Jumps legend Walsh in awe of ‘miracle man’

even though Ruby Walsh will not have the privilege of gracing the hallowed winner’s enclosure at York, his sense of anticipation ahead of the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival is unbridled.

Jockey Ruby Walsh with Hurricane Fly after winning the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham in 2013.

“York is the place where you are guaranteed the big names,” says the National Hunt legend, who became enchanted by Knavesmire’s special charm, and top-class quality of racing, when he attended last year’s Ebor meeting for the first time.

“York at the end of August. The Ebor – a top handicap, a Grade One sprint in the Nunthorpe, the Yorkshire Oaks and the Juddmonte where you have the best three-year-olds taking on the older horses. It doesn’t get much better. It’s very different to Royal Ascot but York seems to have a natural slot in the racing programme. It comes up at a very important stage of the year and fills a perfect niche in the calendar. I can’t wait.”

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These effusive words carry even more resonance because they have been spoken by a jockey steeped in National Hunt racing thanks to his association with iconic horses like Kauto Star, Big Buck’s, Hurricane Fly and Quevega to name four.

Sun-blessed York in high summer is not the natural hunting ground for this injury-hit 35-year-old, who has lit up so many rain-lashed days in the mud of winter thanks to the horsemanship that has enabled the naturally-gifted Irishman to become the most successful ‘big race’ rider in history.

Yet it will provide the County Kildare-born rider with a welcome distraction from his latest injury torment – his right shoulder is undergoing “complete rehabilitation” following a shuddering fall at Cheltenham in March – and to marvel at the racing “miracle” which is Joseph O’Brien.

For, while the word “miracle” has been often used to describe Walsh’s own resilience after each and every bone-crunching fall, the jump jockey stands in awe of this unassuming 21-year-old who will ride the horses who make the trip over the Irish Sea from Ballydoyle, though O’Brien’s weight means he will forego the ride on dual Derby winner Australia in the Juddmonte International.

“For a guy his size and age, I am amazed at how he manages his weight. It is something to be marvelled at,” said Walsh who will be a pundit with Racing UK next Wednesday and Thursday. “He’s the wrong sort of build for any jockey. He is incredibly narrow... If I stood in front of Joseph, you wouldn’t see him behind me – he’s pencil thin. He has no shoulders, no hips, yet he towers over me.

“It’s unbelievable. I’ll ride at 7lb below my weight. I never get into sweating, saunas, running – my weight has never fluctuated. Joseph, he’s riding at 21lb below his weight and it doesn’t show when he’s on a horse. Remember this. You see rowers and boxers make the weight before a race or a fight. They don’t have to get back on the scales at the end. A jockey does. Unbelievable... he is a miracle to watch.”

Walsh then cites O’Brien’s winning ride on 2013 Ladbrokes St Leger hero Leading Light in this year’s Ascot Gold Cup when he left The Queen’s Estimate and her jockey Ryan Moore trapped in an invidious position on the inner. “Ryan is the greatest Flat jockey in the world and Joseph matched up to him tactically and physically. It was a crying shame that he picked up a whip ban. I thought it was 10 out of 10.”

It is also revealing that Walsh spent a summer’s “work experience” at the world-famous Ballydoyle stables when he was 16. At the time, Joseph’s father, Aidan, was just beginning to make the transition to Flat racing after the scintillating successes of the mighty Istabraq over hurdles.

Despite being “as green as grass” – he did not think twice when told to pop into a garage for “a glass hammer” – the lessons helped to shape the jump jockey’s career. “Christy Roche was stable jockey and would tell you what you were doing wrong, and then you’d have Aidan saying you went too fast for the first half furlong.

“I would love to have been a Flat jockey, but you are what you are and there was never any chance of being able to pare myself down to do the weight. Flat racing is global, jump racing is parochial. After York, there’s Leopardstown, the Arc, Breeders Cup, Melbourne Cup, the big races in the Far East and then back to Dubai.”

Walsh says that Kingman’s electrifying win in the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood was one of the most visually impressive performances this year because James Doyle’s split-second timing maximised the champion miler’s acceleration – the horse’s greatest attribute. “When you have absolute faith in a horse, like James does in Kingman, those decisions are easy,” he observed.

As for York, Walsh is hopeful that Australia does line up in the Juddmonte before possible cracks at the Irish Champion Stakes and then the Arc. He also can not wait to see Epsom Oaks and King George heroine Taghrooda in Thursday’s Yorkshire Oaks. “She may scare a lot of fillies away, but if I was in charge of York, I’d rather have Taghrooda take on three runners than have an eight-runner race without Taghrooda.”

With regard to Irish hopes at York, Tony Martin’s Our Jack has significant appeal. “I won a hurdle race on him at Cheltenham last November, he won at Galway, too. If he runs in the Ebor, whatever beats him wins.” Walsh believes Eddie Lynam’s Royal Ascot sprint hero Slade Power will take all the beating in the Nunthorpe Stakes if there is plenty of pace from horses like Take Cover.

After York, Walsh’s priority will be continuing with his shoulder recuperation before a likely comeback in October. He has no regrets about leaving the Paul Nicholls stable at the end of the 2012-13 jumps season, and riding full-time for Willie Mullins in Ireland so he can spend more time with his young family. “I’m loving it, it’s great to get in the car and turn left for work each morning rather than right for the airport,” he said. “There are big Saturdays you miss, that’s the competitive spirit in me, and I still want to win Grand Nationals and Gold Cups; they’re the ones you dream about as a kid.”

With emerging stars like Vautour and Faugheen already Cheltenham Festival winners, and Annie Power possibly switching to fences, Ruby Walsh will have many more opportunities to add to his enviable record. “They have potential, they have to stay right. Mind, I can’t wait to get back. I’m sick of the gym,” he concluded.

Ruby Walsh is an ambassador for Racing UK TV – the only place to see all 25 races from York next week. The channel (Sky 432) is offering The Yorkshire Post readers a better than half-price offer for the next four months (£10.00p/m) – a saving of £50. Visit racinguk.com/eboroffer for more and terms and conditions.