Dominance: How Ruby Walsh became the king of Cheltenham

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“If there’s been a good horse there’s a good chance I rode them.”

Having announced his retirement from horse racing in 2019, that is how Ruby Walsh reflected on his glittering career. It’s a quote that reflects the Irishman’s supreme status in the sport, and you can’t argue that Walsh has been in the saddle of some of the best racehorses we have seen over the last couple of decades.

Now content with a life away from the blood and thunder of racing in the saddle, Walsh must still get the odd pang of envy when winter turns to spring and the Cheltenham Festival looms into view. After all, he is the undisputed king of the prestigious four-day meeting, having ridden a record 59 winners at the Festival, and the hairs must stand up on the back of his neck when he hears that famous ‘Cheltenham Roar’ from the plush confines of the ITV studio.

The 42-year-old is not one to hold regrets though. His retirement announcement was as clean-cut as his best wins in the sport, and having left the sport while still operating at an extremely high level, Walsh has ensured that his legacy can never be tarnished.

Cheltenham brought him his best days, and there’s no doubt that he’ll be a legend of the Festival for decades to come. As the 2022 edition of the meeting rolls around, where Walsh will once again have to make do with a pundit and tipster’s role discussing the best Cheltenham betting odds, let’s take a look back at how he carved out his place in Festival history.

Off the mark

They say the first time is always the most special. Walsh has had a plethora of Cheltenham winners over the years, but his first will hold a special place in his heart forever. Aged just 19 and still an amateur, Walsh was trusted by Willie Mullins to take the reins of Alexander Banquet in the 1998 Champion Bumper, and the Irishman gave an exhibition of his qualities two win by two and a half lengths.

“I suppose it’s like anything, your first is always very special,” Walsh reflected later in his career. “I was so young back then but you never forget your first and he was a wonderful horse for my career. He was a tough, genuine horse who gave it his all and I’ll never forget that day at Cheltenham with him.”

That win gave Walsh the taste of victory at Prestbury Park, although it’s fair to say not many could have anticipated the Cheltenham glory that would eventually come the Irishman’s way.

Winning machine

Indeed, Walsh had to wait four years before doubling his tally of Cheltenham Festival winners. A victory on board Blowing Wind in the 2002 Mildmay of Flete Handicap Chase was the beginning of something special though. Yes, it was the only winner he recorded in that particular renewal of the Festival, but it sparked a chain of success that would not be broken until his retirement.

Walsh won at least one race in every iteration of the Cheltenham Festival from 2002 to 2019 — an incredible run of victories, the like of which we may never see again. The highlight of those halcyon days were the 2009 and 2015 Festivals, where Walsh notched a record seven winners. He won two Gold Cups in total, both on board Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009.

This was a sportsman operating at the absolute peak at his powers. Whenever any horse racing fan turned on the Cheltenham Festival, you could expect to see Walsh challenging for the biggest honours. There was simply no stopping the man who was riding the wave of his unprecedented success.

End of an era

Perhaps the most significant thing about Walsh’s Cheltenham reign is that it did not die out with a whimper. Yes, he was no longer quite at the top of his game by the 2019 edition of the Festival, but he still managed to record a memorable victory, winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on board Klassical Dream. It would prove to be a final winning salute to the roaring Cheltenham masses.

“Even with a crystal ball you couldn’t have seen how lucky I’ve been,” Walsh said after his retirement announcement, “but you have a dream and you keep going until the dream turns into a nightmare and thankfully it never did.”

Walsh left Prestbury Park in 2019 knowing it would be his last Festival as a jockey, scrawling above his peg in the weighing room: Ruby Walsh. 59.

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