Punchestown Festival: Jumps jockey greats turn 40 but look far from done
Walsh, Russell and Geraghty can continue for years with advances in conditioning
Ruby Walsh on Royal Caviar leads over the last from Davy Russell on Some Plan in the 2017 Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho.
Paul Townend will be crowned champion jockey at the end of next week’s Punchestown festival. Rachael Blackmore is runner-up after her groundbreaking season. It is the first time in 15 years that neither Ruby Walsh or Davy Russell are in the first two.
The precarious nature of the jump jockey’s job means portraying that in ‘end of era’ terms isn’t accurate. Eight years ago Townend’s job as Willie Mullins’s number two rider meant he took advantage of injuries to Walsh to win the title.
But the fact is that is also the only time in the last 15 years that Ireland’s champion jockey hasn’t been either Walsh, Russell or the other outstanding rider of this generation, Barry Geraghty.
Between them a trio widely acclaimed as the finest crop of riders ever produced by this country have ridden over 6,000 winners. They’ve won practically every National Hunt race worth mentioning, becoming benchmarks for excellence in the process.
And all three turn 40 this year.
The cliché goes that 40’s just a number. But inevitably for jump jockey’s it’s more than that. Not so long ago it seemed an all but impossible age to still operate at in a job where it’s a case of when and not if you get hurt.
AP McCoy was 40 when he began his long goodbye in 2015, finally bringing his record-breaking career to an end at the end of the British season. Last month 43 year old Noel Fehily used a final Cheltenham festival winner to announce his retirement in more understated style.
When jump jockeys reach 40, the ‘R’ word becomes unavoidable. After Walsh won last Monday’s Irish Grand National it hung in the air like a baleful question-mark.
It’s not like he could ignore it either. Wary but persistent questioners employed Lyndon Johnson’s famous attitude to spreading rumours about rivals – make him deny it.
So Walsh has done that, pointedly referencing ambitions for the 2020 Cheltenham festival. Geraghty broke his leg at Aintree but is targeting a return at the Galway festival in July. Few believe Russell’s going anywhere with a historic Aintree National hat-trick in the offing in 2020 on Tiger Roll.
Nevertheless there are plenty within the sport who reckon next week’s finale to the 2018-19 season might yet represent a perfect retirement cue. After all Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry memorably announced they were hanging up their saddles after winning at Punchestown last year.
It’s a neat piece of conjecture that most everyone else will vehemently hope proves to be idle speculation. This outstanding generation is closer to the exit than the entrance. But that should make appreciation of their superb talents even greater.
“I’ve no doubt Ruby is the best rider I’ve seen in my lifetime,” says the Gold Cup winning trainer Tom Taaffe, son of the legendary Pat Taaffe, the rider of Arkle and an 11 times champion jockey in the 50’s and 60’s.
“People said the same about my father. I don’t remember him riding. But I’ve watched enough to say Ruby’s the best.
“Barry is an unbelievable rider too, especially on the big day. And Russell’s an all-rounder. The best thing that ever happened to him was Michael O’Leary taking him for that cup of tea. It transformed him, got his dander up.
“I haven’t read much about it but look back at Aintree and what he did on Tiger Roll at the Canal Turn. He could see they were coming in so he took back a couple of gears, slowed down, show-jumped it, turned incredibly, and gained ground. That was half the winning of the race,” Taaffe adds.
It’s two decades since Walsh won the first of his dozen jockeys titles. Before him Charlie Swan was Ireland’s outstanding champion for nine years in a row. Swan retired at 35. He reckons professional parameters have changed in terms of career longevity.
“In a few years time there will be the odd fellah go to 45. Jockeys are much fitter now and it’s very different with safety, with back protectors and so on. When you think Martin Molony (legendary champion of the 1940s) retired at 27 – and they’d no helmets then!” Swan says.
Conor O’Dwyer twice won both the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle in a notable career that ended in 2008 at the age of 42. He was exceptional in having an injury catalogue consisting of little more than a couple of broken collarbones.
“You know in your heart and soul when you’re coming to the end. You get up to go racing and you’re humming and hawing about it. And when that time comes it’s time to say ‘hang on here – it’s time to go,” he maintains.
“When we were going around we rode a few horses and that was it. Now they’re going to the gym, they’ve nutritionists, they’re eating better food, you’ve physios on the track – that’s all helping. There’s no doubt, if your nerve is intact, you’ve no problem getting to 40,” O’Dwyer adds.
Walsh will be 40 in just over a fortnight. Helped by his immediately recognisable forename, he is one of the most famous sportspeople in Ireland. That can be a double-edged sword.
His slips get greater attention than anyone else’s. When they occur at the final fence aboard well-backed favourites the blame game gets played in force. Age becomes a popular crutch for claims that an old maestro is ‘gone.’
It’s why enthusiastic big race celebrations after Monday’s National, and at Aintree earlier this month, can be interpreted as a defiant gestures to doubters determined to retire him.
“Willie’s horses must be very hard to give up and from the outside in I honestly think Ruby’s riding as well as he ever rode. I think he’s so far ahead of the rest its nearly laughable. Without injury I could see a good few more years in Ruby.
“All that stuff about the last fence it’s nothing to do with nerve. Things just go wrong. That mare at Cheltenham (Benie Des Dieux) barely clipped the top of the hurdle and couldn’t get her leg out. It’s as simple as that,” O’Dwer maintains.
If the longevity of one veteran generation of riders has arguably impeded the prospects of the one following it there’s little doubt all those coming in their wake have enormous footprints to try and match.
At 28, and with Walsh’s injury woes helping him to another championship, Townend should be approaching his peak.
A year on from the outrageous brain-fade that saw him pick up a 21-day ban for dangerous riding on Al Boum Photo, he returns to the Punchestown festival with a redemptive Cheltenham Gold Cup triumph on the same horse under his belt.
“He’s got an unbelievable tutoring between Ruby and Willie. He’s settled in there for years and that makes a huge difference. We saw what happened with Al Boum Photo last year. But he’s bounced back and won the Gold Cup.
“That’s not just down to Paul. It’s down to Willie and the owners too. He knows his back is covered and that takes off a lot of pressure,” O’Dwyer says.
Jack Kennedy at 20 is widely acknowledged as another outstanding young talent. But there appears rare consensus too within the sport that the production line of young riding talent which has always been presumed upon may be slowing down.
“I think we’re short. There’s not that many fellahs getting into it for some reason,” Swan says. “People are more educated now. When I was a kid not that many people went to college. Now they do. And being a jockey is a hard life, especially if you don’t get on. There’s a big risk factor.”
Maybe Blackmore’s pioneering impact will provoke a greater influence of female riders in future. Within a handful of years the 29 year old has transformed the landscape for women in the professional ranks, from winning a conditional title to challenging for the senior crown and landing Grade One victories both here and at Cheltenham.
It’s a fluid situation because, as Taaffe says, “the three boys are all going to have to pull up stumps at some stage.” All three are family men with young children which Swan points to as one reason for why he stopped.
“I was training up to 100 horses at the time too, mind you. And I’d always said if I could get to 35 I’d have done well. I didn’t want to get out as a has-been,” he recalls. “These guys now have all had great careers. I hope they all get out in one piece. But it’ll be a shame to see any of them go.”
Hopefully such an ‘end of era’ moment will be later rather than sooner.
PUNCHESTOWN FESTIVAL – FOUR TO FOLLOW
Tuesday: 6.40 - Dooley Insurance Champion Novice Chase.
REAL STEEL (W Mullins) was runner up to his stable companion Voix Du Reve at Fairyhouse last Sunday when the winner looked much happier on the quick surface. Real Steel has a handful of festival options but the way he stayed on at Fairyhouse suggests three miles on easier ground could see him take a significant step up.
Wednesday: 5.30- Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle.
Considering it was just his third career start over jumps, ALLAHO (Willie Mullins) ran an admirable third to the shock 50-1 winner Minella Indo in Cheltenham’s Albert Bartlett. He can reap the benefit of that experience against familiar rivals. His stable companion Relegate missed Cheltenham but could bounce back with a good run here too.
Wednesday: 6.05- Coral Punchestown Gold Cup.
For the fourth time in his career BELLSHILL (W Mullins) failed to fire at Cheltenham. Even by his standards getting pulled up by Ruby Walsh before halfway in the Gold Cup was a shocker. In contrast he has won all three of his starts at Punchestown including this race in 2018. His stable companions Al Boum Photo and Kemboy top the betting although Bellshill here is a different proposition.
Saturday: 4.25 - AES Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle.
Pentland Hills won the top juvenile races at both Cheltenham and Aintree yet plenty reckon his stable companion FUSIL RAFFLES (N Henderson) might be better. The Adonis winner missed Cheltenham because of injury. That freshness can pay off for him here against a relatively uninspiring home team. Henderson has won the race three times in the last two decades.