Ruby's move as much about the head as the heart
There are winners and losers in Walsh's decision to end his time with Nicholls, writes John O'Brien
Shortly after 11 on the morning of the Gold Cup at this year's Cheltenham Festival, a rather odd scene took place. In the distance the unmistakable figure of Willie Mullins, wearing his distinctive broad-brimmed hat, made his way up the final straight, pausing at regular intervals to dig his heels into the turf. Mullins was flanked by three of his regular jockeys: Paul Townend, David Casey and Ruby Walsh.
What was unusual about this? Nothing much only that of his five mounts that day, Walsh would ride just once for Mullins and four times for his "other" boss, Paul Nicholls. A small thing, really, but it cemented an existing impression that, while he served two masters, Walsh was only truly beholden to one. The one who merited an entire chapter in his autobiography. The one he simply knows as "Willie".
And yet, that shouldn't in any way detract from what was a dazzlingly successful partnership with the Somerset-based trainer that came to an end last week. It's a sign of how fast the planet seems to spin nowadays, that it seems incredible to think 12 years have elapsed since Walsh rode his first winner for Nicholls, 11 since they struck up a relationship that swept all before them in British jump racing.
It was essentially a marriage of convenience, of course, the coming-together of the hardest-working and most ambitious trainer with the brightest talent in the weigh-room, but no less effective for that. In their 11 years together, Nicholls would land a total of 84 Grade One races, including three Gold Cups and five King Georges, and Walsh would be in the saddle for 64 of them. By any standards, a brilliant return.
The unconventional arrangement whereby Walsh rode for two top stables wasn't quite unprecedented. Before him, his friend and rival AP McCoy had, for a time, ridden for Nicholls and Martin Pipe, an agreement that ultimately suffocated under the weight of the tension and rancour it caused.
It was a testament to Walsh's talent and his diplomatic skills that, the odd disagreement apart, he managed to carry it off with almost seamless ease.
His statement last week announcing his split with Nicholls was another lesson in the art of diplomacy. Nothing Walsh said could have been construed as untrue or insincere. Unquestionably, family reasons played a part in the decision. He has two young daughters at home and didn't want them to grow up with an absentee father. He was honest enough too to admit that the prospect of riding at places like Taunton and Exeter held rapidly diminishing appeal.
Yet what remained unsaid was equally compelling. Again the figures hold the key. Last season alone Walsh rode as many Grade One winners for Mullins, 16, as he has ridden for Nicholls in the past three seasons. Fifteen of his last 17 Grade One winners have come on Closutton-trained horses. It was Mullins who provided all four of his Cheltenham winners this year. The marriage with Nicholls just didn't seem all that convenient anymore.
In hindsight what seemed a surprise should have been no surprise at all. There are good young horses in Ditcheat, but none suggesting the void left by the departures of Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded can be filled any time soon. For Walsh, at 34, there could be no question of waiting around for the Nicholls stable to reassert itself.
Conserving his remaining energy for the riches awaiting him in Closutton is simply the smart thing to do.
How long more we see him in the saddle is anyone's guess. It always seemed impossible to imagine Walsh doing a McCoy on it, still beavering away on the cusp of his 40s. Yet while Mullins continues to churn out the champions, recently adding Japan to his roster of racing worlds conquered, it will seem dreadfully hard for the jockey to step off the carousel. The training career that seems gloriously pre-ordained for him might have to wait a while longer now and there are winners and losers in the process.
The losers are those like Townend, Bryan Cooper and Davy Condon who have to kick their heels and wait patiently for job opportunities that seem painfully slow in arriving. And we're the winners, of course, getting to savour the gifts of, arguably, the greatest jump jockey of all time for a few more years at least.
They're not getting any younger now. Walsh turned 34 last month, a year older than his closest rivals, Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell. And McCoy? Well, forget it. McCoy is simply ageless. The point is, though, we have been witnessing a golden generation of jump jockeys for the past decade and more. We should appreciate them while we still can.