Ruby Walsh tells us about going for Gold Cup glory this week

Will Ruby Walsh be all smiles on Friday afternoon?
Will Ruby Walsh be all smiles on Friday afternoon?

Any win at the Cheltenham Festival is a great one, but there is no doubt about the status of Friday’s Gold Cup as the finest prize of all.

Ruby Walsh’s record in the supreme test of a steeplechaser is a magnificent one, with two wins, four seconds and a third.

By contrast his employer, top trainer Willie Mullins, has all those places and more — but no wins. And that’s a stone that Mullins wants to remove from his shoe this week as he sends a superb team to tackle the great race. 

“It’s like throwing darts, you hope one of them hits the bullseye, preferably the one I’m riding,” Ruby says. “ But I don’t sit down in October and ask Willie what’s the goal for the year? Of course, it’s a race he’d love to win, it’s the Gold Cup. It would be a massive achievement for him to win it.”

With Djakadam, Vautour, Don Poli, Valseur Lido and On his Own, the Mullins yard has potential winners sticking their head out of almost every box. They are all very good horses.

“Kempton didn’t suit Vautour at Christmas. Cheltenham is a different track, at a different time of the year, but I’m still holding off any decision as to what I ride until I have to,” which is at midday on Wednesday.

By then, the 36-year-old multiple champion jockey will hope to have a few winners on the board from Mullins’ marvellous team of chances for Tuesday’s opening day, winners that would put to bed rare grief dumped Walsh’s way of late for a spate of last-fence falls during February.

Annie Power's fall, with Walsh in the saddle, during last year's Cheltenham Festival

Criticism in the mainstream media and on social media is shrugged off instantly. “Look, any jockey’s average for falls is something like once in every 20 races.

“I probably get more falls at the last than at the other parts of the race,” he continues, “Do I take more chances? I don’t know. Whatever happens, whatever happens.

“At the last fence in a race is where a horse is most tired and where can most go wrong. Technically, they are going their fastest at the time,” Ruby continues.

“The other side of it is: do I ride more horses to the last with a better chance of winning? I do. So, therefore, I’m going to fall more at the last because I’m doing it more often than anybody else. That’s actually a lovely position to be in, to be heading for the last hurdle or fence with a chance of winning the race.

“Of course you look back at everything you do, every ride you have. I don’t look at it in a hypothetical sense but a technical sense. I didn’t do anything different to those horses that I did to all the more than 100 winners I have had this year. They managed to get over the last, but three of them didn’t and that started all this.”

Ruby is ready to get it wrong this week and let a couple of prized winners slide through his fingers by picking the wrong fancied horse from his stable. “That’s something I’m well used to, from the days of riding for both Willie and Paul Nicholls.

Ruby Walsh celebrates after winning the 2007 Gold Cup aboard Kauto Star

“The worst place to be is having no ride, that’s no use at all. It’s a headache and you get things wrong but you’re fortunate to be in the position to have to make the choice.

“I don’t see that as a bad part of this job. It’s not going to be right every day. I form an opinion and you go with it. I suppose you get it right more often than not.”

So what would be a good Cheltenham this week, Ruby?

“Walking out of there would be a start,” says the man who points out that his profession is the only one in which you are followed while working by two ambulances.

“Two years ago, I left Cheltenham in an ambulance. I don’t want to be walking into Birmingham airport this year on Friday night or Saturday morning with me arm wrapped around me head or me neck in a cast. Look, there is huge expectation on us this year. So a couple of winners would be great.”

Where might those winners come from this year? Everyone wants to win the first race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, to settle the nerves and put a winner on the board. The trio of owner Rich Ricci, trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh have done that for three Cheltenhams on the spin with Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan.

And hot favourite Min is the horse charged with keeping the sequence going at 1.30pm on Tuesday. “It would be great, if he could. Min has won his two races very well and the horses he beat have come out and won good races.

“But they were both at Punchestown, which is a fairly flat right-handed track, Cheltenham is hilly, goes left and you are turning a lot of the time. Min has a bit to prove still and Altior sets the standard for English horses.

“This first race run can’t keep going forever. It would be nice if it did, it does takes the pressure off. I guess we’re lucky to have so many good chances in the first day. Hopefully, one of them will deliver.”

If they don’t, Ruby will stay calm. “You learn to balance it with age, experience, whatever it is. You try not to get too high or too low. You try and stay in the middle.

Obviously it’s a great thrill to win at Cheltenham, and it’s very exciting too. You try and stay level but you’re human too. As much excitement and joy there will be, there are things that go wrong so you have to stay level.”

And that includes keeping to a routine over the four days. “I never go to bed early, it’s Cheltenham and your mind is racing. There’s no point staring at the ceiling. Will I wake up half an hour earlier each day? Probably.”

Nor will he go for a run around the course as so many jockeys do on each morning of the Festival. “No. I’ve broken my leg too often to go running around the track, that’s out too.”