Walsh squeezes Tidal Bay through gap to secure sensational Lexus triumph


RACING:Anyone needing a reminder as to why Ruby Walsh is rated perhaps the finest jockey ever to steer a horse over an obstacle got it in spades at Leopardstown yesterday when British raider Tidal Bay secured a thrilling Lexus Chase success over Ireland’s leading Cheltenham Gold Cup hopes.

Walsh could be a perfect sponsorship fit for GAP on the back of a dramatic last-gasp thrust between First Lieutenant and the favourite Flemenstar that was just the last in a series of inch-perfect manoeuvres which meant his mercurial partner broke home hearts.

However, even the substantial dent Tidal Bay delivered to Irish hopes of securing steeple-chasing’s holy grail in the Cheltenham Gold Cup this March couldn’t stop widespread acclaim among a 16,409-strong crowd for what was the third piece of Walsh magic in a row.

In the previous race, the eight-time champion jockey turned what looked like certain defeat into victory in the Grade One Topaz Novice Chase when rallying Back In Focus, like Tidal Bay, owned by English businessman Graham Wylie, in powerful style to beat another Willie Mullins trained horse, Aupcharlie, by a head.

And prior to that, Walsh instigated an 81-1 hat-trick aboard Supreme Carolina who in the circumstances scored by an almost wide-margin half a length.

Stamina queries

If that was a run of the mill hurdle, there was nothing ordinary about a €150,000 feature that was marked by Ireland’s two top-rated Gold Cup prospects, Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs, testing their credentials in a top-flight event that last year was won by the subsequent Cheltenham hero Synchronised.

The focus was on the 5 to 4 favourite Flemenstar and his 77-year-old trainer Peter Casey, whose colourful vocabulary has helped capture the public imagination and guaranteed cameras trailed around after him.

Flemenstar was having his first start at three miles and briefly looked at the start of the straight as if all stamina queries were redundant when jockey Andrew Lynch kicked him into the lead. For a moment, the dream of a new racing superstar impervious to distance flickered. And then on the run-in Flemenstar’s stride faltered.

‘Ran too free’

Whether the dream has died is debatable as Casey remains convinced that more restrained riding tactics cost his star. A return to the course and distance for February’s Hennessy beckons.

“He ran too free. When he wasn’t left off in front, he didn’t know what to do,” said the Co Dublin trainer. “And he got very buzzed up beforehand by everything that was happening. We couldn’t even get the saddle on him. But we’re thinking of the Hennessy now.”

That looks like guaranteeing a third clash of the season between Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs who was finishing better than most in the closing stages. “He made a mistake at the first down the back and was playing catch-up from then on,” said his trainer Willie Mullins. “But I’m happy with the way he came home from the last.”

Not as happy though as Tidal Bay’s trainer Paul Nicholls who heaped praise on the jockey he shares with Mullins.

“Awesome! You can’t better,” he said. “Tactically, you can’t get better than Ruby.”

Walsh’s talents also apparently extend to equine psychology as the notoriously enigmatic Tidal Bay has looked a reformed character since teaming up with the Irishman this year, and is now a general 10 to 1 shot to gain a Gold Cup success at 12 years of age.

“He’s been called every name under the sun and they’re all wrong. He never stops,” said Walsh, who admits to loving riding the veteran. “There’s only one way to ride him, so it’s always a shot to nothing. It’s not like getting on a pressure ride. And if it comes off, you’re a hero.”

World Hurdle

The jockey threw a curve-ball into the Gold Cup discussion when declaring he would love to ride Tidal Bay in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham instead.

“I just think the Gold Cup is won by jumping. And the new horses coming through are all solid jumpers. I think the mistakes he made at the fourth last and last today would cost him in the Gold Cup,” he added.

That could leave Silviniaco Conti as the main Nicholls blue-ribboned contender. But it is Bob’s Worth that now dominates the top of the Gold Cup betting, albeit with a host of Irish hopes continuing to figure.

They include yesterday’s runner up First Lieutenant, a former festival winner in 2011, who belied 14 to 1 odds to come within a whisker of a famous win.

“He’ll go straight to the quare place for the Gold Cup,” said Mouse Morris. “He’s entitled to after that, being beaten only a head.”

It’s the RSA Chase that figures in Back In Focus’s plans after his victory over Aupcharlie who could also head to the festival for the Jewson.

Aupcharlie looked all over the winner when leading over the last but Back In Focus is nothing if not a grinder and with Walsh throwing everything at him, he got back up to win by a head.

“I didn’t think for one minute Ruby could get back up – until he did!” admitted Mullins. “This horse needs a minimum of three miles and soft ground. And Aupcharlie has run a smashing race too. The way he jumped, I wouldn’t even mind bringing him back to two miles.”

On the back of that win, one wag pointed out how only Willie Mullins seems capable of beating Willie Mullins. The only thing preventing the same thing being said about his jockey yesterday was that even Walsh hasn’t mastered riding two horses at the same time!