Cheltenham: Zeb full of bounce to scoop Big prize
If you ever hoped to comprehend quite what this place means to the people whose lives and careers are shaped here, you only had to observe brief tableaux after the first and fourth races yesterday.
Start with Katie Walsh, sobbing with joy, trying to compose herself for the interviews.
“You just have to live up to the good days,” she said, her voice breaking again.
“Because, with horses, there are so many bad ones.”
And then cherish the surreal spectacle of mild, murmuring Colm Murphy, sprinting dementedly across the track to leap into the arms of the men he employs to tend Big Zeb. The three of them began jumping and reeling on the spot, knowing that there would never be another St Patrick's Day like this back at Ballinadrummin.
But then, with his sister's reproof in mind, remember also Ruby Walsh, riding potential Gold Cup horses of the future in each of the intervening races. Quel Esprit crashed at the second hurdle, and Walsh was lucky not to be trampled into oblivion. He returned, weighed out again, and was bang in the firing line when Citizen Vic took a harrowing fall at the second last fence. Again, Walsh got to his feet; but that was something Citizen Vic would never do again.
The parchment of Ruby's grey face told an inexpressible tale as he stood in the weighing room, talking to Citizen Vic's trainer, Willie Mullins. Walsh then walked solemnly into the parade ring, to meet the excited entourage of Master Minded, a horse expected to seal his status as a modern Festival great.
Tomorrow he will be wearing the same silks on Kauto Star himself, in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Walsh was surrounded by smiling, optimistic faces. Someone took a souvenir photograph.
Master Minded had won the past two runnings of the Queen Mother Champion Chase and was sent off 4-5 favourite to extend his dominion. But he was never going with any real swagger this time, off the bridle coming down the hill and palpably labouring as Big Zeb tanked his way easily towards the leader, Forpadydeplasterer.
Big Zeb, to be fair, was still going strongly when falling four out last year, but that episode had only seemed to confirm that his jumping would never stand up to the pressure of a race like this.
He has a patient master, however, in Murphy, and moreover a skilled escort in Barry Geraghty. And their remedial therapy paid off in breathtaking fashion here. Big Zeb produced an aggressive, confident round of jumping, and when Geraghty sent him careering past Forpadydeplasterer on the approach to the last, he bounded six lengths clear. It was a good three lengths back to Kalahari King, who had been under the cosh for a long way but stayed on well enough to catch Master Minded for third.
“We've done lots of work on Big Zeb's jumping,” Murphy confirmed. “He was a very immature horse in his younger days, and a real head-banger when he went to the races, but he has matured a lot and grown into a man. “
Murphy's own calibre was never in doubt, having previously brought a champion hurdler over from Co Wexford in Brave Inca, but he also emphasised Geraghty's contribution. Master Minded, however, was beyond even Walsh's help.
“I was beaten so far out that something has to be wrong with the horse,” he said. “All his best form is on slower ground. But animals are not machines, you can't switch them on and off. That's racing — you get up, you keep going.”
Sure enough, he proceeded to ride a nerveless race on Sanctuaire in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, his 26th Festival success setting a new record. Walsh's immaculate upbringing is evident in everything he does, in and out of the saddle, and he promptly deflected the talk to the man whose tally he had surpassed.
“Pat Taaffe was born in the same parish as me,” he said. “Anyone in racing would talk about Arkle and that meant they talked about Pat. He was lucky to ride for Tom Dreaper, and I've been very lucky to ride for Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls.
“Whatever he may have absorbed from their words, his supremacy in this crucible also owes much to the genes of Ted and Helen Walsh — as was transparent in the performance of his sister, riding her first Festival winner on Poker De Sivola in the opener. Of the 20 amateurs who embarked on this four-mile steeplechase, 18 were men. But from the home turn they could only watch in distant admiration as Nina Carberry and Walsh drove their mounts clear.
Many times have these two watched their brothers, Paul and Ruby, fight out races up this same hill.
They are, moreover, great pals — Nina, in fact, is dating another of Katie's brothers. As such, it was not merely the fact that she had previously sampled the elixir of Festival success that prompted Nina to embrace Katie so generously after finally giving best as the post approached.
If this was not exactly the most prestigious event of the week, it produced an authentic landmark. For all their progress in other racing disciplines, female jockeys would find few trainers prepared to match Ferdy Murphy's faith in a race as gruelling as this one. But the virility of this pair in the finish was such that they both received suspensions from the stewards, for using their whips with too much gusto.
Ted, who won so many big races as an amateur himself, can surely remember days when few men rode with anything like such style. “But it's not a triumph for genealogy,” he said. “It's just a victory for a family that loves this place like nowhere else on earth.”