James Lawton: Flying finish a reminder that Ruby remains king of the valley
Most successful jockey celebrates fixture's centenary with sparkling first-day treble
Wednesday 16 March 2011
You could have brought a Martian to this Gloucestershire valley without the beginnings of a need to explain why it has been a magnetic field of racing excellence for precisely 100 years.
This, if we had any doubt before Ruby Walsh, the ultimate master of every nuance of this most daunting track, extended his all-time record of Festival victories to 29 in the Champion Hurdle – there was another triumph to follow – wasn't any old anniversary, no mere revolution of the clock.
It was an affirmation of values and quality that simply invaded the senses. It was another glorious statement rolling across the hills and Walsh, bred to the game and its most subtle and complete practitioner, was surely the perfect celebrant.
He came here rehabilitating a broken leg and the routine wounds that every National Hunt rider takes to his work and by the end of the first day it was as though he was operating on a cushion of air.
His third win, a loping formality on the favourite Quevega in the Mares' Hurdle, was almost a mockery of the efforts of all of his rivals, including the one who is generally regarded as the most driven and unquenchable in the history of jump riding – A P McCoy.
At one point in his third victory of the day Walsh looked back at a decimated field with the kind of nonchalant authority once displayed by the great Lester Piggott on the Flat. It was the glance of a man who knew that he was, for another day at Cheltenham, the master of all he saw, all that was pitted against him in various degrees of disarray.
For McCoy it was another cruel twist of the reality that if he has raced with unsurpassable nerve and force in all corners of racing, if he has staggered all his rivals with his hatred of the concept of defeat, in this valley he is just another rival required to acknowledge that it has become Walsh's place, his empire.
McCoy was thrown by the favourite, Sunnyhillboy in the third race – a handicap chase – and his status as the reigning BBC Sports Personality of the Year can have brought little solace as he wrapped his arms around his head as the traffic thundered by.
He was bruised and disconsolate at this discouraging start to the challenge in which Walsh so regularly, and almost sadistically, tends to dominate, but there was the same old certainty. McCoy would return to the battle, something he will, you have to believe, keep on doing this side of old age or a direct hit by an Exocet.
Walsh pursues his imperatives in a more measured way. He picks his moments more carefully, some might say uncannily, and you always know that there will never come an opportunity that might lead to a charge of neglect.
His victory in the opening race of the day, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, on 10-1 shot Al Ferof, was beautifully shaped over the final hurdle and into the rising ground. It was remarkable, consummately controlled work that made the outcome only surprising in the exultation displayed at the end by its author. For Walsh it was the kind of superior performance which has become these last few years a staple of the world's greatest jump and hurdle racing.
It was in his first Champion Hurdle win – the last of the major Cheltenham titles to elude him – where we saw most clearly his ability to master unforeseen problems, to ride not with the conviction born of a perfect plan and circumstances but the pragmatic instincts of a natural-born winner.
He brought Hurricane Fly to the lead over the last hurdle and then he fought off the burning pace of the previously unbeaten Peddlers Cross. It was the kind of finish that had lifted the three-mile handicap chase into an authentic model of the racing that was to be celebrated this day – a half-length victory for Robert "Choc" Thornton in Bensalem over the tough Carole's Legacy.
Thornton and Bensalem, who almost died in the winter during a bout of pleurisy, fought off the challenge in that way which so regularly warms the blood here even when the wind is at its most cutting. It was not the most valuable of races, it was not some pinnacle of the meeting or the game, but it had as its essence all that commends this sport and this place to those who each year make it a pilgrimage not so much of recreation but of refurbishing the spirit.
The jockey said he was thrilled to end a three-year drought at the Festival – particularly given that he had entered the desert with an impressive 16 wins to his name. "It will be an easy week now," said Thornton. He will, of course, believe now that anything is possible.
Ruby Walsh is never far from such a conviction when he enters the valley but sometimes it takes a little more determination and nerve. This certainly was how it was when he engaged the possibility that Hurricane Fly, a maestro in his easy talent in Ireland, was not likely to settle into his best, most commanding form.
Walsh concluded: "Half a length is all I deserved to win by. I never got him to settle really and he ran keen all the way. We did it the hard way. We [Walsh, trainer Willie Mullins and his No 2 jockey, Paul Townend] always believed he had it. He is a deserving champion and a right little horse.
"He has a big heart and he needed it today because we probably got there a fraction too soon but he never gave me a chance early on. I would have preferred to have him more settled but this was mainly because of the gallop. There was no point being concerned, that's the way it was and I was happy that I was on a horse with flat speed that I could use."
It certainly seemed a negotiable problem as he moved the favourite into a striking position, than held off his challenger in that race to the line which asks a score of questions about the resolve of a horse and a man.
So, inevitably, it was another of those days which belonged to the extraordinary talent and confidence of Ruby Walsh. The great McCoy nursed his wounds and his disappointment and his rival reflected briefly on how things might have gone wrong.
For the rest of us there was a less demanding requirement. It was simply the ambition to eke out as many years of the next 100 as might be humanly possible. Death where is thy sting? Here it was one of those days when missing Cheltenham seemed some way from being the least of the consequences.
Walsh was superb, the horses ran, as they always do, with conspicuous courage and, thankfully on this day, without serious mishap, and so it meant there was reason to celebrate this life of a 100 years. You could only wish it another 100, wherever your own whereabouts. Even a Martian might have agreed.
During the Festival, top Flat trainers will give their views from the other side of the fence on jump racing's showcase occasion. Totesport is providing a free £100 stake for them, with any winnings going to their chosen charity.
Time For Rupert in the RSA Novices' Chase. He is a fine-looking horse, who is progressive and has been brought along very cleverly by his trainer.
I'm told Big Zeb is bigger than ever going for his Champion Chase repeat and that his young trainer is getting very excited.
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