Wednesday 22 November 2017

Master gives reminder of what it takes to be the best

Tommy Conlon

T hey are part of the broad church that is the sporting life but if jump jockeys should be categorised as anything, it is as working men.

They compete in races against each other for a living, but it's hard to think of another sport where the competitors seem less like sportsmen and more like members of the labouring classes.

The outdoor work, the winter weather, the low wages, the physical strength required; they are blue collar soldiers in an arduous game.

And watching Ruby Walsh deliver five winning horses at Cheltenham last week, one had the pleasure of witnessing in action a man who is a master of his trade. It is always heartening, in any walk of life, to see people do their work to a very high standard.

After all, it's not often one sees it, at least in civilian life. In the world of sport, with its strict meritocracy, we get a hierarchy based as close as is humanly possible to cold, empirical evidence. The criteria are talent and performance. The latter is the test of the former. The talent must be converted into performance. Once it is, the practitioner takes his or her place in the hierarchy. In that way, the order of merit is established, with the best at the top and the rest all the way down thereafter.

It is a touch Darwinian alright, which may be why sport has never been that popular among left-wing ideologues and the like. But it has about it a sort of implacable logic that makes it immune to human politics and subterfuge.

One didn't need to know the finer points of race-riding -- in my case even the broader points -- to appreciate that you were seeing in Walsh a man who is supremely good at what he does for a living.

The impression was confirmed, not just by his victories, but by his dissatisfaction in victory. He was self-critical, severely judgemental of his own performance in a few of his winning rides.

After every race the winning jockey on each occasion was interviewed down at the track, still on his horse and struggling to get his breath back. When Walsh won the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, he asked Channel 4's Alice Plunkett what the winning margin had been. Half a length, she told him. "Half a length is all I deserved to win," retorted Walsh. He'd never managed to settle the horse, he got to the front "a fraction" too soon, he was just relieved to have won.

Given this perfectionist streak, it was inevitable that he was the one person who wasn't happy with his performance in winning the World Hurdle on Thursday. Crossing the line he blessed himself, exhaled an enormous sigh of relief and draped a grateful hug around the horse's neck. Then he put his hand to his face as if haunted by something. Turned out he had dropped his whip.

Plunkett asked a happy question, Walsh was only interested in recrimination. "Jeez what a mistake to make," he said, refusing the compliments on offer. "Like, dropping your stick half-way to the last hurdle. Me own fault, I was trying to figure out where they were behind me. I was only half-watching what I was doing. That's schoolboy, like. Lucky to get away with it definitely. Not my finest hour in the saddle anyway. He (Big Buck's) is a wonderful horse, he got me out of jail today."

It prompted an interesting exchange between Ted Walsh and John Francome in the Channel 4 commentary box. Francome, seven times the champion jockey in his day, has campaigned against use of the whip in racing. Ted Walsh, as everyone knows, is old school. His post-race analysis usually includes phrases like "a couple of smacks", "a couple of tears", or "a few backhanders". Tears in this context meaning cracks of the whip, which he also calls "the stick" and -- as Gaeilge -- "the bata", and "the persuader". His son had won the race anyway but he figured that Ruby would not be happy looking at the TV pictures of himself, shaking the reins at his horse on the run-in.

"He looks a bit sloppy. Ruby would like to look a bit tidier than that. I'd say he'd loved to have had the bata from here

home. I know he won without it, but a couple of little smacks around the rear end . . ."

There was a prod at Francome built into this remark -- a verbal backhander. "Yeah," replied Francome, "but without being rude to you, Ted, what (Ruby) has got that you haven't, he's got a little bit more feeling . . ."

We think he meant that Ruby has more of a feel for a horse, but he may have meant it in the broader sense too.

The bigger point in any event was that Walsh Junior had had enough power in his legs to keep driving the horse on, and enough race craft to salvage the situation. On RTE, Colm Murray explained that, without the whip, and with Tom Scudamore's mount stealing up, Walsh edged his horse over so that it would see the rival animal in its peripheral vision. And it apparently worked. "The minute Big Buck's senses danger," said Murray, "he just powers ahead."

It wasn't much consolation to Ruby: he still looked like he wanted to whip himself rather than the horse.

thecouch@independent.ie

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