The Cheltenham Festival will be upon us between Tuesday 10th and Friday 13th March this year, and while there will be many familiar faces at this annual celebration of everything that’s great about National Hunt racing, there’s one legendary Irish jockey who won’t be competing in the saddle this year.
After announcing his retirement last year, Ruby Walsh leaves behind a remarkable legacy of riding more than 2,500 winners during his illustrious career. The 12-times Irish National Hunt champion jockey also collected numerous awards and accolades over the years, along with setting standards and records other leading jockeys aspire to.
Emotional scenes at Punchestown as the legendary Ruby Walsh retires pic.twitter.com/sIVo7ngqq4
— David Coughlan (@canalend) May 1, 2019
Amongst his phenomenal racing achievements, Ruby Walsh was also the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, riding 59 winners over a period of 21 years. Highlights include winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice with Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009, while also becoming the leading jockey with the most ever wins in many other prestigious races at the Festival.
While the 2020 Cheltenham Festival will be as thrilling as ever, it’s hard to shake the sensation that it won’t quite be the same without Ruby Walsh participating, guiding thoroughbreds around the famous racecourse with tremendous skill and intelligence. This begs the question: Just who has the potential to match the iconic Irishman at Cheltenham?
Currently the only jockey to have achieved anywhere near the same level of success at Cheltenham as Ruby Walsh, fellow Irishman Barry Geraghty took his total number of Cheltenham Festival winners to 38 with two triumphs last year. Both came one after the other and on the traditional St Patrick’s Thursday, riding Defi Du Seuil in the Novices’ Chase, then Sire Du Berlais in the Pertemps Network Final.
However, shortly after the Cheltenham Festival in March last year, there were genuine fears that Geraghty might retire. The veteran jockey shattered his lower right leg in a nasty fall at Aintree the following April. Despite that horrific injury, Geraghty insisted he would miss jump racing too much. Having made a full recovery, he’s back in the saddle and continues to ride winners in the most prestigious races in Britain and Ireland.
Moscow Flyer brought Geraghty his first ever winner back in 2002 and since then, he’s won the Gold Cup twice and ridden at least one winner at every Cheltenham Festival, with the sole exception of 2017 when injury prevented his participation. One spectacular achievement was a particular highlight in 2009, when Geraghty became the first jockey to have won all four of the feature races at Cheltenham, and the Grand National at Aintree during his illustrious career.
Despite being almost the same age as the now retired Ruby Walsh, 40-year-old Geraghty will be one of the leading jockeys to watch amongst the Cheltenham betting tips for the 2019 Festival. With every intention of riding for at least several more years to come, Geraghty still has the time on his side to match or exceed the magical benchmark of 59 winners.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. It’s fair to say this phrase perfectly described the fortunes of Paul Townend until fairly recently. So often in the shadow of Ruby Walsh in the pecking order for the best rides provided by the almighty Willie Mullins yard, that all changed for Townend once his colleague decided to retire last year.
Townend already boasted an excellent National Hunt record in the Irish racing scene, and had 8 winners to his name at the Cheltenham Festival, including the Stayers’ Hurdle on Penhill in 2018. However, once Ruby Walsh took his decision to retire, Townend then became the top jockey with the best pick of Willie Mullins runners to choose from, and that was clear for all to see last year.
Surprising as it may seem, Willie Mullins had never managed to train a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner until 2019. When Ruby Walsh achieved the feat twice as a jockey, it was riding Kauto Star trained by Paul Nicholls. Nevertheless, Mullins was delivered his first ever Gold Cup triumph by none other than Townend, riding 12/1 outsider Al Boum Photo to victory. This was his second winner at the Festival last year, having also won the Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase riding Duc Des Genievres.
With 10 winners overall at the Cheltenham Festival, while still a long way from the golden 59 record of Ruby Walsh, 29-year-old still has the very best years of his racing career ahead, which means plenty of time Townend to gain ground on his fellow Irishman’s achievements, with every opportunity to forge a remarkable legacy of his own. Of course, now being the number-one rider of Mullins mounts will bring him a huge boost towards that ambition.