The top three jockeys in the betting to become the ‘leading rider’ at next week’s Cheltenham Festival are all Irish based: Ruby Walsh (1/3), Barry Geraghty (7/1) and Bryan Cooper (10/1).
Cooper is the retained rider for the Gigginstown House Stud which is primarily owned by Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary who has his horses dotted around Ireland with all the leading trainers. Geraghty has a similar contract to ride the horses owned by renowned owner JP McManus who has his horses spread across the UK and Ireland.
Ruby Walsh, on the other hand, is not tied down to the colours of one owner. Instead the 36-year-old has an agreement with leading Irish trainer Willie Mullins. Prior to this, while riding for Mullins in Ireland when available, Walsh was contracted to ride for English champion trainer Paul Nicholls. It was a relationship which lasted over a decade.
Now, whereas JP McManus has quantity – he has an estimated 300 horses with UK and Irish trainers, many of them are very moderate – the Mullins and Nichols training academy’s traditionally represent quality. Resultantly Ruby Walsh career stats are simply staggering.
Since the 2002/03 season Walsh has never had a strike-rate of less than 25% winners to runners in the UK. During the last two seasons, when primarily riding in Ireland, he has won on 30% of his mounts.
But it is at the Mecca of horse racing betting, Cheltenham, and primarily the Cheltenham Festival, where Ruby Walsh has made an indelible impression on racegoers both old and new.
The leading jockey at the Festival in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015, Ruby Walsh is the most successful Cheltenham Festival jockey of all time with 45 winners. That tally surpasses the recently retired AP McCoy’s total by 14.
Big Bucks, a four time winner of the World Hurdle and Quevega, the five-time Mares Hurdle winner, have obviously been major contributors to his haul but two Cheltenham Gold Cup victories aboard Kauto Star and a pair of Champion Hurdle triumphs on Hurricane Fly probably top Walsh’s personal list of Cheltenham Festival memories.
So many outstanding big-race wins and his phenomenal wins-to-rides ratio have made Ruby Walsh an iconic household name in gambling mad Ireland.
To underline that point Walsh is honoured in a song by the famous singer/songwriter Christy Moore called ‘The Ballad of Ruby Walsh,’ which appears on his album ‘Listen.’ The song is based on Christy’s real life experience of watching the jockey at the Galway races.
Returning to 2016, can Ruby Walsh surpass his 2011 record of five Festival winners? With rides on four favourites on the opening day alone, the biggest priced of which is 2/1, the potential mount on Limini the odds-on favourite for the Mares Novice Hurdle and what looks a steering job on Un De Sceux in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, there is every chance he will.