Racing: Walsh picks himself up after day at school of hard knocks
Thursday 16 March 2006
In the mayhem of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, French jockey Thierry Majorcryk brushed his fingertips against the mythical hard knocks trophy. But however mournful he felt on his ambulance ride to hospital, he must have known the trophy was already beyond his reach. Ruby Walsh, whose first day at the festival was dream-like in the perfection of his two winning rides, had it all bandaged up.
Each year, disaster of one kind or another is delivered and received with no more complaint than a grimace and a wry smile of resignation by one of the defiant breed who come here with a stunning lack of concern for their safety.
Majorcryk's candidacy, however, could scarcely have been briefer. He was eventually unseated by his mount Kario De Sormain after an heroic effort to stay aboard that started in the landing zone of the first fence and finished as his rivals were beginning to focus on the next obstacle. But already, Walsh was on his own destructive path. He fell on the blazing favourite Kauto's Star at the third, and there were gasps of concern as he lay inert. In the previous race, the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, Walsh had also fallen at the third, on the much-fancied Our Ben.
There you had all of National Hunt racing encapsulated in less than an hour of outrageously random fate.
On Tuesday, the 26-year-old from County Kildare - the third generation of a brilliant family of horsemen and, in the case of his father, trainer and broadcaster Ted, a brilliant raconteur - defined mastery of his hazardous calling. His timing in a victory over his fierce rival Tony McCoy in the first could not have been bettered by a young Lester Piggott, of whom his trainer Sir Noel Murless once said: "Lester's relationship with a horse is something I would never begin to try to explain... it is an absolute mystery, known only to Lester, the horse and God." Walsh showed that kind of mystical feel and balance when he brought in Noland by a neck over McCoy's Straw Bear, then redoubled the effect when he showed a jockey's ultimate patience by picking the leaders off in a bewitching charge up the rising ground on Dun Doire.
No wonder Walsh reported for duty in the valley yesterday with the buoyant stride of a man who had every reason to believe he was living one of the most thrilling passages of a career already magnificently secure with two Grand National wins and a string of successes here in testing ground for the greatest jump horses in the world. What he wanted most out of the day, apart from stretching his narrow lead over McCoy as the festival's leading jockey, was a historic victory over the legendary, twice winner of the Queen Mother Chase, Moscow Flyer. He said with perhaps dangerous optimism: "I'm thrilled with my rides through the festival... I've a great chance of some more wins."
Later, after seeing his Equus Maximus backed down to 3-1 favouritism in the final race, the Champion Bumper - and perhaps, given the day, an inevitably anonymous place in the middle of the pack - Walsh mustered that resigned smile and said: "It was not what I had in mind, but I can't complain. It could have been a hell of a lot worse. I just have a few bruises." Nothing then, to worry about, in the tradition of the jump jockey. When doctors at the local hospital examined Majorcryk they cryptically reported he was suffering from thigh, chest and pelvic injuries. However, according to an official announcement, the racecourse doctors said they did not consider the injuries serious. This might have been because all vital body parts were still attached.
Today Walsh will attend to his bruises and resume his battle with McCoy. It is a beautifully balanced one, with both men claiming high marks among the cognoscenti for various aspects of their extraordinary talent; McCoy for the intensity of his attack, his flamboyant belief he is entitled to win every race he enters, Walsh for the empathy he so quickly establishes with any horse he encounters.
History will almost certainly nominate McCoy, despite his lack of a Grand National win; he has the blue riband trophies of Cheltenham, and an amazing 10-year reign as champion jockey. Terry Biddlecome, a great jump jockey of his time who thought nothing of arriving at the course still wearing his evening dress, entered the debate with some candour yesterday when he contemplated Walsh's journey into such unexpected disaster.
"You get used to days like that as a jockey; you just have to shake them off. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of Ruby at this meeting. He rode brilliantly on the first day and just had some very bad luck today. There was nothing he could do when both horses fell. You just have to roll with it and come back the next day. Ruby Walsh is a fantastic jockey and horseman. He has a tremendous understanding of a horse; he get things from one that you just might not believe are there. Not many riders have that. But then I think McCoy is better."
Why? You suggest it is because he has the greater rage to win, the more relentless determination to get the horse first past the post. Is he just harder? Biddlecombe didn't demur.
Nor did Walsh when the fates did their worst through a day that became a little longer, and colder, with each dismaying race. He simply picked himself up and got on with the job, not least when he guided the long-shot Phar Bleu into perfect position as they came to the rising ground. It was the point at which 24 hours earlier he would have expected to ease past the post. But yesterday there was not a splutter of winning life. Walsh shrugged his shoulders. In all his glory, he has had enough practice. All the contenders for the hard knock trophies do.
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