19 March 2006

At the end they just sit and drink and sip on the memories. Ruby Walsh was on orange juice but over the four days he had tasted the best and the worst of the Cheltenham brew. Three winners to make him leading rider of the meeting, four falls to test his battered body to the limit. “It is,” he said, looking round the wooden benches and tables of the jockeys’ changing room, “an awesome place”.

He was already grey-suited, red-tied and immaculate sitting in a corner beside his equally smart compatriot Barry Geraghty. But beneath the grey hair Walsh’s young eyes shone with what had gone before. “There’s nothing like this,” he said, “to come up the hill, to hear the crowd. It’s what we are all about. But jeez, it’s a hard place too. You just never know what is going to happen.”

His week had been what all jockeys aspire to, what millions of punters wrangle over and what, this time, nine horses paid the ultimate price for. Cheltenham may be a splendid, roistering, Irish blossomed rite of spring. But at heart it is about men and horses and jumps and daring. Like any other race track it is anything but a risk-free zone. Over the four days, Walsh had been to the edge and back. It had started and finished in triumph. The white-faced Noland had answered every call up the run-in to lead on the line in the first race of the meeting, and Desert Air stuck on doggedly to land the finale. But in 16 rides between Walsh had been through the highs and lows that are part of the Cheltenham addiction for all of us.

The first day had seemed to contain everything for Walsh. Another victory when Dun Doire ran past 10 horses up the hill, a good second on Artist’s Muse in the last, but disappointment when Missed That jumped ponderously in the Arkle, and hurt when the mare Asian Maze turned over in the Champion Hurdle.

“It was a swinging hurdle and she clipped it,” said Walsh dismissively about a fall that had him on his feet in an instant. Wednesday was not to be so easy. It should have been his best of the meeting but it ended with two falls, three beaten favourites and included the sort of moment that still brings a wince to the memory.

Kauto Star had looked like the new kid on the block for the Champion Chase. As the Irish outsider Newmill winged the 12 runners towards the third fence, Kauto Star was already powering close to the leaders. But Kauto Star did not get high enough and as he capsized he tripped the pursuing Dempsey into a somersault, and as old hero Moscow Flyer landed he too was enmeshed in the legs and body of the fallen rival.

For a full second the turf in front of us was full, Moscow Flyer struggling over the prostrate horse and rider as Barry Geraghty tried to stay in the saddle. As he got clear you knew that the old king’s reign was already over but back on the grass two jockeys lay still. Then Dempsey’s rider Andrew Tinkler unwound himself gingerly just as Walsh sat up and collapsed again, before crawling like a stricken man towards us.

“All those years I have followed Moscow,” he joked on Friday, “and in his very last race he walks all over me. He put his foot in my stomach right here below the body protector. It was agony but by the time I got back to the weighing room I was all right.”

The tone is anything but doom-laden. Falls will happen. It was on New Year’s Day at this very track that Walsh had the first of the back-crunchers from which he only just returned in time for the Festival. It was only on the second of them and after riding that memorable five-timer at Wincanton that a crushed-vertebrae was diagnosed. “I worked hard at the fitness,” he said “things like weights and running against the current in the pool. But I have been lucky. Look around this room and you see how hard a place this can be.”

Across the way Timmy Murphy was a dizzy shrunken figure, trying to pull himself together after his crash from Celestial Gold in the Cheltenham Gold Cup completed Martin Pipe’s Festival of woe. A bench away from us the still bare-torsoed Graham Lee smiled ruefully at the contrast between this winnerless Cheltenham and last year’s table-topping four days. Away from us A P McCoy talked animatedly about his three winners and the absolute thumper of a fall that ended the life of Nowhere To Hyde on Wednesday.

These men, this game, are tempting fate. They know that there can be no escape from pain and that for some of them, and more of the horses, the stakes can be absolute. But they also know that they are into something where man and animal fuse into an athletic meld of speed and strength and courage that only the fewest can share.

That brings with it humility before the risks and generosity towards those who share them. “Look at Conor (O’Dwyer),” says Walsh of the rider of Gold Cup winner War of Attrition to whom he was second on Hedgehunter. “He may be nearly 40 but he still rides like a young man. At his age you would think he would be a bit stiff, sit back a little. But I watch him every day. His hands are supple and easy. He’s an example to us all.”

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