End of a long winter as Ruby Walsh finds his winning form again

Cheltenham’s most successful ever jockey scores double win on Footpad and Benie Des Dieux

Ruby Walsh on Benie Des Dieux celebrates winning the Mares’ Hurdle at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Ruby Walsh on Benie Des Dieux celebrates winning the Mares’ Hurdle at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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“This place doesn’t remember seconds, it only remembers the winners,” a pensive Ruby Walsh had said on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival, having missed much of the jumps season because of his injury.

There were days over the winter when he feared he might be running out of time after he broke his right leg – the third time it has happened – at the Punchestown November meeting in Kildare last year.

Cheltenham’s most successful ever jockey is unlikely to ever be forgotten here, given he has already claimed every race of consequence and topped the standings some 11 times since 2004.

Walsh had been cutting his comeback fine; he had been back on the gallops for his boss Willie Mullins a fortnight ago but only made his competitive return to the track last Thursday and had competed in just two races.

Perhaps, at 38, those bones were not knitting together as quickly as they used to, and he hardly got off to the most auspicious of starts when hot favourite Getabird ran disappointingly in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. By the next race he was on the leaderboard by winning the Arkle Trophy and by the fifth race he was out in front on his own once again.

Each demonstrated another dimension of the sport’s most complete and decorated rider. He did not panic in the Arkle when Footpad made an early mistake and fell adrift of the leaders before emerging a convincing winner. Really, though, the occasion where he made the difference came in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Final flight

Benie Des Dieux – rather propitiously translating as “Child of God”, according to her owner Rich Ricci afterwards – had not looked the most likely winner with the final flight looming and Midnight Tour battling it out with defending champion Apple’s Jade. Walsh, perhaps remembering his own advice, lifted her home up the run-in to score by half a length.

“I love Paul Townend, I love the other jockeys Willie has, but Ruby is just different gravy,” the owner said afterwards. “Jesus Christ, that was a fantastic ride.”

Punters tend to agree with Ricci’s assertion, and Walsh said that the reception he received after the Arkle “sent the hairs down the back of my neck”. With some of the pressure out of the way, he was more reflective.

Jockey Barry Geraghty on board Buveur D’Air celebrates winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Jockey Barry Geraghty on board Buveur D’Air celebrates winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

“You have to have something to get you through the grind,” he said. “Some people in their jobs book a holiday, I had riding all these horses to think about.”

Walsh is regarded as a bit different by his contemporaries, not only in acknowledgement of his extraordinary achievements but because of his single-minded and sometimes prickly nature. He has made light of his grumpiness in a television advert for Paddy Power, where he makes sour-faced attempts to work in a cafe and call centre, but admitted that there was certainly some truth to the caricature.

‘Ashtray on a motorbike’

“It’s been a long winter,” he added, paying particular tribute to the strength of his wife Gillian. “It’s not the pain – as you get older you get used to dealing with that. It’s the boredom. We have three children and I wouldn’t have been good company. I’m about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.”

Walsh said there had been moments when he feared he might be running out of time.

“Luckily I had had a great rehab specialist in Enda King [lead performance rehabilitation physiotherapist at the Sports Surgery Clinic] in Santry, ” he said. “I would be there three times a week. I’d say ‘I’m not going to get there’, but he’d keep saying that I was passing every test and he timed it to perfection. The man’s a genius – I wish I’d found him when I was 20.”

Given Walsh has 56 festival winners already and is some 23 ahead of his nearest rival Barry Geraghty, who had the small compensation of winning the Champion Hurdle aboard Buveur d’Air, he probably has no need to wonder what might have been.

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