Stunning landmark testament to Ruby Walsh’s enduring class

It’s rarely mentioned now, but Ruby Walsh’s first ride at the Cheltenham Festival wasn’t exactly smooth.

Stunning landmark testament to Ruby Walsh’s enduring class

Papillon, a horse he would partner to a Grand National success two years later, was his first mount back in 1998, but the bay was no fan of the Prestbury Park track and a young Walsh never got to grips with his tricky maiden ride in the Kim Muir.

“I just couldn’t get him to go about his business,” he explained years later in his autobiography.

“He ran lazily and hung in behind the horses in front of him and I couldn’t get him out. I guess at 18 I wasn’t as tough a customer as Papillon.”

Typical of the man, he still left the Cotswolds that week with a first success, Alexander Banquet getting him off the mark in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.

Twelve years later and he was matching Pat Taaffe’s mark of 25.

He thought that was “unbelievable” at the time, so what of his record now?

Wins aboard Vautour and Limini yesterday took his total at this gig to 52, but it was his ride on Black Hercules in the day’s opening JLT Novices’ Chase that brought him to the half-century not out and it prompted a brief moment of reflection around a track which usually doesn’t pause for breath mid-card.

There was context amid the congratulations.

His father Ted touched on how times have changed by pointing out that a big yard in Tom Dreaper’s day was 30 horses and that Willie Mullins might boast 150.

Even the Festival itself boasts a greater number of races and opportunities than was the case in the past.

There was mention, too, for the people who have helped the Kildare man to such heights.

The jockey himself made particular mention of Mullins and Paul Nicholls, the trainers for whom he has partnered so many winners here. He even played down his own part in the story.

“I’m the lucky guy who gets to steer the ship,” he said.

No-one was buying that. His class was always apparent. Walsh was still in his mid-teens when his dad brought him to Naas for a schooling bumper.

Charlie Swan, Conor O’Dwyer and Brendan Sheridan were all taking part and Ted knew his boy fitted in when he couldn’t pick him out.

“He looked like a jockey,” said Ted of that day yesterday. “He looked well.”

Willie Mullins saw that from the off as well.

“I think Ruby was 17,” the trainer explained. “I went to Leopardstown and I got hungry and decided not to ride a horse in a bumper. It was a four-year old filly with about 10st 7lb so I asked Ted if Ruby was around. He was at home in Kill so Ted rang and he came up.

“She was a very hard filly to ride, a little filly who pulled and pulled. He got up on her, settled her at the back of the field and came through about 18 horses to win on the line. You could see the quality of that ride from a kid. I said he would be my next amateur.”

So, his talent was obvious, but the work ethic that has steered him to a pinnacle previously unimaginable in his game shouldn’t be underestimated.

His knowledge of the opposition, for example, is encyclopaedic, regardless of where the race is being run.

Sometimes Walsh and Mullins like to sit back and simply watch the rest of the Closutton team do their thing in the yard and on the gallops.

It is education by assimilation and why wouldn’t it be with people such as David Casey and Patrick Mullins going about their business?

A melting pot, was Willie Mullins’s way of explaining the environment he has created, but such is the success that has been brewed at their HQ in Carlow that there is a temptation to compare it to the magic that emanates from a wizard’s wand or a witch’s cauldron.

The spell won’t last forever, of course, but it would be a folly to suggest that this won’t continue captivating us for the foreseeable.

Walsh is 36 now, AP McCoy retired at 40. That suggests four years more at least, even if Walsh had a mind to follow his old rival’s lead, which he doesn’t.

Retirement isn’t yet a thought that calls on him.

“It could change in a moment,” said his father. “He knows. He could have left a couple of years ago. His arm was in shit and he had to get a lot of work done. He’s got a great mind, he can get around it. He broke his leg in the Czech Republic and got over it and won champion jockey the next year.

“He’s not fazed at this stage. He’s like (Jonathan) Sexton: if you miss one, so what? You fall. So what? Everyone can have a bad day and you’ve got to be able to live with mistakes as well. If you make a bollix of something, its history.”

Right now, Walsh is busy making history to remember rather than forget.

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