's all I have to say."

Some chance. Those trolls, many displaying a poor grasp of the libel laws, railed against Walsh on Twitter, questioning not his skill but his integrity.

This is an old problem for National Hunt's finest rider.

It drove him to film a spoof with a leading bookmaker about a revenge mission against a tormentor who had been part of a chorus inferring the 11-time champion Festival rider 'jumps off' horses when it suits him.

There is, of course, no evidence to substantiate such allegations, which Walsh has ridiculed with comic skill and irritation.


But there was no evading the ignominy caused by this second high-profile crash when victory in the prosaically-named OLBG Mares' Hurdle was only a short gallop away.

The two falls will tag-team his dreams. Annie Power crumpling on the same spot in 2015 was described as "the £50m fall" and "the most expensive in National Hunt history", such was the weight of bets rolling on to the Willie Mullins-trained mare.

Jumping the last four winters back, Walsh was about to complete a fabulous four-timer after Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen had all scooted home.

The Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Arkle Chase and Champion Hurdle were all in the bag as Annie Power flopped over the last and buried her snout in the ground, sending Walsh overboard.

Benie Des Dieux tossing victory away was less vexing for punters, but was no trifling setback either. The comparison website Oddschecker called her the best-backed horse on day one.

A winner of all five races since joining the Mullins stable from France, she was a Festival 'banker'.

Mullins saddled five of the 14 runners in his attempt to win the race for the tenth time and Walsh called her "my best ride of the meeting".

Up went her front legs at the last, but down went her head, into the turf, leaving similar skid marks to Annie Power, and Walsh to observe Roksana (10/1) racing past for the brothers Skelton, Dan (trainer) and Harry (jockey).

On the BBC, Charlie Poste, another rider, was exclaiming: "Wow - it was like deja vu with Annie Power. The race was at her mercy. Knuckled over and gave away the race. The similarities to the tumble taken by Annie Power were madness."

Dan Skelton extended some consolation to Walsh, who started the meeting standing up in the saddle and punching the sky on Klassical Dream, another Mullins horse, in the SkyBet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, which lights the meeting's emotional fuse.

In an interview last Sunday, it was pointed out that Walsh had been injury-free and able to ride for only 39 of 338 days between November 2017 and October 2018, so no wonder he was exultant at starting Cheltenham week with a win.

His Champion Hurdle ride on Laurina was less auspicious - a distant fourth place, which prompted him to grumble: "She never rose a gallop. She was never going. I was never happy."

But that bit-part in Espoir D'Allen's Champion Hurdle win was a funfair ride compared to the fate awaiting him on Benie Des Dieux, whose trainer at least managed second and third with Stormy Ireland and Good Thyne Tara.

"Her getting up is the most important thing and that's what we have to remember," Ricci said of Benie Des Dieux.

Try telling that to the social media witchfinders.

"I am sorry for people who punted her and I know that I will get stick for that as well (after the Betbright takeover controversy), but it just doesn't matter - if she's up, that's fine," Ricci carried on.

Walsh was up, too, but he will have known what was waiting for him in the court of furious punters.

Jockeys should not be above challenge, or scrutiny, and maybe there is an expert somewhere who can find technical fault with the way Walsh delivered Annie Power and Benie Des Dieux to that final obstacle with one hand on the prize.

If so, those analysts have been pretty quiet. Without any external evidence or insight, the two falls stand as unforeseeable last-ditch agonies, shocking in their timing.

Both were exasperating for punters and windfalls for bookies. Especially Annie Power, which was in so many multiple bets.

Cheltenham intensifies these lurches from imminent victory to muddy, sprawling, script-shedding calamity. And Walsh is the last person we expect to see on the deck, in front of the stands, where the judgments are pitiless. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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