Ruby’s sudden exit a reminder how we let greatness pass us by

It can’t have just been me who appreciated Lionel Messi that little bit more on Wednesday evening. 

Barca’s fun-sized bag of tricks has always drawn us in, but Ruby Walsh’s retirement in Punchestown earlier in the day was a reminder of the assorted sporting riches presented to us at this point in time and the need to celebrate them at every opportunity.

That Walsh was contemplating what, for athletes, is described as “the first death” was no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in National Hunt racing. 

The timing and the secrecy with which it was kept made the announcement tantamount to an ambush.

The immediate emotion was simply regret at having failed to savour every step Kemboy had just taken.

But then, we rarely appreciate greatness until it passes us by.

Walsh was an anomaly in a sport that, for all the money and the passion it arouses in its afficionados, exists on the outer perimeter of the national sporting consciousness. 

Even those of who would fret over how to write a docket on Grand National day knew of him and always understood that this was a talent of rare vintage.

The first time this column was sucked into Walsh’s orbit was in 2010 on the first of nine postings to the Cheltenham Festival. 

The brief was straightforward: get some ‘colour’, mostly by hanging around the winners’ enclosure to hoover up the reaction. 

It was the simplest of assignments, even for a racing agnostic. Ruby was a large part of that.

He obliged from the off on day one: with a win on Quevega in the Mare’s Hurdle that drew him level with the great Pat Taaffe at the head of those jockeys with most wins at Prestbury Park. 

By the time the afternoon was out, he had left Arkle’s old pilot a stride behind with Sanctuaire doing the necessary in the Fred Winter.

Embellishing the copy were his falls off Quel Esprit and Citizen Vic and his shock fourth in the Queen Mother’s Champion Chase on Master Minded. 

And all this teed up by a win for his sister Katie in the opener on Poker De Sivola.

“If I was going to drop dead, I would like to drop dead right here,” said their father Ted at some point.

A single monkey with a typewriter could have done some justice to all that.

As with Messi, the regularity with which Walsh produced the goods on the biggest of days exposed the risk that it would all be taken for granted.

If there is one positive to take from the realisation that we have seen him excel for the last time, it is that people actually stopped and soaked up his career amid the madness of modern life.

There’s no point in seeking to capture the extent of that greatness here. 

Many others, all of them better placed and with no need to reach for a dictionary of racing terms, have done so already and will again in the days and years to come.

But it is worth framing all those highs — and lows — in the wider context of a jockey’s life.

Walsh never sought to match AP McCoy’s appetite for rides at the smallest of tracks on the most remote of outposts, but that isn’t to say the man didn’t grind. 

Not for jockeys the coddled life of professional team athletes: the segregated routine of training and R&R and the at-arm’s-length cordoned-off elitism deemed so necessary for some sports pros to perform.

To watch Walsh — and many others in the same union — at Cheltenham or Punchestown down the years was to marvel at the multiplicity of demands on him and the ease with which he kept them untangled.

Our last dealing with him was 14 months ago when he gave a life-in-the-day insight into his week at Cheltenham for this paper.

All jockeys are accustomed to making their own way through the season — our first trip to Cheltenham started with Davy Russell driving myself and the great Pat Keane to our digs from Birmingham Airport — but Walsh’s diary laid bare the manner in which they must multi-task and manage the sometimes conflicting demands on their biggest days.

A typical day demanded interviews for The Morning Line on Channel 4 along with time for the Irish Examiner and Racing UK slotted in too. 

Trainers and owners needed consulting, before and after races. Corporate boxes had to be visited, stables checked, and so on. And all this in between riding in some of the world’s greatest races.

No Beats by Dre headphones. Just a bottle of Lucozade Sport in the weigh room. 

No sanitised mixed zones but, instead, the maelstrom of a winners’ enclosure where journalists, trainers, owners, and assorted others all vie for seconds of your time as soon as you dismount.

And all this multiplied maybe five times in the one afternoon.

“The team guy gets on a bus and is in a camp and they have a team room,” Walsh explained in that eye-opening article last year. 

“You don’t have that as an individual. You are catering for yourself. So, it is to fill the voids, the downtime. 

"Like, you’re not going to go to the pub to have two pints and watch the soccer.” He has the time to do that now, if he wants. 

"Writing in these pages yesterday, Walsh made clear an intention to build on his various media commitments and maybe give Willie Mullins a dig out in the yard. 

"There will be plenty more offers to consider but you’d dearly love the chance to watch him multi-task just once more in and out of the saddle.

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