A record 56 winners. The meeting’s top jockey 11 times. Two Gold Cups, four Champion Hurdles. Victories on Kauto Star, Hurricane Fly, Annie Power, Big Buck’s and Quevega.
Ruby Walsh could have chosen any one from that long list of achievements and horses for his outstanding Cheltenham Festival memory during 20 years riding at the biggest meeting in the jumps calendar.
Instead he chooses one particular afternoon. Day one in 2011 and not just because he rode a treble on Al Ferof, Hurricane Fly and Quevega.
Ruby Walsh has issued a warning to his rivals ahead of this week's Cheltenham Festival
Walsh (left) chats with Willie Mullins as they leave the gallops at Cheltenham on Monday
It was what preceded the meeting which made it so special. Walsh had broken his right leg in a fall at Down Royal in November, had surgery, returned days before the meeting and narrowly escaped further calamity in a fall at Naas which left a gash above his eye.
‘To come back after four-and-a-half months off, ride a couple of horses, have another terrible fall in Naas when I probably broke a rib or two and then rock up on the Tuesday, that was a special moment,’ Walsh recalls. ‘Al Ferof took riding, so did Hurricane Fly and Quevega rounded it off. That was a day I thought, “You f****** showed them”. I look back on that day and take pride in it.’
Walsh will ‘rock up’ at Cheltenham on Tuesday just over 16 weeks after breaking the same right leg in a fall at Punchestown with just two rides under his belt. The Naas fall in 2011 made Walsh tread carefully when considering his comeback this time. He spoke about weighing up the ‘risk and reward’ of warm-up mounts.
The 38-year-old has been the meeting’s top jockey 11 times and claimed a record 56 winners
TOP FESTIVAL RIDES
GETABIRD (Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Tuesday
Three of his five wins in this race came with Champagne Fever (2013), Vautour (2014) and Douvan (2015) and he carries the same pink colours as on those three on this unbeaten Willie Mullins gelding.
FOOTPAD (Racing Post Arkle Chase, Tuesday)
Fourth on him in last year’s Champion Hurdle but has had to watch from the sidelines while the six-year-old has been foot perfect in three novice chases this season.
FAUGHEEN (Unibet Champion Hurdle, Tuesday)
His 2015 Champion Hurdle winner has been on the back foot after two defeats but is still regarded by many as the only serious threat to Buveur D’Air.
DOUVAN (Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, Wednesday)
Despite suggestions he may be diverted to the Ryanair Chase, Douvan takes on the brilliant Altior on his first run of the season and has been chosen by Walsh over stablemate Min.
UN DE SCEAUX (Ryanair Chase, Thursday)
Bids to repeat his brilliant win in the 2017 race. He will relish the soft ground but it places a slight question mark over his stamina.
LAURINA (Truill House Stud Mares’ Novice Hurdle, Thursday)
Trounced her rivals in her two novice hurdles in Ireland this season and defeat is not being considered by the Mullins stable.
PS Walsh has four Willie Mullins-trained entries to choose from in Friday’s Gold Cup — Bachasson, dual runner-up Djakadam, Killultagh Vic and Total Recall.
He concedes he has ‘not been much fun to be with at times’ during his rehabilitation but says missing the Festival never crossed his mind.
Punters will not fear he is undercooked. They will still pile millions of pounds on his mounts over the next four days because to them the 38-year-old jockey with his prematurely grey hair is quite simply the King of Cheltenham.
As ever, the expectations will be huge but phlegmatic Walsh divorces himself from thoughts of pounds, punting, odds and pressure.
He said: ‘I have never ridden for fame and I have never ridden for glory. I ride because I love what I do.
‘I am living the dream I have had since I was seven. The pressures of the outside world were never in my dreams and they still aren’t.
‘Horses will jump or they will fall. They will win or they will get beaten. That’s the way I have always looked at it. When I stop dreaming, I will give it up. I have always done this for the buzz. There are days when you think, “What the f*** am I doing this for?”
‘Then you pull a race out of the fire or win a big one and you know exactly why you are doing it.
‘One day, when I turn to run down from the top of the hill at Cheltenham and it means nothing, I’ll know it’s all up.’
Walsh’s first memories of the Festival are watching on TV at home in Ireland when his father Ted landed the 1986 Foxhunter Chase riding Attitude Adjuster.
He jokes: ‘I can remember Attitude Adjuster winning more clearly than Dawn Run winning the Gold Cup that year. Not many can say that.’
He can also remember it being ‘freezing’ on his first visit to the meeting in 1996, being ‘in awe of the size of the place’ and the jam-packed stands that witnessed Imperial Call and jockey Conor O’Dwyer winning the Gold Cup.
Walsh guided Faugheen to a memorable victory in the Champion Hurdle in 2015
RUBY'S 56 WINNERS
1998 Alexander Banquet
2002 Blowing Wind
2004 Azertyuiop - St Pirran - Sporazene
2005 Missed That - Thisthatandtother
2006 Noland - Dun Doire - Desert Quest
2007 Denman - Taranis - Kauto Star
2008 Fiveforthree - Master Minded - Celestial Halo
2009 Quevega - Mikael
D’Ha guenet - Cooldine - Master Minded - Big Buck's - Kauto Star - American Trilogy
2010 Quevega - Sanctuaire - Big Buck’s
2011 Al Ferof - Hurrica ne
Fly - Quevega - Big Buck’s - Final Approach
2012 Quevega - Big Buck’s
2013 Champagne Fever - Hurricane Fly- Quevega - Briar Hill
2014 Vautour - Quevega - Faugheen
2015 Douvan - Un De Sceaux - Faugheen - Vautour
2016 Douvan - Annie Power - Vroum Vroum Mag - Yorkhill - Black Hercules - Vautour - Limini
2017 Yorkhill - Un De Sceaux - Nichols
Canyon - Let’s Dance
Two years later O’Dwyer was a Festival opponent of the teenage Walsh. Rides on his father’s Papillon and the Mouse Morris-trained Thatswhatithought were followed by victory in the Bumper on Alexander Banquet, trained by Willie Mullins.
Most of the jockeys who rode against Walsh that day have retired. They include Graham Bradley, Richard Dunwoody, Norman Williamson, Charlie Swan and Sir Anthony McCoy.
At 56 victories, Walsh has ridden more Festival winners than any of them, but claims he was happy when he reached 25. He says: ‘I thought it was an achievement when I got level with Pat Taaffe. He was the man who rode Arkle and was from the same village I am from.’
Twenty-one of Walsh’s Festival wins came for 10-time British champion trainer Paul Nicholls but it is Walsh’s partnership with Irish champion trainer Mullins which endures and which will supply him with almost all this week’s rides.
They will not just face stern opposition from British trainers but also fellow Irishman Gordon Elliott, who is threatening to end Mullins’s reign across the Irish Sea and who landed the Festival trainer’s title for the first time last year when matching Mullins’s six wins, but bettering his placed efforts.
Some would argue expectations of the Mullins-Walsh axis are lowered but they could get off to a good start today with Getabird in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Footpad in the Arkle Novices’ Chase.
Un De Sceaux is the one to beat in Thursday’s Ryanair Chase, while Laurina is regarded as a certainty by most Irish punters for the Truill House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle on the same day. Then there is 2015 winner Faugheen, still a threat but needing to rekindle his old sparkle to land a second Champion Hurdle; Douvan, with questions to answer not having run since flopping in last year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase; plus four to choose from in Friday’s Gold Cup — Bachasson, Djakadam, Killultagh Vic and Total Recall.
Walsh says: ‘If things happen and you do the right thing, the ball bounces or the cookie crumbles, we might sneak one or two out of it.
‘You have to be realistic. Whatever way you look at it, Faugheen has to come back to his best and a bit to beat Buveur D’Air the way he looks.
‘Douvan has to come back to his very best to get into the mix. It doesn’t look to me that Altior has gone backwards. They are all big asks but we will keep throwing the muck and see if something sticks.’
Ruby is back and he is ready.
l Racing UK is the only channel broadcasting every race live from the Cheltenham Festival with 38 hours of coverage — visit racinguk.com for more information.
THE THOUGHTS OF WALSH
IF YOU COULD HAVE A RACE AGAIN , WOULD IT BE ANNIE POWER IN THE 2015 MARE S’ HURDLE ?
(The 4-7 favourite fell at the last to deny Walsh and trainer Willie Mullins an opening four-timer) You ask me do I want to ride one again. Annie Power? No. What could I do about that? Horses jump or fall. If I could ride one horse at Cheltenham again, it would be Commanche Court after his second in the 2002 Gold Cup. Off the final bend, I went to join See More Business but Commanche Court made a mistake at the second last fence while Best Mate got a run on the inside. He’s the one I’d like to ride again. My dad Ted trained him and it was the Gold Cup. Tactically, when you do something wrong, that grates.
ON RIDING FOR BRILLI ANT IRISH TRAINER WILLIE MULLINS
Willie is an artist and a great man to ride for. You make your plan and have a go. If you get it wrong, say so and move on. He has been a huge part of my career. I have always found him to be very fair. I love riding for him. He allows you to express yourself and has great faith in you to do the right thing.
ON RIDING AGAINST AP McCOY , THE 20-TI ME CHAMPION JOCKEY
I ha ve less friends in the weighing room than I had 10 years ago. Most of them have retired! I miss AP. I miss the competition he brought to it and the intensity of having to compete against him. I’d like to think we all pushed each other. Richard Dunwoody drove AP McCoy, who pushed the rest of us. He drove the car and we tried to catch up. I don’t know if it was a golden generation, but it was great to be part of it.
ON RETIRE MENT
I don ’t know what I will do when I pack it in but it will have to be horses. They are all I know. I had better make use of the experience I have somewhere along the way.
IS SAMCRO THE IRISH BANKER IN
Tomorrow’s opening race? He has done everything asked of him. I’d take the arm off you to ride him! People say it’s pressure riding him. It’s not my idea of pressure, it’s a penalty kick. Samcro looks rock solid. I was used to that with Quevega (six-time winner of the Mares’ Hurdle). I used to think, whatever goes along we have her.