Saturday 24 August 2019

Racing icon Walsh bows out at the top after rewriting record books

 

Fond farewell: Ruby Walsh drives Kemboy to victory from Al Boum Photo in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup – his last ride as a jockey. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Fond farewell: Ruby Walsh drives Kemboy to victory from Al Boum Photo in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup – his last ride as a jockey. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

In a golden age of jump jockeys, Ruby Walsh always shone brightest. Racing fans have had the privilege of witnessing some of the finest riders of any generation in recent years, names like McCoy, Geraghty and Russell but Walsh's genius always kept him a step ahead of the pack.

There's only one place for the greatest to exit stage left, and that's at the very top so it was fitting that the 39-year-old should wait until Punchestown Gold Cup success on Kemboy (13/8 favourite) to do so.

It was done in typical style as the Kildare pilot dictated proceedings from the front like only he can - judging the pace of a championship race to perfection once again - to trump Willie Mullins's Gold Cup-winning stablemate Al Boum Photo (7/4).

The fact that many people - including Mullins - will say that he could have continued well into his 40s makes the decision all the more poignant as Walsh left on his own terms, and importantly in one piece.

Given his frightening catalogue of injuries in recent seasons - he broke his leg 14 months ago having only returned from a similar injury just weeks earlier - it was the perfect finish to a sensational career.

"I couldn't ever dream or foresee what has happened for me, you couldn't. If you'd a crystal ball when I set out on Siren's Song in '95 (his first winner at Gowran Park that July) I couldn't foresee what I've been lucky enough to achieve," Walsh beamed.

Ruby Walsh about to be embraced by his father Ted after victory on Kemboy. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ruby Walsh about to be embraced by his father Ted after victory on Kemboy. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The winner's enclosure was awash with people hoping to get a look at his last hurrah before sailing away into the sunset and everyone wanted their own personal memento of a supreme stylist in the saddle, the like of which is unlikely to be seen again.

Staggering

Synonymous with some of the finest equine talent to brace a racecourse over the past 24 years, a scroll through his personal CV provides a staggering reminder of his legacy.

If Cheltenham is the Mecca of jump racing, then fans will forever worship Walsh with 59 Festival winners including two Gold Cups, four Champion Hurdles, three Champion Chases and five Stayers' Hurdles.

That parachuted him miles clear of the next best rider as he landed the Festival's leading jockey award a whopping 11 times and rode seven winners in 2009 and 2016.

What set him apart from the rest in his own words? "Horses," he stated matter-of-factly. "I was very lucky, I got a great tuition as a kid from my father. I had a great agent, who minded me, in Jennifer (Walsh, his sister), and I worked for the two best trainers.

"There's no doubt about it. When I was in England I worked for Paul Nicholls and over here I worked for Willie. That's what it's about. Any jockey is only as good as the horses he is riding. I was riding the best.

"A lot of the best horses there ever was. In my lifetime anyway. Twenty years from Imperial Call to Kemboy today. Kauto (Star), Denman, Big Buck's, Master Minded, Quevega, Hurricane Fly, Annie Power, Vautour, Faugheen, you just list them out.

"If you think of a good horse there's a fair chance I rode him, with the exception of Sprinter Sacre or Altior. I can't think of too many I didn't ride."

His career highlight was at Aintree, however, as he guided Papillon to Grand National success in 2000 for his father Ted to parachute his name into the public consciousness, somewhere it would stay for the next 19 years as he compiled a tally of 213 Grade One winners.

"That was never going to be bettered for me. That was a fairytale. There was many, many great days since, thankfully there's never been a bad day for me personally," he added.

His only bad days "were always when we ended up in a graveyard burying someone" and in his last hour he paid tribute to weigh-room colleagues taken too soon, men like John Thomas McNamara, Kieran Kelly, Sean Cleary, Dary Cullen, Jack Tyner and Tom Halliday.

In terms of delivering in big-race situations, Walsh had no equal and displayed a nerveless demeanour in the tightest of situations when most mere mortals would panic.

His 2,768 career jumps winners - he won pretty much every significant race in the sport including Japan's Nakayama Grand Jump as well as big races in France, Australia and the US - ranks him third behind Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson but in terms of quality, he was in a league of his own. Statistics are one thing, but all evidence says Walsh is the greatest.

Working

"There was never going to be a good time to go but this was as good as any. Was there ever going to be a good time to stop working for Paul Nicholls? Was there ever going to be a good time to stop working for Willie Mullins? No. There has to be a day.

"There comes a day when you think, that has to be it. I'm not a poker player. Could I have kept going until tomorrow? I would've kicked myself if I missed the opportunity like Kemboy today."

His determination to "beat injury and that injury wouldn't beat me" kept him going during those lengthy lay-offs - which would have bested many others - but what's next for one of his racing's icons after following in the footsteps of younger sister Katie, who retired at last year's festival.

Training horses is not something that has come across his radar, although he would like to continue working with Mullins after a fruitful 23 years with the champion trainer, in which he was crowned Irish champion 12 times.

"No, not in this environment," he said of a possible training career.

"How do you compete with Willie, Joseph (O'Brien), Gordon (Elliott)? Start from scratch and compete against them? I'm a jump jockey and we're brave, but not stupid."

His face will still be regularly seen in media circles through his punditry work but he has come to terms with not throwing his leg over one of Mullins's stars again.

"I've had plenty of practice at looking on. A jockey's life is a hard life, there's lots of injuries. You'll get an average of 10 injuries in your life but to have an average in anything, someone has to be on the low side and someone has to be on the high side. It's fair enough to say I was on the high side," he said.

"It was hard to watch horses that you could be riding, I'll be watching horses now that I cannot be riding any longer.

"Time moves on, I've done this for 24 years and to be honest I want to do something else for the next 24. I can't do this forever."

Time moves on but jockeys of Walsh's standing only come around once in a lifetime.

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