Ruby simply the best, but that’s a take from this neck of the woods
Ruby Walsh makes his way back from the gallops at the Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: David Davies/PA
All sports nurture their orthodoxies: like Ring being the greatest ever to swing a hurley, or Pele representing the best of football.
Geographical considerations can impinge on such received wisdom. Argentines will always stand up for Maradona for instance. And I suppose a few half-decent hurlers have come out of Kilkenny too.
You would think, though, when it comes to National Hunt racing, borders might not count for much. After all, it’s pretty much an exclusively Anglo-Irish thing anyway. If you removed the Irish-born jockeys out of Britain, there’d hardly be anyone left to swing a leg over a horse. And more money is bet on UK racing here than the domestic stuff.
But Gold Cup day at Cheltenham on Friday revealed how orthodoxies can be very subjective indeed. Tony McCoy is a great jockey, in every sense of that emotive word. His statistical record proves it. He has won more races than anyone else, scored in damn near every race worth mentioning, including a memorable Grand National that earned him the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year in 2010.
When he accepted that award, he said he was doing so for racing. To many the man known as “AP” is jump racing, a granite-jawed symbol of the resilience, skill and toughness required to stay at the top of the toughest game of all for close on two decades: simply the greatest of all time. Right? Well, no, actually.
It’s much less straightforward than that, something that was immediately obvious on Friday in response to confirmation that McCoy would substitute for the injured Davy Russell on Sir Des Champs in the Gold Cup.
For every tweedy English voice eagerly announcing what a wonderful opportunity it was for “AP” to win another Gold Cup – and what a boost for Sir Des Champs – there was an Irish head shaking mournfully and muttering that the horse’s chance had gone. What struck most forcibly was how those opinions split along which side of the Irish Sea you hailed from.
One prominent Irish trainer expressed the view that McCoy would put Sir Des Champs on the floor, dismissed the great man as a tactical one-trick pony, and mournfully wondered why Willie Mullins and Michael O’Leary hadn’t plumped for Bryan Cooper, the 20-year-old rising star who burst onto the scene with a vengeance last week. The incredulity on the face of the English journalist he was talking to at the time suggested the trainer had proposed relieving himself in Princess Anne’s handbag: blasphemous almost: a kid instead of a champ?
Getting into a sweat about ‘G-O-A-T’ academics just then was made even more pointless by growing awareness of the extent of JT McNamara’s struggle with a serious neck injury sustained the day before. When a sport can take such a toll, it behoves everyone to take everything in the context of the overwhelming courage and skill needed to do the job in the first place.
And as it turned out, McCoy didn’t put Sir Des Champs on the floor. The horse ran a fine race to be second to Bobs Worth. Willie Mullins was left to rue the impact of rain that turned the going softer than ideal for the Irish hope. But the race also confirmed some old prejudices. McCoy is capable of riding any kind of race if required. In the final race on Friday, for instance, he rode Alderwood to success with wonderful finesse and daring.
Yet it is remarkable how when the pressure really comes on, sports people react reflexively, and McCoy’s reflex is to drive and demand and infuse a horse with his own desperate will to win. It can be a wonderfully dynamic sight. But it wasn’t what Sir Des Champs required.
Never having ridden the horse before, and inevitably equipped with only second-hand information, McCoy adopted tactics he was comfortable with: up at the front, niggling along, cajoling the horse, relentlessly positive.
It has worked almost 4,000 times for the Irishman. But every horse is different. From looking like a winner on the turn-in, the toll of such a tempo eventually told. Sir Des Champs finished desperately tired, trumped by Bobs Worth, ridden by Barry Geraghty with a patience that might have made all the difference to his rival.
By definition it is impossible to know for certain about such things. And this is no talking-through-the-pocket whine, or contrarian reaction to years of adulatory frenzy that McCoy himself can hardly be responsible for. But it is surely a lost cause to argue for McCoy’s ‘G-O-A-T’ status when there are plenty who believe he ain’t even the greatest right now.
Ask the vast majority of professionals in this country, either trainers or other jockeys, and they’ll tell you Ruby Walsh is currently the real benchmark of riding excellence, precisely because he possesses a range of expertise that McCoy cannot emulate.
Watch again Walsh’s Champion Hurdle win on Hurricane Fly. At halfway the horse looks stuffed. Walsh’s solution is to do precisely nothing. It isn’t flash, or dynamic. It certainly isn’t obvious. But nothing is often the hardest option of all. Subtlety famously got its reward.
But of course that’s a take from this side of the water. You don’t have to travel too far to get a completely different one. And one person’s orthodoxy is often someone else’s heresy. Apart from the one about Ring of course: even Kilkenny can’t argue about that!