Ruby Walsh acclaimed after opening day Cheltenham double comeback
Willie Mullins closing in on Nicky Henderson’s festival record after 54-1 hat-trick
Ruby Walsh celebrates on Benie Des Dieux after winning the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on Day One. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Reuters
No other jockey has ever heard their name chanted by the Cheltenham crowd but then the festival has never had a jockey to compare with Ruby Walsh.
The Irishman completed his fairytale comeback with a Tuesday double which was part of a 54-1 Willie Mullins hat-trick that takes him within touching distance of becoming Cheltenham’s most successful ever trainer.
That’s a staggering prospect by any measure. Nicky Henderson won the Champion Hurdle with Buveur D’Air but it still counted as just one. The Mullins trio of Footpad, Benie Des Dieux and Rathvinden bridged the gap between the two men to 59-57.
Yet even as Mullins flew the Irish flag on his own on Day One he more than anyone knew he was running a distant second in the attention stakes compared to his “Old Firm” ally.
Walsh’s efforts to get back in action from a broken leg sustained in November dominated much of the lengthy run-in to this week, rising to a crescendo when he did finally return with a winner at Thurles last week.
Since the champion jockey’s timing has always been peerless fears he might lack for match practise ignored how he has cut it even finer in the past here.
But even at 38, and with two decades of unprecedented success under his belt, the mix of exultation and relief that poured out of Walsh as Footpad won the Racing Post Arkle Trophy was memorable. Maybe just as memorable was the reaction from the crowd.
Walsh may be weary of hearing the Kaiser Chiefs’s “Ruby-Ruby-Ruby” refrain. He’s even had a more football-style “Rooo-Beee” thrown at him after a race. But Footpad and Walsh ran the final hundred metres of the Arkle with the same chant tumbling from the stands towards them.
Victory means never being short of friends and Walsh has felt how fickle public reaction can be. But there was no mistaking the wave of popular acclaim at Cheltenham’s most successful ever jockey returning in style to the scene of his greatest triumphs.
Later he produced an inspired effort that Mullins described as an early contender for ride of the week to get Benie Des Dieux up in the OLBG Mares Hurdle before winding up the day taking a fall in the handicap chase won by Mister Whitaker.
If that or a two-day whip ban for his Benie De Dieux ride stung, it still couldn’t prevent a palpable sense of a man back doing what he loves to do and prepared to allow a glimpse of the effort required to get there.
Paying tribute to his wife, Gillian, he admitted: “I probably wasn’t great company. She had a newborn, three kids and a husband who wasn’t much use. She had a long winter!”
He added there were times he felt he might not make it back in time for Cheltenham and said: “It’s like any sportsman. It’s not the physical pain, it’s the incapacity, the feeling of uselessness.”
Typically the biggest stage brought out the best in this supreme competitor. Match practise theories were blown out of the water with his ride on Footpad, allowing the 5-6 favourite to recover from a shuddering sixth fence mistake and allowing his big rival, Petit Mouchoir, get involved in a cut-throat gallop with Saint Calvados before pouncing.
If the crowd had time to clear their throats in acclaim it was because Walsh’s own timing and judgment of pace allowed it.
Benie Des Dieux took advantage of the 1-2 favourite Apple’s Jade fade to third in the OLBG and overhauled the outsider Midnight Tour under Walsh at his strongest.
“I thought that was the ride of the week. Ruby was so good on her, to get her up the hill like that,” Mullins said admiringly after winning the race for the ninth time in its 11-year history. Walsh though admitted he thought he was beaten.
“I thought off the bend I was well and truly stuffed but it’s a long way from the bend to the final hurdle and they were stopping in front,” he said. “Apple’s Jade has run to a higher level of form but horses aren’t machines and you can’t just switch them on.”
Rathvinden gallantly kept the switch pressed on for the four miles of the National Hunt Chase to bring up the Mullins hat-trick.
Patrick Mullins repeated his 2013 win in the race on Back In Focus by getting the well-backed 9-2 shot home by half a length from Ms Parfois. Mullins quickly dismounted the winner who went straight back to the stables.
“He’s slightly wobbly but he’s fine. I imagine any athlete after four miles would be tired,” Mullins Snr reported.
The only blemish on the day for the Mullins team was the lacklustre performance of the 7-4 favourite Getabird who could finish only 11th to Summerville Boy in the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle.
1 Summerville Boy 9-1
2 Kalashnikov 5-1
3 Mengli Khan 14-1
4 Paloma Blue 14-1
1 Footpad 5-6 fav
2 Brain Power 14-1
3 Petit Mouchoir 4-1
1 Coo Star Sivola 5-1 fav
2 Shantou Flyer 14-1
3 Vintage Clouds 7-1
4 Beware The Bear 14-1
1 Buveur D'Air 4-6 fav
2 Melon 7/1
3 Mick Jazz 25/1
4 Identity Thief 50-1
1 Benie Des Dieux 9-2
2 Midnight Tour 33-1
3 Apple’s Jade 1-2 fav
4 Indian Stream 66-1
1 Rathvinden 9-2
2 Ms Parfois 11-2
3 Sizing Tennessee 8-1
4 Impulsive Star 25-1
1 Mister Whitaker 13-2
2 Rather Be 12-1
3 Rocklander 25-1
4 Barney Dwan 15-2