Ruby’s star shining as brightly as ever
Before his appointment with history, Ruby Walsh tended to the courtesies of defeat. As Big Buck's, the vast, almost goofy box-walker which doesn't know how to lose, was being readied to go to war, his jockey stepped into the losers' paddock with a saddle in his hand and a great ocean of pressure splashing around his ears.
Walsh had pulled up Blazing Tempo in the Ryanair and now waited for the connections to find him.
There is a formal process to be observed with beaten horses, no matter the temptation to suspend it. So Walsh held position, maybe 10 strides from the weigh-room steps, his expression a looming rebuke to any strangers thinking of tossing an opinion in his direction.
It is said, euphemistically, that Ruby "doesn't suffer fools" and he's certainly not one to use a dozen words when five might be sufficient.
He's had, in his own words, an "ordinary" week, one punctured by Hurricane Fly's dethronement in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle.
And, as Big Buck's price began to drift to a scarcely generous 5/6 yesterday, you could feel a peculiar tension roll down off the stands. What, you had to wonder, was going through his mind?
Down at the start, he would turn to his sister Katie and sigh, "Pressure's on here ... "
Katie, riding Mourad, did what any good sibling would. She played down the implications of failure. "If they're not firing, they're not firing," she said. Ruby nodded. Katie was right, of course. But he also knew there wouldn't be much kindness around if Big Buck's came home defeated.
"This is what your year's built around, there'd big pressure on, big expectation to perform," he would tell us later. "And, if the horses don't perform, most people are blaming the lad on his back."
Walsh is, of course, the most successful jockey this place has ever seen. The World Hurdle victory would be his 34th win at the Festival. You might think familiarity would dull the faculties a little, nurture little threads of ambivalence or complacency. No chance. Winning remains the only thing that oils the hinges of a Ruby Walsh day.
He has broken just about every bone in his body, both legs, a wrist, a hip, he has cracked vertebrae, dislocated shoulders and -- maybe most harrowing of all -- been separated from his spleen.
Yet, Ruby still comes to the Festival like a man being chased for his life savings.
He hasn't had anything to prove for half a decade now, yet his work remains the very axis of a Cheltenham week.
Riding for the most successful stables in Ireland and England, Walsh gets on some wonderful horses and is expected to deliver them to the great prizes. Yet, after 17 Festival races this year, his solitary winner had been Quevega. For Ruby, Big Buck's simply had to score.
At the top of the hill, when the opposition closed around him in a kind of pincered movement, he must have felt like someone being edged towards a scaffold. Andrew Lynch on Voler La Vedette, Paul Townend on Thousand Stars and, most ominously, Barry Geraghty on Oscar Whisky were lining up for the scalp of the day.
"Sure you knew before you went out that's what was going to happen," Ruby would grin when it was over.
"I knew there was nothing good enough to go in front of me and carry me to the last hurdle, I was going to have to do it myself. So it (the job) was to get him running and keep him running.
"And it's a long way from the back of the second last to the last hurdle even. Once I got him running, then stamina was going to have to come into it. That's when the questions about the other horses were going to be asked. That's all you can do.
"We got running and he tested them and he proved that he stays better."
Great races always come back to us, tidy in recall. And the sight of this beautiful, irresistible force surging up the hill, almost made you believe that Big Buck's fourth consecutive World Hurdle win was delivered in an undramatic climate.
It wasn't. The noise of the crowd was a collective shriek.
"He's never flat out, he always has a bit left," recalled Ruby of a homeward climb that certainly fooled the public.
"Once we didn't get into a real sprint, I was always confident enough that he'd out-stay the others. You know every time you squeeze there's a bit more there. How much is there? I don't know because you never get to the bottom of him."
Approaching the last, Walsh and Lynch indulged in a game of cat-and-mouse. As Big Buck's edged towards Voler La Vedette for company, Lynch suddenly switched back underneath him, making for the rail.
"Andrew Lynch was riding a clever race," Ruby explained later.
"Big Buck's is an idle horse, the closer you get to him the more help you give him. So he was keeping away. When he went left, I went left to get over to him. He, of course, saw me coming, went the other way. So I went back right to him.
"I mean that's race-riding, a clever ride from the other jockey. He was doing the right thing. If I was riding his horse, I wouldn't have gone near Big Buck's either."
As it happened, Big Buck's just had too much toe when it counted. "A freak of a horse," said Lynch. "He could win another four or five of these if he wanted to."
And Walsh wasn't exactly adopting a contrary stance.
"He ended up a reasonable price I think," said Ruby laughing. "Anything just odds on is some price about Big Buck's. It's better than the banks!"
And it was almost a relief to see that old smile flame again on a day the light never climbed much higher than the grandstand.
Wheeling away, Ruby found his wife, Gillian, in the paddock and they met in lingering embrace. He spoke recently of how the arrival of children, Isabelle and Elsa, into his life has changed his perspective on what constitutes a bad day.
"Of course you get disappointed when you get beat or injured," he said, "but just waking up in the morning and the family being all right is what life is about."
People make presumptions about heroes. Ruby himself touched on it yesterday, when he spoke of Paul Nichols' racing achievement in getting Big Buck's back to win a fourth crown. Someone compared the achievement to the current winning-run of flat mare, Black Caviar.
It was clearly an absurd comparison, given the physical perils of National Hunt. But that's the populist perception of winners. They exist in a broad church of straight-line personalities, one indistinguishable from the other.
Yesterday, in the eyes of the racing world, Ruby Walsh was just one of them. The calm rapport he found with a horse he admits to being "a worrier" almost passed without general comment.
Much, you imagine, as he would like it. Because greatness creates a private narrative.
Yet, for much of the week, Cheltenham went about its everyday business essentially without Ruby Walsh. And, as Big Buck's was readied for battle, he wouldn't have been human if he hadn't felt the eyes of the world on his back.
So had he?
"Yeah but it's the kind of pressure you want," Ruby grinned. "The pressure is on everyone to try and beat Big Buck's, so when you're riding him it's an easier pressure!"
The fire still burns. And fiercely.