James Lawton: Glittering Ruby Walsh warms hearts and minds to confirm his brilliant legacy
Trainer takes his place in Festival history as 2011 victor recaptures the Champion Hurdle
Suddenly, in the frozen valley it was possible to warm your hands on something no less glowing than pure genius. It came in three instalments, brilliantly, unstoppably, and each time the author was the horseman who has come to dominate this formidable place like no other.
Ruby Walsh keeps on re-defining his ability to nurture the best of any horse he finds beneath him but at 33 he will not so easily reproduce the unerring touch that brought such glory yesterday.
He shared it with thousands of jubilant Irish compatriots and his knowing trainer Willie Mullins as he delivered the first great prize of the four days of National Hunt racing which are unrivalled in the depth of their challenge. But when he brought home Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, a stunning re-instatement of a former champion, no-one could doubt that this was a day which could only belong to one man.
Walsh claimed it, shaped it with the most beautifully nuanced riding that many gnarled old judges had ever seen, and was then given an ultimate tribute from the hugely respected trainer Mullins, for whom the hero had also brought in Champagne Fever in the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle and the serial winner Quevega in the Mares Hurdle.
Mullins, like the rest of Cheltenham, had been stunned by the faultless facility and judgement of Walsh’s ride on Champagne Fever, one which had dismayed his ferocious rival AP McCoy. The great Ulsterman had told his trainer Paul Nicholls that he didn’t imagine that his mount My Tent or Yours would be required to come off the bridle but that was before Walsh injected unexpected pace into the race and then eased to victory over the rising ground.
Mullins shook his head and said: “Tony McCoy is obviously huge in England but there are different types and styles of jockey. Ruby is as good as I’ve seen.
“Before the first race we wondered where the pace would come from and Ruby said he would supply it. I didn’t give him any instructions. He controlled it beautifully from the front.”
In truth it was not so easy to know at which particular point Walsh had most perfectly expressed his ability to read and then respond to the mood and the nature of a horse. Naturally, though, the greatest emotion came when he kept his nerve on the old champion Hurricane Fly, who only the second in history to reclaim the prize. At least a hundred hats flew in the air and the fact that quite a number of them were made of fur nicely reflected the degree of warmth had poured across the course.
Hurricane Fly seemed to be a beaten horse as they approached the top of the hill before stretching out on that long downhill swing before the final judgement of the grind to the post. The reigning champion Rock on Ruby,Zarkander and Countrywide Flame all seemed to have the great momentum, quite suddenly, it seemed that ‘The Fly’ had lost its wings.
Two, three, four lengths separated him from the lead, and Walsh later recalled, “I thought we were beaten at the half-way stage. I was worried going up the hill but then when we got to the top I was re-assured. I realised I still had a lot of horse, a lot of a great horse.”
Mullins was also concerned but he was not about to lose faith in the judgment or the poise of his extraordinary rider. When the pressure was on, Walsh was the essence of calm. He allowed the champion a pause, then brought him back to a superb rhythm.
Mullins said:“Even when he was five or six lengths off the pace I could see Ruby wasn’t down. He was riding, so I knew he wasn’t worried, I thought, ‘he must know he has enough good horse under him.’
“I had also thought that they had gone off a bit quick in front. I knew that if they could get Hurricane Fly off the bridle they had gone too fast. But Ruby waited until they were going downhill and once he got back to them, and into the race, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be beaten.”
If that assessment would soon enough become still another tribute to sublime horsemanship, it was perhaps for a little while rather more of a prayer. But then in what better direction could a trainer yearn for a display of quite extraordinary talent?
It is not often that such fine assessment is required in the rating of three quite different but still uniformly brilliant rides. The consensus was inevitably filled with a little awe but it was emphatic enough.
Walsh’s initial blow, the one that landed so squarely on the psyche of McCoy, was more than anything a tactical victory.
He dictated the race perfectly, pushing Champagne Fever into the lead and stretching the favourite beyond its limits going over the last hurdle. Mullins, for the first time of the unforgettable day, felt like a man who put his affairs in the hand of a master.
He said: “Ruby was very good. I didn’t give him any instructions. He controlled it beautifully from the front.”
Walsh said:“He gave me a great ride. He did everything I asked. He jumped like a stag and was always full of running. He was braved and jumped fantastic. We had gone a good gallop but at the top of the hill I worried we hadn’t gone fast enough. Of course it turned out we had.”
He brought in Quevega after letting his most serious rivals run their races. He picked them off like an assassin.
But then the champion race required still another quality. It was one of innate understanding of the shifting moods of any animal, however brilliant. Walsh helped Hurricane Fly find the best of his rhythm, the best of himself. It left the great horseman with 37 victories here, 10 more than McCoy, more indeed than any of his predecessors could ever have imagined. Beyond the numbers, though, there will always be the day when he brought a sublime thaw to one whole valley.
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