James Lawton: Once again, Ruby is set to be brightest star of the Festival firmament
No contemporary sportsman, not Messi, Pacquaio or Djokovic, has done more
If we wanted an insight into the scale of the latest Irish invasion of Cheltenham we needed only to eavesdrop a brief message to the course by the great trainer Willie Mullins. It was for the provision of 56 horseboxes, which for the stunned recipient was not so much a statement of ambition as for the disposition of an entire cavalry unit.
However, if the threat is of a charge of a heavy brigade, no one needs telling who it is that represents the most sustained and thrilling challenge for most of the available glory.
It is yet again Ruby Walsh, the man who for so long has claimed the West Country valley as his personal terrain, the place where each year he brings fresh dimensions to the scale of his brilliance.
Indeed, it has become less a statement of recurring dominance as a right of ownership, of every fence and hurdle, and to the point where the best odds you can get for his seventh jockeys' title in nine years is 8-13. It is not so much a betting proposition as a statement of the inevitable.
There are many ways to define the scale of this peculiar genius which underlines the point that no contemporary sportsman, not Lionel Messi in football, Manny Pacquaio in boxing or Novak Djokovic in tennis, has done more to announce the mastery of a particular discipline. That Walsh should do it in a sport which has wrecked his body several times over, and that for every triumph at the greatest jump meeting of them all – the tally is 32 going into today – he can point to some part of his frame which will always bear the mark or feel the pain of a collision with this and other courses.
In the eight years since he won his first title here only two rivals, Robert Thornton in 2007 and Graham Lee, in 2005, have paid more visits to the winners' enclosure or created more tumult when hitting the rising ground to the finishing post. You may say that he has had the great advantage of patronage by two legendary trainers, Mullins and England's guardian of Kauto Star, Paul Nicholls, but then such men do not spend so much of their lives in pursuit of equine perfection without agonising over to whom they will entrust it.
Ruby Walsh, the record is now emphatic, does more than guarantee a supremely competitive ride. He offers more than mere accomplishment, even artistry. Supremely, he brings interpretation of every strength and weakness in the horse that is delivered to his care.
Jonjo O'Neill, who gave his own version of riding excellence and Cheltenham one of its most enduring memories when he brought Champion Hurdle winner Dawn Run home in the Gold Cup, gave one enduring reaction to the quality of Walsh early in the trajectory of an astonishing career. "There are many great horsemen, jockeys who know all about winning, but Ruby Walsh seems to have something that goes into another area. Sometimes it is as though he is one with the horse, inseparable."
It is this extra dimension that has been celebrated with gathering force down the years.
Now, when he seeks to repeat his Champion Hurdle victory on the brilliant Hurricane Fly, and then moves, we have to guess, imperiously towards the emotional climax of the meeting on Friday on the back of Kauto Star, his prowess has never grasped quite so widely.
If Cheltenham is about nerve and judgement and the ability to understand the message of every equine heartbeat, Walsh has never been so separate in his extraordinary status as the supreme and separate performer.
Of course, he is not alone in that respect which goes out to the ultimate practitioners of their hazardous business.
A P McCoy has long been the choice of all those who believe that he operates with ultimate force and determination, a man prepared to heal himself in ice chambers that in any other walk of life would probably be dismissed as instruments of extreme masochism. Certainly, the course will be populated again by men who long after they put down the colours are treated with the difference that goes only to masters of their trade, men like like Charlie Swan, John Francome and Peter Scudamore, and perhaps no one of any generation earned more lingering respect than the late Fred Winter, a jockey whose insights were so easily transferred to a brilliant training career.
Yet Walsh, the man from Kill, Co Kildare, occupies, unquestionably, his own mystical terrain. It is not just that he wins but also that so many of his victories appear to be spirited away, the product of timing and authority that somehow slips beyond normal analysis.
The physical cost has been high even by the standards of his trade. He broke the same leg twice, the second time on the approach to his first Grand National victory on Papillon. He he has dislocated and broken shoulders, cracked elbows and vertebrae and when, in 2008, he underwent emergency surgery for the removal of his spleen, he found a way back into the saddle in 27 days.
"You don't think about the injuries because that would interfere with your concentration on what you have to do. Injuries will happen, of course, they are part of what you sign up for, but they never intrude into your thinking, which is about the pleasure of what you do, because that is your life, the thing you most want."
At 32, the man from Kildare has never been more immersed in the drama and the exhilaration. This means that once more he is rather more than the star of racing's most compelling show. In the great cavalry charge, he remains a point of iridescent light.
Like it or not, 'Plastic Brit' is a live issue
This is not a business where the mea culpa is a stock in trade, no more, it would at least be nice to think, than those billows of red mist which from time to time obscure a wider perspective.
However, it may well be that disquiet over some of the stridency of the Plastic Brit campaign that last week engulfed the British athletics team's American-born captain, Tiffany Porter, had precisely that result.
Porter, who went on to win a silver medal in the World Indoor Championships, was a target for heavy criticism when she refused a request to sing or recite, parrot fashion, the national anthem. The whole affair smacked to some of us as a little too much of some British version of the old House Un-American Activities Committee.
Still, it was impossible not to see the comment of the head coach Charles van Commenee, that the only purpose of the debate was further to unite the British team, as disingenuous at best.
Porter won a silver medal in Istanbul and confirmed her potential in the year of the all-consuming Olympics but, unfortunately, she did not, and could not, close arguments about the integrity of international competition – and Britain's contribution, or not – to that principle.
A whisper of doubt in noisy neighbours
The theory that Sir Alex Ferguson's great achievement came last season when he won yet another title with what many deemed his weakest squad is coming back to haunt the noisy neighbours.
Who knows, Manchester City may regain the momentum that seemed so shredded in Sunday's defeat at Swansea – but for the moment they must agonise again over the old adage that money cannot buy you everything. It is the inevitable reaction to continuing questions about the balance of Mario Balotelli's natural ability and the anarchy that apparently resurfaced in his half-time row with Yaya Touré. There is also the untimely pique of Gareth Barry, who for some time was such a model of consistency.
United may have been outgunned in the market place – but how long will it take to show?
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