End of an era as Ruby Walsh retires
There were many big stories that emerged from last week’s Punchestown Festival, but there were none bigger than the retirement of RUBY WALSH.
There had been clues that the end might be in sight during the season with him not taking as many rides over fences and being deferential to Paul Townend to give him the best chance of being Champion Jockey, but he had thrown many off the scent by issuing a press release through Paddy Power the week before the meeting in which he categorically denied that he would be retiring at the Punchestown Festival. Ruby clearly wanted to do it on his own terms without any undue fuss and duly did that by making the announcement after winning the Punchestown Gold Cup on KEMBOY.
Everyone will have their own defining memory of Ruby’s riding talents, but for me the one that showcased everything that was great about him was the ride he gave YORKHILL to win the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2017.
Yorkhill was a highly-talented performer in his prime, but he was a horrendously difficult ride. He pulled hard, he could jump erratically and he idled badly when in front. That is a recipe for disaster on any day of the week. When one adds into the mix that the relatively small field made it harder for him to find cover and that Ruby was coming into that JLT off the back of two infamously disappointing and frustrating days for himself and Willie Mullins, the potential for it to go wrong was obvious.
Despite this, Ruby produced a masterclass on him. Having dropped him in, he succeeded in getting Yorkhill to settle better than he had in a very long time. He also got him jumping with a consistent accuracy which contrasted with his previous form both over fences and hurdles. Once he had achieved those goals, it was a question of keeping him under wraps until as late as possible, but Yorkhill was travelling so strongly that he got to the front soon after the second-last fence. As he had done on so many occasions before, Yorkhill then began to idle, but ultimately won with plenty to spare. While Ruby would ideally wanted to have hit the front later than he did, the ride to that point was such a masterpiece that the very last stanza of it can be readily overlooked.
As much as anything, that ride encapsulated not just what made Ruby a brilliant rider in terms of his riding skills and horsemanship, it also showcased the mental strength that set him apart from almost everyone else. Despite the wider pressures of he and Willie Mullins having drawn almost unthinkable blanks on the first two days of the Cheltenham Festival, he went out on the third day and rode like he was riding a 20/1 shot around Kilbeggan rather than a notoriously-tricky 6/4 favourite on the biggest stage of all.
In many ways, it was likely to be that same mental strength and ability to be block out doubts that would have crippled others that led to Ruby remaining at the top for so long. Losing one’s bottle might be characterised as something to be ashamed of, but it is a thoroughly natural human instinct. If one gets badly hurt, natural survival instinct makes one more wary of taking the same risks that led to them getting hurt.
Despite all of horrific falls that resulted in serious injuries that must have physically diminished him and required months of agonising rehab, Ruby’s attitude, style or approach to race riding never seemed to change. While some jump jockeys can achieve such unflappability through being lunatics, Ruby seemed to do it through sheer singlemindedness and stubbornness. He wouldn’t allow the physical and mental setbacks to change anything about how he rode.
That was the same when it came to what might have been an even more mentally-testing issue than any injuries Ruby ever suffered, that of his misfortune at the final obstacle. It is a subject that has been in constant focus since his infamous final-hurdle fall on Annie Power at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015. While much of the commentary on it veered into ridiculous conspiracy theories, the question was examined in great detail in this space and the statistical analysis revealed that there was indeed something to it.
Ruby’s mounts did fall at the final obstacle far more than any of his rival jockeys and there was no obvious external reason why this was the case. A situation like this would mess with the head of even the most unflappable of sportspeople, but again, Ruby never seemed to change anything about his style. Whether or not something about that style made his mounts more susceptible to final-obstacle falls or not, Ruby clearly believed his way was the best way and he wasn’t going to change. Now that it is all behind him, it would be fascinating to hear Ruby’s candid thoughts on that whole issue.
One thing for sure is that the game will be worse off for Ruby’s absence. As well as being one of if not the greatest National Hunt jockey we’ve ever seen, his personality will be missed too. Sure, he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but in an era where the vast majority of sportspeople are dull or have had most of their personality beaten out of them by media training telling them what they are supposed to say, Ruby’s contrarian ways and straight-talking delivery certainly livened things up. His entry into the world of racing punditry on a full-time basis will be a very welcome one.