Sport Horse Racing

Friday 24 May 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Riding off into the sunset'

Ruby Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruby Walsh. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

'A bit like Tiger Woods at Augusta, he got to master Cheltenham early on and from early on he was good on the big occasion.' (Ted Walsh)

He couldn't have timed it any better. He'd always been a man who knew exactly when to make the decisive move. Ruby Walsh jumped off Kemboy and said to Willie Mullins, "Can you find someone for Livelovelaugh later?"

Ruby Walsh: ‘You can replace a horse, you can’t replace a human being.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Ruby Walsh: ‘You can replace a horse, you can’t replace a human being.’ Photo: Sportsfile

"I looked at him and wondered if he was lame or concussed," Mullins recalled. "And then he said, 'I'm out of here' and the penny dropped. I pulled him back then and just shook his hand." It was time for the greatest jockey in the history of National Hunt racing to tell Punchestown and the world, "You'll never see me on a horse again. I'm finished."

Ruby was leaving after winning the biggest race at the greatest Festival in Ireland at what happens to be his local track. The greatest jockey had just contrived to pull off the greatest of all retirements.

Maybe he got one thing wrong. In the same way that Neil Armstrong should have said, "one small step for A man," rather than "one small step for man," Ruby should probably have said "I'VE finished," rather than "I'M finished."

A man who is finished is someone with nothing left to give and little option but to quit. A man who has finished is someone who's going on his own terms and could carry on if he felt like it. The retiring Ruby Walsh falls into the latter category. He left at the top, his powers intact, his skills undiminished. Not too soon like Best or too late like Ali. Timing, you see. It was always about timing.

Who'd have thought it would come to this when, two months after his 16th birthday, he won his first race, a bumper at Gowran Park on July 15, 1995, on Siren Song? Who noticed that win in the month of Clare's first Munster hurling title in 63 years, of Offaly beating Kilkenny under thunder and lightning in Leinster, of Jayomania in Dublin and John Daly winning the British Open in a play-off against Costantino Rocca at St Andrews?

Two years later, Ruby was Irish amateur champion and two years after that he won the first of 12 Irish National Hunt titles. He was an obvious prodigy, a wonderkid with all the gifts and the 2000 Grand National would catapult him into the wider public eye.

It was his first outing over the big fences of the Aintree main event and coming to the last the race had been reduced to a battle between Ruby on Papillon and Norman Williamson on Mely Moss. Mely Moss seemed to be moving better but Papillon forged ahead by a length or so. With a hundred yards to go, Mely Moss drew level and seemed to have irresistible momentum on his side, but Ruby summoned up one last effort to win by a length and a half. He was jubilant. He looked like a kid.

That victory remains his favourite and seems emblematic because it epitomises two crucial aspects of his character.

The first is his ability to produce his best in the biggest races. There'll be plenty of arguments about whether Ruby or Tony McCoy deserves the title of greatest of all-time. But McCoy was, for a long time, horse racing's secret. Only after his Grand National win in 2010 did he become known to the wider sporting public, though he'd already won 13 British champion jockey titles by then. Ruby, on the other hand, was, from early on, familiar even to those with only the most casual interest in his sport.

The difference between the pair is perhaps the difference between Gordon Richards and Lester Piggott. For the cognoscenti, Richards was the man with the unassailable stats, but for the man or woman in the street, Lester was THE jockey. So it was with McCoy and Ruby, whose standing in the public affection is indicated by his being one of those individuals - like DJ, Micko, Tiger or Gooch - known by one name only.

Papillon is also important in Ruby's career because the horse was trained by his father, Ted. I'm not sure Irish public life offers a healthier example of family dynamics than the Walshes. Ruby has ridden for his father and against his sister Katie, while another sister Jennifer has been his racing agent from the word go.

The great thing about the clan is that, without ever being any way mawkish or showy about it, they give an impression of hugely enjoying each other's company, of taking the ups and downs together and always having each other's back. It is not surprising that the main factor in Ruby's retirement is his desire to spend more time with his wife and daughters.

Ted's ability to maintain professionalism as a pundit where Ruby is concerned has been proverbial, so it was typical that even with emotion running high at Punchestown, he delivered a telling comment on his son's prowess at the biggest meeting of them all, "A bit like Tiger Woods at Augusta, he got to master Cheltenham early on and from early on he was good on the big occasion."

At Cheltenham, Ruby seemed to move on to another level, one which no-one has matched and probably no-one will again. His records of 59 winners, 11 leading jockey titles and seven winners at one Festival are unlikely to be surpassed. Those victories included two Gold Cups, four Champion Hurdles, three Champion Chases, five Stayers' Hurdles, six Supreme Novice Hurdles, eight Mares' Hurdles and four Ryanair Chases.

He rode some of the greatest horses in Festival history: Kauto Star to two Gold Cups, Hurricane Fly to two Champion Hurdles, Master Minded to two Champion Chases, the first a breathtaking 19-length victory, Big Buck's to four successive Stayers' Hurdles and Quevega to six Mares' Hurdles wins on the trot.

But perhaps he was never any better than on day three of the 2017 Festival. Against all expectations, Ruby and Willie Mullins began the day with no winners at all as Gordon Elliott stole the show. In the first race of the day, the JLT Novices' Chase, the talented but quirky Yorkhill carried their hopes. It made for nerve-wracking viewing as Yorkhill kept jumping to the left, almost came down at the last and slowed on the run-in, but Ruby got him home by a length for a victory which looks even more remarkable now that the horse has failed to win any of his eight subsequent races.

Soon after, he took charge of Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair Chase and let an impatient looking horse make the running from the fifth fence onwards. It was a huge gamble but one which paid off with a uniquely brave length-and-a-half victory. Ruby went on to win four races that day, another Festival record which won't be broken any time soon.

* * * * *

'The reality is that I ride for myself, the trainer and his owners. I suppose it has been hard for the punters but the bookies always have the money.' (Ruby Walsh)

On Wednesday, Ruby described himself as, "So lucky from day one to ride so many incredible horses . . . no jockey is any good without the horses." That's true but only the most talented jockeys get to ride such horses. Even Kauto Star, perhaps the best of them all, made a blunder at the final fence of the 2007 Gold Cup which required all of Ruby's expertise to rectify. And his 200th Grade One winner, in the 2018 Arkle Trophy on Footpad, came after an early jumping error which would have left many riders on the turf.

He knew that Cheltenham was the ultimate proving ground, calling it, "The making and breaking of your year. There's relief when you ride a winner. It's where you want to perform and where you want not to make mistakes. You have to be consistent for four days every half hour or 40 minutes. If I go to Cheltenham and draw a blank do you think the headlines are not going to say, 'Disaster for Walsh.'

There were red letter days at other courses too. A thrilling victory in the 2009 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury as Kauto Star's great rival Denman outlasted opposition to whom he was giving away over a stone and a half. Great wins on Commanche Court for his dad in the 2000 Irish Grand National and on Hedgehunter for Willie Mullins in the 2005 Grand National at Aintree.

The most lucrative victory of his career came in 2013 when he and Mullins won the richest steeplechase in the world, Japan's Nakayama Grand Jump, 25/1 outsider Blackstairsmountain winning by half a length. Three years ago he nipped over to the US to win that country's Grand National, and North America's most valuable steeplechase, on Rawnaq. The previous year he'd won the Australian National on Bashboy.

The pinnacle of his career may have been between 2007 and 2009. In both those years he rode 200 winners in England and Ireland as he combined the role of number one jockey for both Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, something he managed to do for over a decade till 2013. Yet there was no waning of his powers and in 2017 when he won his 12th Irish jockeys' title, it was with his joint highest total and highest winning percentage.

This consistency persisted despite a gruesome series of injuries. Right at the start of his professional career in 1999, he suffered a broken leg after crashing into a protruding rail at the Pardubice track in the Czech Republic just two weeks after returning from a broken collarbone. He broke the same leg in a training accident the same year and missed five months of the season.

In 2008, he suffered a ruptured spleen when kicked by a horse after falling at Cheltenham. It required an emergency operation to remove the organ and Ruby was back in action 27 days later. In 2010, a broken arm was followed by a fractured tibia and fibula, a year later came crushed neck vertebrae after a fall at Killarney.

There were fractured wrists, dislocated hips, cracked elbows, dislocated shoulders and a broken leg in November 2017 followed by another one at the subsequent Cheltenham Festival. It makes the 'battling back from injury' stories of footballers seem pretty tame stuff.

His ability to keep coming back without his performance being affected was perhaps Ruby's most admirable quality. Yet he was not without his detractors, largely among the wannabe wide boys of social media who felt personally betrayed by his last-fence fall on Annie Power in the 2015 Mares' Hurdle and the similar fate which befell Benie Des Dieux in the same race this year.

Ruby passed little heed and noted last week, "The social media stuff didn't really bother me. You have to read it for it to bother you. Now I'm not ignorant enough not to know that I didn't get my fair share of criticism but I didn't read it. I'm old-fashioned, I read newspapers."

It's worth noting that he displayed the same equanimity when hailed as the punters' saviour after winning a Stayers' Hurdle on Big Buck's. "Politically I should say that is good," he said, "but the reality is that I ride for myself, the trainer and his owners. I suppose it has been hard for the punters but the bookies always have the money. It has always been that way."

* * * * *

'Modesty is not pretending you're no good when you know you are. It's knowing exactly how good you are.' (Christy Ring)

Ruby inherited the habit of straight talking from his father. Not only do they refuse to beat around the bush, they give the impression of not knowing there's a bush there at all. Hence the criticism which followed his comment following the death of Our Conor at Cheltenham in 2014 that, "It's sad but horses are animals, outside your back door. Humans are humans, they are inside your back door. You can replace a horse, you can't replace a human being."

This, and his subsequent statement that there's a big difference between something happening to your dog and something happening to one of your kids, was no more than an obvious statement of fact. Yet in certain quarters there was a feeling, as there was about Ted's suggestion that jockey fines at this year's Cheltenham were merely an attempt to placate the sport's opponents, that even though he was right Ruby shouldn't have said it.

That's nonsense. We're always better off hearing the truth. It's probably this forthright quality which leads some people, as Ruby admitted in his autobiography, to regard him as arrogant even though there's little record of him blowing his own trumpet. Ted's assessment of his son as "never cocky but always confident," seems to hit the mark. As does the observation of a genius from another era, Christy Ring, who declared, "Modesty is not pretending you're no good when you know you are. It's knowing exactly how good you are."

The unwillingness to engage in faux self-deprecation is the mark of an intelligent man and intelligence was Ruby's defining quality in the saddle. It was what he admired in his favourite jockey, noting "Charlie Swan was better tactically than everyone. He was ahead of every jockey he ever rode against. Maybe there were stronger jockeys over a jump and maybe there were jockeys who looked more stylish, but nobody was better than Charlie for winning a race when he had no right to."

Their old rival Mick Fitzgerald thought this cerebral quality distinguished Ruby from McCoy. "Ruby is very quiet. You see a lot more movement with AP but both are just as effective. Ruby is brilliant at what he does. He rides a very different race to AP. He's a lot quieter, he allows the horse much more time to get into it. He does little things that you can't actually see. If you watch Ruby you'll see him make little moves, he'll sit down a little bit lower on a horse, he'll ask a horse to quicken a little at a particular time because he wants to get in a position he wants the horse in."

If the trademark McCoy victory involved a driving finish, the classic Ruby triumph tended to have more to do with perfect judgement of the pace. It was there a fortnight ago in the Irish Grand National when he waited patiently before sending the full-of-running Burrows Saint into the lead coming to the last and it was there in the Punchestown Gold Cup when he controlled the pace from the front on Kemboy against a strong field.

Paul Nicholls thought it was as good a ride as he'd ever seen. And then Ruby dismounted and that was that. On occasions like this we tend to speculate about who the successors will be. But even though there are terrific young jockeys coming up, the likes of Paul Townend, Jack Kennedy, Rachael Blackmore, there will be no new Ruby any more than there will be a new Messi or a new Tiger. The truly great are sui generis.

It's hard to think of National Hunt racing without him and perhaps we won't really see the size of the Ruby-shaped hole in the sport till Cheltenham rolls around next March. He gave us everything and he owes us nothing. May he live, love and laugh for a long time to come.

Thanks for the memories champ. You made life more fun for a lot of us.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Leinster's succession plan, Munster's missing piece and the art of contract negotiations

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport