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Dublin: 14 °C Saturday 21 September, 2019
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A Life in the Saddle: Ruby bids farewell to racing the only way he knows how

Johnny Ward looks back on Walsh’s glittering career after a legend of the sport retires.

Walsh bowed out at Punchestown yesterday.
Walsh bowed out at Punchestown yesterday.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

HIS NAME WAS unique, his personality unique, his riding unique – so his departure may as well have been unique too.

Crossing the line earlier on Kemboy – having made another far-from-straightforward ride seem easy – Ruby Walsh started waving to the crowd, effectively uttering ‘goodbye’ after nearly a quarter of a century of greatness.

Booked to ride in the penultimate race and booked to ride tomorrow, Ruby would never ride again.

Within minutes aged and sage men were crying among a crowd just shy of 19,000 who can always chide those who were not: I was there.

Within an hour, Wikipedia had turned is into was on his bio – as cruel and as prompt as that, the greatest National Hunt rider of all time would never see combat again. But he goes out in one piece – relatively speaking – and this is a thus a day for celebration.

Those of us who got into racing at some stage during this most golden of generations knew no different and may never appreciate it.

We had the incomparable McCoy, the brilliant Geraghty, the genius of Carberry, the greatness of Russell.

And the best.

Ruby Walsh with his wife Gillian and daughters Isabelle, Elsa and Gemma after announcing his retirement Ruby Walsh with his wife Gillian and daughters Isabelle, Elsa and Gemma after announcing his retirement. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He was so long on the podium after the race I thought he’d change his mind,” quipped Russell on Off The Ball on Wednesday night, having earlier chucked ice-cold water on a former colleague he deemed to be the best of them all.

“Any day Ruby was in the weighing room I always felt I rode better,” he went on.

If he was behind you in a race, you were worried. If he was in front of you in a race, you were worried.”

Russell also made a brilliant point: if you tried to ape Ruby, you were in trouble. It just could not be done: he treated fences like an elephant might a mouse.

As Tony McCoy said, there is little use trying to teach kids how to be like Messi.

Horses have the strength to kill a human and Ruby lived by the rule that less was more. Why bully something infinitely more powerful when you can befriend them?

In terms of personal experience, the first horse I had any involvement in made mistakes in every race.

Then Ruby rode him.

After the pair returned to the winner’s enclosure, I asked him: “What was his jumping like?”

He gave that immediate off-the-cuff reply and scowl that only one man could make – or two, if you count his father Ted. “His jumping? What’s wrong with his jumping?”

And he was right, as he nearly always is. When Ruby rode him, there was nothing wrong with his jumping.

Go back to that sit on Killultagh Vic in 2016. The horse had all but capsized at the last, suffering a would-be-fall that is still staggeringly illogical.

Ruby barely moved, which is just what he aspired to do at every fence: as little as possible. Riding without irons, he got the steed back up to win.

It was one of the most extraordinary jumps races ever seen in Ireland – but what will always stay with me is that photo of Ruby as nonchalant as ever, akin to a driver in the middle of a car-crash taking a drag from his cigarette.

He was the best from the front. He was the best from last to first. He had a clock in his head. And that was just pace alone.

Ruby Walsh onboard Kemboy comes home to win ahead of Paul Townend onboard Al Boum Photo Ruby Walsh onboard Kemboy comes home to win ahead of Paul Townend on board Al Boum Photo. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There are far too many injuries to mention – here are some of them. He broke around 20 bones in his body, including legs, wrists and ankles; dislocated both his shoulders, ruptured his spleen; crushed vertebrae. They were the main ones, at least.

Then you have the wins, such as two Irish amateur titles, 12 championships in his homeland, over 2,500 horses home in front including 59 at the Cheltenham Festival.

You had Papillon, Commache Court, Kauto Star, Denman, Faugheen, Hurricane Fly, Masterminded, Big Buck’s, Hedgehunter, Quevega – and Kemboy.

There is that somewhat surly element to him, too – who could forget Derek Thompson and Denman in 2008? But if Walsh were one of the greatest riders of all time, he inherited more than riding talent from his father Ted: he is excellent in front of the camera too.

The trainer who helped make him great, Willie Mullins, was as dumbfounded as the remainder of us. “Ruby just got off and said ‘can you find someone for Livelovelaugh’?

“I looked at him to see if he was lame, concussed or dehydrated. Then he said ‘I’m out of here’ and the penny dropped so I called him back then and shook his hand.”

He has a lot of hands to shake. He, Russell and Geraghty were born in the same year and Geraghty reflected last night on the point that should not be forgotten: he gets out alive. Others did not.

He’s had an unbelievable career and he has so much to be proud of,” Geraghty said.

“He has been a great competitor.”

When it came to the art of being a National Hunt jockey, he raised the bar. From one bar to the next where men talk racing tonight, be it in Ireland, Britain or beyond, people begin to come to terms that we will never see the greatest ride again.

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Johnny Ward

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