SUNDAY TIMES SPORT – 5 May 2019
There is a visual signature to sporting greatness, the unique image only the true star can produce. We saw it twice on Wednesday. In the evening when Lionel Messi bent that free kick round the Liverpool wall. In the afternoon when Ruby Walsh closed out his career by winning the Gold Cup on Kemboy at Punchestown. There is little flattery in the comparison.
The whole world knows and loves what Messi can do. The quicksilver moves, the extraordinary vision and those impossible-to-defend free kicks. The racing game’s much smaller reach means that it was only at the Grand National and Cheltenham that Ruby’s genius fully hit the public consciousness. But what they saw in that galloping, soaring saddle was a mixture of mind and muscle, balance and judgement, that has never been matched in this existence.
The disciplines of football and jump racing are too different to overwork the metaphor and the Walsh signature was by its nature a much longer one than the lightning flashes that Messi continues to produce. It was of a body position which had a control and stillness throughout the race and over the obstacles that for us ordinary jocks seemed almost supernatural. Half a ton of thoroughbred is thundering at five foot of fence and as it jumps, the figure above flows to make one athlete of the whole. In two full decades at the top of the tree no rider has ever crossed a fence as smoothly and consistently as Ruby Walsh.
But a jockey’s skill set must include much more than a body position. There has to be cool and ruthless calculation of what is beneath and around you, and branded through there must be an implacable determination, a physical hunger to reach the winning post first. The hungriest and winning-most of them all, with 4,358 wins to Walsh’s 2,756, was Ruby’s great friend and rival AP McCoy. But it wasn’t just modesty this week when AP said “Ruby was better than me and everyone else”. At the brutal counting house of the Cheltenham Festival, AP won 31 races, Ruby an unsurpassable 59.
Of course, such numbers come from the great horses supplied by the two English and Irish champion trainers, Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, for whom Ruby rode quite often at the same time. The likes of Kauto Star, Big Bucks, Master Minded and Azertyuiop for Nicholls; and Quevaga, Hurricane Fly, Faugheen, Annie Power and many more for Mullins, were horses just one of which would crown any normal career. But, like all great champions Walsh rose rather than wilted at these big occasions and was as tactically adaptable as he was balanced in the saddle. That hunched, poised body was as magnetically dominant controlling things from the front in his sign off ride on Kemboy, as it was stalking through the field to grab the race at the finish as he did so memorably on Hurricane Fly’s first Champion Hurdle in 2011.
What’s needed here is match winning cool. “He could,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney of Lester Piggott, “play Solitaire in a whirlwind” and it was no surprise that when Ted Walsh was asked this week to assess his son’s attributes, he put “a great mind” at the head of the list. “Obviously Ruby had a lot of natural ability,” added Walsh, himself 11-times champion amateur, “but his greatest asset was his mind and the way he approached the game. He is very intelligent and had the tenacity and strength of mind to keep coming back from the injuries he got.” A bad leg break last year at Cheltenham and then a back injury in the summer kept him away until the autumn and yet he returned just as coiled, and cool, and indeed, as brave as ever.
It was an extraordinary piece of mental resilience just as it had been to deliver that brilliant Hurricane Fly Champion Hurdle within a week of returning from another fracture, and 11 years earlier, when as a callow 20 year old he won the Grand National on Papillon for father Ted nine months after shattering his leg on a splintering rail on Velka Pardubice day in the Czech Republic. Last week it was significant, if little surprise, to hear Ruby say that Papillon’s victory was the most special of all the memories. For, trained by his father, led in by younger sister Katie with elder sister Jennifer carrying the rugs and brother Ted adding the muscle, this was the ultimate in family success. It was that bond, now sealed so strongly by wife Gillian and three lovely daughters, that has provided an essential haven from the slings and arrows of Ruby’s inherently high-risk profession.
Comparisons are never exact especially when you come to different eras but they do add perspective to the judgement. Fred Winter was the first great jump jockey I saw up close and he had a clamped in physical compulsion, no one, not even McCoy could match. Stan Mellor was the cleverest of them all but his little frame had some of the spark bashed out of it, as did injuries and a Prince Hal lifestyle to the super gifted Terry Biddlecombe. John Francome’s show jumping skills and devilish daring elevated the art as much as he later charmed the TV screens. Richard Dunwoody then moulded himself into the complete rider to which both McCoy and Walsh aspired until they took their own places in the pantheon.
There will be other great jockeys but, just as we won’t see a second Federer, Woods or Messi, there won’t ever be another Ruby Walsh. But one of the happiest elements of last Wednesday’s exit was that it happened with all the flair and strength and courage intact despite 20 years of pressured mind and battered body and a 40th birthday in 10 days time. The man who scaled the highest peaks will soon be a rising star in the media world but that signature will now rest forever on history’s page.