Monday 27 January 2020

Mullins to benefit from Ruby's split with Nicholls

Ruby Walsh and Paul Nicholls celebrate after Kauto Star's victory in the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Ruby Walsh and Paul Nicholls celebrate after Kauto Star's victory in the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup

Richard Forristal

When bookmakers priced up the 2013/2014 jump jockeys' title during last season's Punchestown finale in April, Ruby Walsh was installed the odds-on favourite at 8/11.

Davy Russell was about to be crowned champion for a second year in a row and has increasing firepower at his disposal, but it was Walsh whom the money men wanted to keep on side.

Why? Because the layers factored in that spending more time in Ireland than Britain would become an increasingly attractive option for Walsh.

Walsh's decision to stand down from his position as Paul Nicholls' first-choice rider was a surprise, but only in a qualified sense.

Nicholls himself has recently spoken of how things are cyclical, and the balance of power in Britain has shifted to Nicky Henderson, who has just displaced him as champion for a first time in seven years.

Nicholls no longer seems to have the owners with the financial clout or will to compete at the highest end of the market. He hasn't been able to replenish his elite stock in the seamless fashion that was for so long the foundation of his success.

MARQUEE

As such, following the retirements of jump racing giants like Kauto Star and Denman, and the continued absence through injury of Big Buck's, his stable isn't the veritable winning machine that it once was on the marquee days.

Nicholls' sole Cheltenham Festival winner this year came courtesy of Salubrious in the conditional jockeys' race. It was significant only because it meant he didn't draw a complete blank.

Walsh rode four winners there, all for Willie Mullins, three of which were in Grade One races, the fourth supplied by the mighty Quevega. Mullins had five winners in all.

Right now, the Closutton-based champion trainer is defying the on-going economic malaise that has the country in perennial stasis to exert an inordinate influence over his peers.

Just like Nicholls in his prime, he has the owners and resources to increase his firepower on an annual basis, and is doing so to devastating effect.

Mullins has brought things to a whole new level. In one respect, he has done so with convenient timing for Walsh.

Until now, the eight-time champion jockey has been in the privileged position of being able to sup from two cups. No doubt swayed by the beneficial tax status conferred on sports people living in Ireland, he opted to remain domiciled here when he accepted the role as Nicholls' number one in 2002.

Obviously his relationship with Mullins was also a factor, but the net result was that he signed up to a gruelling itinerary.

When he had access to rides of such rare calibre as Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded, the 4.30am starts were worth the sacrifice. Now things are different. Walsh is 34, and flying over and back to England twice a week for the run of the mill stuff simply became less attractive when the carrot of serious big-race mounts evaporated.

A jump jockey's life is demanding enough already. Walsh has two young daughters, and not being there to see them in the morning or help put them to bed at night was a price he was no longer willing to pay. That's a fairly basic cost-benefit analysis, or a lifestyle choice, if you like.

It is akin to someone like Damien Duff retiring from international football to prolong his club career. As such, it represents the end of a glorious era, the formal conclusion of one of the most successful and enduring partnerships in the history of jump racing.

The cross-channel relationship's 11-year duration is a testament to Walsh's diplomatic prowess. He somehow managed to keep the two most powerful trainers on either side of the Irish Sea happy, which also speaks volumes of his unique talent.

In his prime, Nicholls needed someone that he could trust to deliver on the big occasions. Walsh was that man, and not having him all the time was a concession Nicholls was willing to permit so that he could have him when it mattered most.

Walsh handled what could have been an awkward situation with terrific deftness, and rarely called it wrong.

On the two principal occasions when he did, it was a stable-mate that left egg on his face as opposed to one of the opposing stables, Denman storming to Gold Cup glory under Sam Thomas ahead of Kauto Star, and Zarkandar prevailing for Daryl Jacob in the Triumph Hurdle after he elected to ride Sam Winner.

While the respectful manner with which he has handled his resignation is yet another triumph of diplomacy, it's fair to say that it was a natural progression at this stage. Nicholls' temperate reaction to the development reflects as much.

Indeed, by removing the potential for conflict should Walsh have grown weary of trekking to Taunton on a Friday midway through the season, he might well be prolonging his access to Nicholls' team.

Better to manage the termination of the relationship rather than let it break down. This way, he is still an option for spares.

Jacob, for his part, has excelled since assuming his role as Walsh's deputy, a position that was something of a poisoned chalice for his predecessors.

The 29-year-old Wexford native now has the opportunity to make the job his own as the stable goes through what he hopes will be a period of transition as opposed to one of decline.

If there is one man – apart from Davy Russell – who might be less than ecstatic at the prospect of Walsh spending more time on Irish racecourses, it is probably Paul Townend. Still, the Cork-born rider, himself a champion in 2011, has served his time as understudy with tremendous dignity up to now.

Walsh's decision is undoubtedly a blow to the immediate prospects of a rider of such enormous skill, but Townend is just 22 years young. The suspicion is that he will stay put and continue to take what chances come his way. His time will come.

Irish Independent

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