Saturday 23 March 2019

Fire still burns as Ruby weighs up his Festival prospects

In the stables

Jockey Ruby Walsh. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Jockey Ruby Walsh. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

He is still marginal favourite to become leading jockey at the Cotswolds for a 12th time, but next week's Cheltenham Festival definitely has a different feel to it for Ruby Walsh.

Mouths are usually yapping in the days before flagfall with talk about the latest hotpot for the all-conquering Walsh and Willie Mullins axis, but finding winners is likely to be a little more difficult this time around.

While Walsh should add to his 58 Festival victories with "plenty of chances" among a decent Mullins crew, some challenging decisions await the 39-year-old if he is to enter the winners' enclosure.

"I don't have as many favourites to ride as I've had in the past. The more favourites you have the more chances you have of riding winners. We've plenty of chances but not as many strong ones as in the past," says Walsh, who these days also doubles up as a Paddy Power ambassador.

"The more big rides you have, the better chance you have of riding winners and you couldn't have enough of them. That's what I wanted (each year), to be on as many hotpots as you can get yourself on.

"We have had stand-out novices in other years that you'd have thought would be hard to beat, probably better strength in our novice chasers, more mob-handed in the Bumper.

"That said, we're strong in the Championship races. Willie Mullins could win all four of them and Ruby Walsh mightn't ride any of them. Willie is very strong but getting on the right ones could be a pick in itself."

His most difficult choice will probably come in the Gold Cup where Mullins saddles a star-studded quartet as the Closutton maestro bids to finally break his blue-riband duck having finished runner-up on six occasions.

No commitment has been made to ride Irish Gold Cup hero Kemboy (8/1), Bellshill (12/1), Al Boum Photo (12/1) or Invitation Only (25/1) but the Kildare pilot admits he is "leaning in a certain direction".

Walsh returns to Cheltenham for the first time since making a triumphant comeback 12 months ago on the Festival's first day before disaster struck 24 hours later with a broken leg following Al Boum Photo's fall at the second last in the RSA Chase causing further heartbreak.

"What happened last year is the reality of racing. I've been lucky, I've been to 20-odd Cheltenhams since I started riding and I think I've missed three and a half days. I've been lucky that that's all I've missed."

Walsh rates Benie Des Dieux as the banker of his book of rides with the eight-year-old bidding for back-to-back victories in the Mares' Hurdle and he isn't bothered by the lack of a prep run this season as Quevega did likewise during her six-in-a-row winning sequence from 2009-'14.

There won't be a dry eye in the house if 2015 Champion Hurdle hero Faugheen rolls back the clock to land the Stayers' Hurdle and with last year's winner Penhill ruled out through injury, Walsh will be reunited with the loveable 11-year-old.

Walsh was nursing his second leg break in quick succession when Faugheen delivered one of the performances of the season to thrive over 3m in the Grade One Stayers' Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last April.

Faugheen fell at the second last flight - hitting the deck for the first time in his glittering career - when lying a close second to Apple's Jade in Leopardstown at Christmas with questions yet to be asked, and Walsh isn't ruling out a fairytale success.

"He's in great form. He was brilliant at Punchestown when he beat Penhill. He was travelling well behind Apple's Jade the last day. I don't know what would have happened but he was certainly going to give her a race even if he only finished second," he explains.

"He just got outpaced in last year's Champion Hurdle but he never stopped and I think stepping up in trip will suit him. He's had niggles and injuries along the way but for an 11-year-old, he's not exactly over-raced.

"He hasn't a huge amount of mileage on the clock. Willie is great at getting longevity out of horses so their ages don't tend to bother me when he's training them."

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