RACING POST FEATURES – 13-3-2011
It’s only when you look like losing something precious that you realise just how much you treasure it. On Wednesday we looked like losing Ruby Walsh.
The fall he took at the last hurdle of the 25 runner maiden hurdle at Naas was a shocker. The big, lanky, King of The Refs didn’t quite have the heart for the leap and as he buckled over he brought down the horse behind and flattened Ruby beneath him. As the most successful jockey in Cheltenham history knelt, head in hands with the agony of it, we seemed in for horror revisited.
There were just 6 days to the start of the Cheltenham Festival. He was a mere 8 winner-less rides in from a four month lay-off since a grey horse called Corrick Bridge had somersaulted on top of him two races after Kauto Star’s brilliant comeback at Down Royal and the Walsh right leg was left facing in the wrong direction. On Wednesday, all the waiting, all the effort, all the mustering of that magic talent seemed to be strewn on that little muddy patch on the landing side of the final flight at Naas. Hospital called. Again.
So consistent and so dazzling has been Ruby’s success that it took a thorough reading of last year’s autobiography to appreciate quite how great a price he has had to pay. We know the roll of honour runs to two amateur titles, the first at only 18; six professional crowns in his native land uniquely matched by such big race victories across the Irish Sea that in four of the last six years he has actually beaten even AP McCoy for prize money. We marvel at those record 27 Festival victories including that seven winner annus mirabilis of 2009. But we forget why his hair went white. He doesn’t.
“I have had 12 breaks or dislocations in my career,” he told an appalled non-racing journalist who came to interview him about the book before Christmas. “Aside from the current injury, I’ve done my ankle, leg, both hips, both shoulders, left arm, both wrists, a collarbone and had some crushed vertebrae. I got a kick in the stomach two years ago at Cheltenham and it ruptured my spleen. I also got kicked in the face when I was trying to catch a loose horse. It reared up and caught me with a foot.”
His tone then was one of amused, almost sadistic relish in the listener’s discomfort. On Friday morning the familiar voice was wearily thankful as he let his battered frame recover for yesterday’s three race resumption at Sandown with no more than stitches beneath his right eye to show for Wednesday’s dramatics. “Of course it’s sore,” he said as the newsreel pictures ran those apocalyptic Tsunami scenes from Japan, “but wrapping up on the couch and just feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t do any good. Over here we are in a woeful recession and many people are losing their jobs. I am lucky to have so much to look forward to.”
Such perspective comes from roots as much as experience. For those who know them, the family devotion and discipline set by Ted and Helen Walsh has been every bit as inspirational as the high energy commitment Ted has brought to his roles as jockey, trainer and TV pundit. Few moments in the whole history of the game have ever matched the sibling happiness as Ruby rode the Ted trained Papillon back after the 2000 Grand National with sister Jennifer in charge and little Katie holding the bridle while young Ted cleared the way as usual.
That was eleven success-packed years ago which have included another Grand National (with Hedgehunter in 2005) and practically every big race short of the Champion Hurdle. But it was also five long months since the first deep experience of limb-shattered, teeth-grinding pain when Ruby’s right shin was smashed to bits by a loose rail in Pardubicka, Czechoslovakia. Recovering from that injury had been prolonged by coming back too soon. It taught him patience and how lucky he was with his loved ones.
After the fall Ted Walsh had materialised from nowhere just as he did last April when Celestial Halo crashed over at the second last at Aintree and a following horse put Ruby’s arm out of commission for the summer. But so, already, was Gillian Doran who was to become Mrs Walsh, mother of 16 month Isabelle and a resourceful, don’t-bring-your-troubles-home-with-you influence through rain and shine.
“I think family support is very important,” said Ted in his quick fire way last week. “Gillian has been a great asset. She is an intelligent young woman and a cousin of Willie Mullins so she understands the situations and won’t let him get down. I think it’s also a great help having his sister Jennifer as his agent, she makes things easy for him. As for Helen and me, we do what any positive parents do but,” he adds with a touch of tenderness in that normally so upbeat voice, “but things like that fall at Naas don’t make it any easier.”
Considering his own riding success as 10 times Irish Amateur champion and Cheltenham winning jockey, it’s easy to see Ted the coach as much as Ted the parent. But the father insists he has always been much more the sounding board than the tutor. “Ruby is a great pupil,” he says, “he religiously rings me about every ride every day asking what I thought. But I have a great policy of not criticizing when he has ridden a loser, just sometimes drop things in about winners that got away with it, or moves that could have gone wrong. He has become a wonderful rider and I feel terrible for him with the injuries. But they happen, he is not a mad man who throws caution to the wind and I know he has worked very hard at his rehabilitation.”
This time around that process for Walsh junior has been much helped by Brian Green, the conditioning coach of the Irish Rugby team who had a previous stage with the Pittsburgh Steelers in America. “Ronan O’Gara introduced me to him,” said Ruby on Friday. “As soon as I was able to drive I was going down to see him in Killiney. While we waited for the leg to heal he took time to work on all my old injuries and so by the end I have never felt fitter. Of course this last week has not been ideal but once you start back on a horse the muscle memory kicks in. For me, while race riding is a physical thing, the need is for stillness, To compress the muscles not stretch them. To allow the horse to flow and jump beneath you. If you have it right only the arms are really moving.”
Our own memories have crystallized around the long legged figure wrapped deep around his horse as the Cheltenham course unravels. The fresh faced amateur who opened his book in the 1998 Cheltenham Bumper has developed into this compulsive Pegasus, much more Dunwoody than McCoy, who has not only steered the champions Azertyuiop, Master Minded, Big Bucks and Kauto Star, but has delivered driving excitement with the likes of Sporazene, Desert Quest, Dun Doire and last year’s “Handicap Certainty” Sanctuaire. In the often frenzied moments out on the track Walsh tries to add a sense of calm. He can look, as Hugh McIlvanney once so memorably wrote of Lester Piggott, “as if he could play Solitaire in a whirlwind.”
The jockey himself is adamant about the need to keep one’s cool and still rankles about moving too early on Balla Sola in Katarino’s Triumph Hurdle and on Commanche Court in Best Mate’s first Gold Cup. “I think it’s a sin to come too soon,” he said on Friday, “you are just giving a race away. Obviously you have to adapt to each different horse and there is no doubt the Old Course with its sharper downhill is less of a stamina test than the New Course, and so it is harder to make up ground but you still should not come too soon.”
Nor should you arrive at the racecourse too late. “I hate rushing,” he says, “and like to get to the track early so that I am not under any pressure for time. I have some little routines but it is not the full on dressing room focus that Ronan and the lads would do in rugby. We still have the owners and trainers to talk to in the paddock. You don’t really go into the zone until you are down at the start.”
The voice is beginning to pick up, but in the outsider’s mind the doubts still try to push in. For four months Walsh’s racing world has been a “No Fly Zone”. Up until yesterday his four day comeback had yielded 8 races, 4 beaten favourites and that X certificate fall at Naas. Would there not be an element of rustiness if not trepidation to be overcome? Does he really want to risk all to reach the mountain top?
With courtesy but exercising a champion’s perogative, Ruby Walsh will not even entertain the question. “You just have to get on with it,” he says, “I am plenty fit enough. I have been here before (in 2006 he won the King George on Kauto Star just one day after coming back from a dislocated shoulder). I have a job to do and some great horses to ride.”
Ah those horses! Like most jockeys this weekend he is “previewed” out with Cheltenham talk, but when he comes to the prospect of the big three of Master Minded, Big Bucks and Kauto Star it seems almost shameful treachery to have ever suggested there could be doubts about motivation. “I have been down to Paul’s and he is happy with all the horses. They look very well and they have to have every chance again.”
Master Minded’s Champion Chase in 2007 remains his most extraordinary memory of jumping power –“he was unreal that day. They went fast but he just went faster and faster. He may not be as good as that now but he won’t need to be.” For Big Bucks, still unbeaten in ten hurdle races since poor Sam Thomas slid back over his tail after the last fence of the 2008 Hennessy, the reservations are even fewer – “He’s a quirky horse but on the racecourse he seems to be getting more straightforward. Grand Cru will probably commit but that should suit us.”
Which leaves us with Kauto Star, coming to a Cheltenham showdown for the 6th consecutive year and now running in his fifth Gold Cup. The talk and pressure on the first time was such that the week before Ruby got into the car and drove round and round County Kildare turning over all the permutations in his head. He has not done anything so specific this time but says that he has already run Kauto and all the other horses through his mind to have his own idea as to how to ride them.
“You have to make a plan,” he says, “but right from the start you have to be ready to adapt and change it. There should be plenty of pace in this Gold Cup with Midnight Chase up there and Denman not far away. Kauto was not quite right after Kempton and he seems in good form now. He’s been a great horse and I just love to ride him.” If there are any lingering scars from that heart-stopping moment when Kauto Star cartwheeled out of last year’s Gold Cup they are not going to be allowed on this voyage. “I just love this week,” he says. “If it doesn’t faze you a little, it doesn’t mean anything to you. But I love the pressure, the excitement even the anxiety of it all.
Ruby Walsh in flowing action has been the most complete as well as most successful riding sight in Cheltenham Festival history. But to get to the top, to hold him there, and to drive him up again this week, there has to be something more than craft and contacts. It is something more important in a jockey than all the thought and planning, than remedial fitness, even than big race timing. It is a primeval will to win. Tony Martin saw it on Wednesday.
Tony is the trainer of King of The Refs. By coincidence he is also trainer of Corrick Bridge who smashed Ruby up at Downroyal as well as Dun Doire on whom Ruby rode one of the most amazing last to first finishes to win the William Hill Trophy at The Festival in 2006. Tony is a tough guy who does not impress easily. But his voice drops into something close to reverence when he describes what happened at Naas on Wednesday.
“King of The Refs is a fine big horse,” says Tony, “but he might not yet be the bravest. They went quick down to the first and he grabbed at it and frightened himself. I could see ‘yer man’ (Walsh) nursing him round trying to get his confidence and expected him just to finish in the middle. But then running to the second last he’s back in 8th but I could see him stoking. He didn’t jump that great and again I thought Ruby would accept it. But no he gets him running and with a good jump at the last he thinks he would have won. He’s just amazing.”
Have a look at the video to confirm that these are not the words of any fawning acolyte. The long Walsh legs are wrapped round King Of The Refs as he heaves his unlikely accomplice into full stretch action. Twice he cracks his whip with the right hand before re-gathering the reins, switching the whip for two on the left and then a final switch for one more on the right to get full momentum. King Of The Refs white nose-banded head is closing on the leaders. With a big jump his long stride will carry him right up there. But the leap lacks conviction and the ground comes up to bite him firing his jockey into the melee of crashing bodies and pounding hooves.
“I feared the worst,” said Tony dropping his voice to an awestruck whisper. “He was very shook even after they had stitched him up at the hospital. But he’ll be back. I tell you this is a man of steel.”