Tuesday 22 May 2018

Vincent Hogan: Ruby's 'understanding with pain' will be needed again

Walsh Festival over but road back is just beginning after Al Boum Photo tumble

Ruby Walsh lies on the ground after falling off Al Boum Photo at Cheltenham
Ruby Walsh lies on the ground after falling off Al Boum Photo at Cheltenham
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Six years ago, Ruby Walsh, Davy Russell and Barry Geraghty participated in a TG4 documentary, 'Jump Boys', focusing on the habitually dangerous lives led by National Hunt jockeys.

Walsh proved typically candid on camera about the weigh-room mindset that allows whip-thin men and women risk life and limb without as much as a backward glance. Referencing the fatal fall of Kieran Kelly at Kilbeggan in 2003, Ruby reflected: "By the law of averages, one jockey gets killed, guess then it probably won't be me... a bit selfish, isn't it?"

The makers of the programme were smart enough to recognise just how alien the world these people occupy will always remain to most of us. So they created an ambience of sufficient intimacy for the jockeys to be comfortably candid about their lives less ordinary.

All could point to a history of dislocations and bone fractures unimaginable to those of us leading largely sedentary lives in which such injuries would amount to profound life experiences.

But, for jump jockeys, injuries are - above all - inconveniences.

Walsh's first instinct yesterday after the fall on Al Boum Photo that appeared to have re-broken his leg was to fling his helmet to the ground in palpable disgust. The pain? That was always going to be a secondary consideration.

As Willie Mullins put it: "He was sore in there (nodding towards the weigh-room), but sore mentally as much as anything. It looked an innocuous enough fall, I thought he'd roll off to the other side, but his leg just got caught and he didn't get clear in time. I'd say he's hurting as much from the disappointment as the pain of the injury. It's a tough blow to him, missing out on all the big Festivals coming up."

For Walsh at 38, inevitably, there will even be speculation now about his appetite for another long period of rehab to get back into the arena he dominates with such unassailable majesty. His two victories on Tuesday brought his total Cheltenham tally to 58, a mark unlikely to be surpassed in the lifetime of anybody present at the track.

And he was pointedly emotional afterwards, paying tribute to those who'd helped him through a difficult three months, not least wife Gillian.

In his autobiography, Ruby tells a story running to the heart of the single-mindedness that has established him as, arguably, the greatest National Hunt jockey ever seen. The day before his wedding, he was due to ride a fancied Paul Nicholls horse at Uttoxeter.

That evening there was a rehearsal dinner organised for the wedding party, Ruby's presence at it was dependent upon making a 7.30pm flight from Birmingham.

But a fire at the track delayed the card, the feature race postponed until 6.05pm. Still workable.

But on arrival at the airport, Ruby discovered that a freak thunderstorm over the Irish Sea had grounded all flights to Ireland. It was 11pm by the time they boarded, only for a problem to then be discovered with the flight's air-conditioning. So Ruby Walsh's wedding day dawned with him sitting on the tarmac in Birmingham Airport.

Had it really been necessary for him to be there?

"It wasn't to disrespect our marriage or anything," he wrote, "but it was the Summer National at Uttoxeter, Paul Nicholls had a horse running with a chance. He said, 'No problem if you don't want to come.' But it was a race that was worth winning and I wanted to be there to win it."

In his own estimation, Walsh has been injured just about every year since he was 20. Yet, most jockeys find the tricks to come to a resolution with pain, to befriend it almost.

Declan Murphy, who came close to losing his life when shattering his skull in 12 places at Haydock Park in '94, puts it quite beautifully in his book, 'Centaur'.

"I believe that all of us, all jockeys, have an understanding with pain," wrote Murphy. "So in control do we feel in the environment that we are in, we simply don't see pain as it is perceived by others.

"This is the secret language between us; so we laugh off the broken collarbones and the concussed heads, the fractured wrists and the bruised ribs. We get up and we go on."

That's precisely what Walsh tried to do yesterday after Al Boum Photo's fall, only to discover that his right leg could not support him. The same right leg that he'd nursed with fluctuating levels of frustration for 110 days just to make this Festival.

A statement from his sister and agent, Jennifer, last night confirmed that Ruby had "aggravated the recent leg injury" and would be re-acquainted with his consultant in Dublin next week.

Mullins certainly seemed to be anticipating starker news than a simple "aggravation".

"It appears to be the same injury again," he told us. "He's gone for X-rays just to see how bad the damage is. But it looks like it might be broken again."

The implications of another long absence from the saddle for Ruby will not be welcomed in the Mullins yard. In yesterday's 'Racing Post', Willie confirmed that the decision to run Douvan in the Champion Chase was, essentially, his lead jockey's. That is the weight he openly places on Ruby's opinion.

And the horse would look "the Douvan of old" in Mullins's words - his son, Patrick, in the saddle - until capsizing in a race eventually won by the favourite, Altior.

So regret was hitching a ride in every corner of Closutton as they began taking Ruby Walsh on a familiar journey to Gloucester Royal.

"It's a fair setback for us," agreed Mullins. "Apart from riding, the fact that he's not here because his knowledge of Cheltenham, of all the runners, everything... just when any of the other riders want to defer...including myself, we defer to him, he just has huge knowledge. He's a huge person in the background, never mind when he's riding on top of his game.

Wasted

"So, hopefully, he won't be kept in too long. I don't know what's going to happen to it. He's really, really disappointed."

So much emotion is wasted and spent through the four-day congregation at this track built around a curve in a Gloucestershire valley, you can easily lose sight of the physical courage of those who entertain us.

Roughly 90 minutes after bringing Presenting Percy home first in the RSA yesterday, Russell took a horrible tumble on Bless The Wings in the Steeple Chase, being stood down for the remainder of the day.

In 'Jump Boys', the Youghal man was asked what it was that made a good National Hunt jockey.

"To be as thick as a plank is a very good starting point!" he responded with a grin. Davy Russell was being mischievous of course. The men and women of the weigh-room may be many things, but unintelligent is not one of them.

Irish Independent

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