There aren’t many boxes that Ruby Walsh hasn’t ticked in his remarkable career. The Galway Hurdle was one. Or at least it was until yesterday when Walsh produced what Willie Mullins described as a “Houdini act” to finally land the richest jumps race in Ireland courtesy of Clondaw Warrior.
Walsh’s glittering big-race CV includes two Gold Cups, four Champion Hurdles, three Champion Chases and four World Hurdles. And that’s just the Cheltenham Festival tally.
He’s also won the King George, the Christmas showpiece, a record five times, the Aintree Grand National twice, the Welsh National and the Scottish National.
Domestically, he has twice won the Irish Grand National, the Irish Gold Cup (formerly the Hennessy) and the Galway Plate.
The Punchestown Gold Cup has been taken five times, the Irish Champion Hurdle six times while the Lexus Chase has been won on three occasions.
That’s some highlights reel but judging by the fervour of Walsh’s post-race celebrations, few successes meant as much to him as yesterday’s.
It wasn’t just because victory in the Galway Hurdle was a long time coming. Nor was it because victory looked so unlikely passing the winning post the first time when it appeared, as Mullins put it, “a miracle” would be required if Clondaw Warrior, then fifth last, was to prevail.
No, the added ingredient that made this extra special was that the winner is owned by the Act D Wagg syndicate, a group which includes Ruby’s wife, Gillian, and Áine Casey, the wife of former jockey and Mullins’ assistant David.
“It was brilliant,” Ruby said. “I’d gone close a few times but it was great to win it for the girls and it’s nice Gillian will be taking me out for dinner tonight! To be involved with friends, it’s magic.”
Magic would also be a good word to describe the ride Walsh gave Clondaw Warrior in front of a crowd of 32,663.
The former Royal Ascot winner was the subject of sustained late support, going off the 9/2 favourite having started the day as big as 8/1.
It appeared unlikely the gamble would be landed for much of the race with Clondaw Warrior nearer last than first. Indeed, even approaching the second last the winner was no better than mid-division. Then Walsh got to work and by the last obstacle Clondaw Warrior was one of six potential winners.
Clondaw Warrior then got the better of Princely Conn and Modem on the run-in before surviving Hidden Cyclone’s desperate late thrust to win by half a length. Princely Conn took third.
Cue bedlam in the parade ring win as victory was celebrated raucously.
“Ruby was doing a Houdini act again after another horse here the other day,” Mullins said in reference to his jockey’s similarly unlikely success on Penhill on Tuesday night.
“When I saw him with, I think, four horses behind him passing the winning post, I thought to myself: ‘He’s going to need more than a miracle to get out of that position’.
“He just bided his time, waited and waited and he obviously got through. He was just brilliant from the last home, he was very strong on him.”
When it was put it to him that Ruby had to win to avoid the wrath of Mrs Walsh, a smiling Mullins, who was winning the Galway Hurdle for the second time after Mystical City’s success 20 years ago replied: “It would have been a fair reception party alright!”
One of Walsh’s greatest gifts is his ability to adjust to changing circumstances. It was an asset he utilised to the full yesterday.
“It didn’t really go to plan, I ended up a lot further back than I wanted to be,” he conceded. “I never got off the ground at the first hurdle and lost my position. Last year in the Plate, when I wasn’t where I wanted to be on Alelchi Inois, I kept forcing the issue and there’s no point getting older if you don’t learn. You can’t force the issue and I didn’t today. You have to ride the race as it pans out in front of you.”
It helped that Clondaw Warrior had previously shown a liking for Galway, winning the Guinness Handicap.
Walsh added: “I got a great run into the dip and out of the dip, I guess it’s horses for courses and he showed his liking for that hill again.
“When I went to the last I thought: ‘God, I will win’. I knew I had been so far back that there couldn’t be too many more coming from behind me. In fairness to the little horse, he dug deep and he was as fit as a flea. It’s a great training performance by Willie.
Asked his pre-race game-plan, Walsh replied: “I just wanted cover. I didn’t mind where I was, but I ended up behind Bentelimar and I kind of wanted to be in front, but you are where you are.”
A patient ride on a favourite in a fiercely competitive handicap requires many things, not least bravery, cunning and tenacity. Another critical requirement is luck, a factor Walsh readily accepted.
“It’s great when you get a run and it comes off. If I got stopped a couple of times and finished fourth he’d have been a villain.”
That sense of perspective, one of Walsh most endearing qualities, was in further evidence when he pointed out that amid the scenes of jubilation the winning owners also had Caroline McNamara in their thoughts as she prepares to bury John Thomas today.
“They’re thinking about Caroline McNamara, they’ve had a great day but a few of them could be in that position too.”
It was a necessary dose of perspective, every bit as well-timed as Ruby’s ride on Clondaw Warrior.
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