One of the greatest jump jockeys in the history of racing has called time on his career, after victory in the Punchestown Gold Cup aboard the Willie Mullins-trained Kemboy.
When interviewers in the parade ring asked jockey Ruby Walsh about what comes next after his victory aboard Kemboy at Punchestown, everybody was probably expecting him to relate to the horse and to draw up a plan for the seven-year-old’s future towards the Cheltenham Gold Cup next term.
Instead, he took it upon himself to publish his decision to retire from all forms of racing with immediate effect, words that stunned and shocked the world of racing and even had grown men crying inside the County Kildare venue.
Being the joyful, upbeat character that he is, the track announcer had to ask the question two or three times to be sure he had got hold of what Walsh actually meant.
The 39-year-old – soon to celebrate the big forty in a couple of weeks’ time was certain though, bringing an end to his near twenty-five-year involvement in the sport his family loves so much, which has featured so many highs and the odd couple of lows.
‘Rupert’ Ruby Walsh was famous even before starting as an amateur, due to his father Ted’s exploits in the saddle himself, whilst sister Katie retired from the saddle twelve months ago too, a few weeks after winning the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham aboard Relegate.
Ruby won the Irish Amateur Title twice himself before turning professional, and quickly began to put together a portfolio of high-profile victories, when taking two Grand Nationals in the space of five years after the turn of the century.
In total, he rode over 2,500 winners on the track in the UK and Ireland, and was particularly notorious for his record at Cheltenham and the Festival in March.
Including his maiden victory aboard Alexander Banquet in the 1998 Champion Bumper, he proclaimed himself the winning most rider at the meeting with fifty-nine winners – capped off this year by winning the Supreme Novice Hurdle on the five-year-old Klassical Dream.
Other names that stood out will always be Kauto Star and Denman – two of Paul Nicholls flag-bearers over the last double decade engraved into everyone’s memory - who constantly fought out Gold Cups.
The Irishman was stable jockey to the Ditcheat man for some time, and was aboard Kauto Star when he rewrote the history books elsewhere in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.
The Clive Smith legend notched up five victories in the great race, whilst Big Bucks scored in eighteen successive contests after taking a fourth World Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2012.
Master Minded was brilliant when taking back-to-back Queen Mother Champion Chases in 2008 and 2009… the lists just goes on and on.
With everything going so well, something had to give. Walsh returned to Ireland to be closer to his young family, which left a bit of a sour taste in the-now eleven-times Champion Trainer’s mouth.
Their relationship was left a bit on the rocky side, but the County-Kildare-born rider did return to ride the odd couple for Nicholls in Britain.
His work was now prioritised with Willie Mullins, who had a fine team of horse’s progressing in training that had mostly been purchased from France.
Douvan, Vautour, Un De Sceaux and Quevega along with home-bred Annie Power, Faugheen and Hurricane Fly were all some central to Walsh’s success at the top level, again, particularly at the Cheltenham Festival – a place he was top jock an incredible eleven times.
Douvan was an exceptional springer until injuries blighted his path, whilst the cruel side of the game got the better of the fence-pinging-gazelle Vautour.
Neither would touch a twig, yet you had the brilliance of Annie Power, Faugheen and Hurricane Fly over timber to add to it, all of whom who won Champion Hurdles at the prestigious meeting.
Whilst he was given these great opportunities, he was definitely a man for the big occasion and handled every bit of pressure brilliantly.
However, he did begin to make a name for himself on ‘bottling’ some headline events amongst some, and it began to come commonplace that he and the ‘final flight’ did not see eye-to-eye.
Of course, we are referring to Ruby Walsh and falling at the last obstacle, something that grew into his game as the years went by, an element that cannot honestly be controlled.
Many aggravated punters began to draw up links between similar performances, including the spills of Annie Power and Benie Des Dieux in the Mares Hurdle’s of 2015 and 2019 respectively.
But, any man who knows racing would tell you no one would jump off a horse purposely approaching 40mph over obstacles, particularly when there is an opportunity to go and seal the deal in any race of great value.
Ruby was a man who loved the game and would get the best out of every horse he rode, no matter what their ability.
Terms such as ‘fraud’ had been wrongly chucked and circled around by the odd few, but the coincidence just became a sad common stroke of luck, and one of those things that could happen to anyone in the saddle.
Away from the few lows – if there were any, Walsh’s style of riding is what he will be significantly remembered by.
Even discussed by Sir AP McCoy - who has been enjoying punditry ever since he hung up the straps, there is nothing better than seeing a motionless Ruby Walsh in full flight.
McCoy suggested just like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, it is not something that can be tought but instead just raw talent to ride from inside.
Not usually a front-runner, he would happily sit patiently until the last moment to call for maximum effort from his horse, of which he would get animated to just finish the job.
Letting the horse do the work, most jockeys in the field are used to hunting down Ruby – trying to follow his way through as he usually had an eye for a clear passage.
Victory aboard Rathvinden in last month’s Grand National would have been the final port of call if the eleven-year-old had been successful, but it was a great way to bow out near his hometown in Ireland, fit and healthy on a horse that epitomises Walsh’s personality and natural profile: Grit, determined and first past the post.
A close relationship to all proper-racing lovers and punters, his sad retirement signals the end of ‘Ruby Tuesdays’, and that excellent sight of him punching the air when he crosses the finishing line ahead of the rest.
Who will step in line? – Paul Townend is a fine advocate for that role, and Patrick Mullins is not far being off a star either.
But just like AP, Ruby Walsh will be a massive loss for the sport – a magnificent jockey but also a great character at the race-scene.
We wish him well bowing out at the top in style.