Thursday 17 October 2019

Roy Curtis: 'On so many occasions Ruby Walsh pushed his craft to the very boundaries of perfection'

Ruby Walsh
Ruby Walsh

Roy Curtis

It is entirely fitting that he shares his name with a precious gemstone, for Ruby Walsh was a diamond among horsemen, a jockey who brought a birthstone gleam to his chosen code.

A study in motionless elegance; National Hunt’s transcendent, untouchable, fearless and sparkling rhinestone cowboy; lassoing 213 Grand Ones, 59 times rendering Cheltenham’s sacred Cotswold bowl his private playground.

Ruby on the back of Kauto Star or Hurricane Fly or Master Minded was Jimi Hendrix at a Fender Stratocaster:  two superior component parts fusing until there was just one celestial lyre, making music that touched the divine.

As if by sorcery, he became the aerodynamic skin of a flying Pegasus.

All along the watchtowers, looking down from those towering Prestbury Park grandstands or, this week, for one last time, the rolling Punchestown terrain, Walsh’s audience absorbed his hymns of innate navigation and aviation.

The last centaur – a creature from Greek mythology with the upper torso of a human and the lower body and limbs of a horse – he was properly depicted as “a genius” by AP McCoy, a man who rations his praise as he did his food portions during his unbreakable 20-year reign as champion jockey.

McCoy, rider of 4,358 winners, is among the tiny number who are fluent in the same tongue as Walsh, a language in which only otherworldly sportsmen can converse.

And so it is worth cocking an ear, as AP describes the ingredients of Ruby’s special brew.

“You can’t teach what he does…he was just better on a horse than everyone…he had everything…there was no weaknesses there…he’s like Messi playing football…he was the best jockey I have ever seen.”

Messi feels like the right comparison.  Two athletes who not only make magic, but entice those rabbits from the hat with an unhurried verve and intuition beyond most mortals.

At breakneck speed, both are somehow tranquil and smooth and serene; beautifully balanced, Walsh makes jump racing’s bouncy castle appear like a velvety red carpet walk. In this cathedral of turbulence, he is an unflappable, airbrushed Vogue cover shot.

Of course, Ruby has had crashing falls and terrible injuries, the curse and everyday shadow of his dark trade.  He has stared catastrophe in the eye.  His fractured, creaking body would have no more chance than the Dukes of Hazzard’s Dodge Charger of successfully negotiating the NCT.

Where McCoy would bully a horse into giving the best of himself, Walsh was more a snake charmer, coaxing his charge to do his bidding with those hypnotic hands.

Yes, he could bulldoze and coerce a tiring animal, compel a horse that looked spent at the furlong pole to summon the hidden reserves required to secure a short-head triumph.

But he was more Ali or Sugar Ray than Liston or Foreman.  Classier than any slugger, a master of timing, Ruby floated like a butterfly, motionless and, apparently, weightless on the back of a snorting half-tonne beast.

He jumped not only Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn, but also the towering open ditch that separates horse-racing from the mainstream.  Even the masses who could not tell Red Rum from Red Adair were familiar with Walsh.

Like Tiger or Seve, or closer to home, Roy or BOD, or the jockey’s good friend, ROG, he was immediately identifiable by one short amalgamation of letters.

As, in tandem with Paul Nicholls and the inestimable Willie Mullins, he established his unbreakable mid-March imperium, so the Kaiser Chiefs chorus line “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby” became the Cheltenham Festival’s defining anthem, a 21-gun salute to the Caesar of the Cotswolds.

So much that happens in National Hunt combat is distilled down to that one week in spring’s savage garden.  And, Ruby was the artist-in-residence of those defining four days, poet laureate and epic lyricist of that murderous incline.

Middlemarch’s towering figure, its renaissance master, Da Vinci in dazzling Rich Ricci or Cive Smith silks, dabbling the varnish of his once-in-a-lifetime talent on the Prestbury Park canvass.

Through the imperishable brushstrokes of his alliances with Kauto Star and Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Annie Power, Big Buck’s and Master Minded, Vautour, Denman and Quevega, he reconfigured the dimensions of Gloucester’s storied valley, made it his own personal storehouse of wonder.

An equine Sistine Chapel where he was the archdeacon.

His portfolio dazzles like a floor to ceiling fresco: Among his 59 Festival winners were 14 majors:  Two Gold Cups, four Champion Hurdles, three champion Chases and five Stayers’ Hurdles.

It is a tapestry of achievement that announces emphatically that here was a maestro at work.

His father, Ted, had bred his son to always understand it was “all about the big day.”

And so many times, at the shining hour, Walsh, pushed his craft to the very boundaries of perfection.

The flush of an afternoon at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting five years ago, when three times in an hour he brushed against the very top rung, remains imperishable.

The flame of those exquisite rides on Back in Focus, Supreme Carolina and Tidal Bay, like a Messi hat-trick or Tiger slaying Augusta’s back nine – will burn forever.

What endures even now is the sheer perfection of his timing:  It was as if his cerebral cortex was carved from Swiss quartz.

Walsh shares personality traits with another high achiever.  Like Roy Maurice Keane, he is an alpha male who struggles to suffer fools.  He is unafraid of showing his tetchy side.

But like Keane, he can offer nuggets of insight; with intelligence, wit and the most piercing insights, he can distill an event down to its very essence.

In a wonderful old Irish Field interview with Daragh O’Conchuir, he tackled head on the conspiracy theorists who with history beckoning – ludicrously - accused him of taking a jump from Annie Power in the Mares’ Hurdle in 2015.

“I could have ridden a four timer at Cheltenham.  No-one has ever ridden four winners in one day at Cheltenham. A fucking four-timer.  Would you stop?  It’s fucking killing me.”

“I’m 64 kilos give or take.  And now I’m physically strong enough to knock 450 kilos.

“And who wants something eight times heavier than them falling on them at 30mph.  Come on.”

Remembering him take flight on those peerless afternoons evokes a line the late Lord John Oaksey borrowed from Shakespeare’s Henry V to describe an unforgettable day at the races.

“Gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here.”

As Ruby dismounted for the last time on Wednesday, as a For Sale sign was put on the winner’s enclosure to which he so long held the title deeds, there was hint of that.

But it soon ebbed, replaced by what felt like a blessing: That for so long we had hitched a ride on the coattails of a galloping diamond.

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