Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Racing Cheltenham

Cheltenham 2017: Mark Walsh is ready to shine in Festival spotlight

By Jonny Ward

Lucky for Mark Walsh he gives the impression he could pull out a cigarette with one foot on the tightrope.

He has never ridden a Cheltenham winner but that in itself is not unusual, given how rarely he crosses the Irish Sea, as JP McManus' main man in Ireland when Barry Geraghty is elsewhere.

However, he has to defy that statistic in somewhat unusual circumstances: his first ride of what could be a seminal 2017 Cheltenham Festival is aboard the favourite, the Alan King-trained Yanworth, in the Champion Hurdle this afternoon.

It might be easier to get Kim Jong Un for an interview than Walsh, whose aversion to publicity likely goes down well in the McManus operation, fronted as it is in Ireland by Frank Berry, a man who embraces the notion: why use two words when none will do?

Co Longford native Berry cautioned against any media-driven hype at one of the few times in the year when racing has a hold over what seems like everyone. Deep down, though, he knows that the Clane, Co Kildare-born lieutenant to the sidelined Geraghty will not let anyone down.

"It was very bad luck on Barry when he had that fall at Kempton, riding what we thought was one of our best Festival horses in Charli Parcs. Hopefully Barry will be back for Aintree," Berry said.

"Mark has been with us for many years as a second jockey and he certainly doesn't leave many behind him."

Ideally, Walsh would have had something of a rehearsal - if a ride in the madcap Supreme Novices Hurdle could be deemed a rehearsal. He was booked to steer the well-fancied Movewiththetimes, only for a last-hour muscle injury to force Paul Nicholls to pull the plug.

So, Walsh must try to ride his first Festival winner in the Champion Hurdle, but then again Roger Loughran is aboard a big fancy tomorrow yet hasn't ridden at all at the Festival this decade.

It's a point not lost on Berry. "It would've been a nice warm-up for Mark," he said. "Not only that but Paul was very sweet on him - it was frustrating and disappointing."

Geraghty must be cursing his luck at home and opted not to travel this week in an apparent bid to preserve his sanity. It all means that some choice mounts are going elsewhere.

"Some of the lads have come in for good rides," Berry said. "It wasn't too bad dividing it up. Mark rides Yanworth and, as Noel Fehily knows Buveur D'air well, it made perfect sense that he would team up with him in the Champion Hurdle.

"Aidan Coleman has done a lot of riding for us in Britain and Mark was the obvious choice otherwise. Fingers crossed he has a good week."

Walsh (30) will partner some well-fancied horses throughout the Festival and perhaps it is a bonus that he will pretty much be told what he steers.

Ruby Walsh may not have quite as much sway as the aforementioned Kim Jong Un but he will probably make a wrong call at some stage.

He rides Melon in the Supreme when his form is clearly not as good as that of Bunk Off Early, while he is also known to be a fan of Crack Mome.

If that decision were to be expected, his opting for Limini over last year's winner, Vroum Vroum Mag, in the Mares' Hurdle was a shade unexpected. Such is life as the main jockey in the most powerful jumps yard in the world.

Will it be thus much longer, given that at times in battle this year it feels as though he has the pitchfork and Gordon Elliott the musket fire? The young pretender (39) has already had a record 1,000 Irish runners this season and should enjoy a winner or two at Cheltenham.

He kicks off today with five runners, no Tombstone giving the stable a first shot at the Champion Hurdle after Gigginstown decided against it. Noble Endeavor, under Davy Russell, could get them off the mark in the Ultima Handicap Chase.

Elliott is growing all the time but so, it seems, is Henry de Bromhead. The Co Waterford trainer would surely have already won a Champion Hurdle if Sizing Europe hadn't broken down when cantering in 2008.

In Petit Mouchoir, both De Bromhead and Gigginstown have a shot at a first Champion Hurdle and they also have a live chance in the novices' handicap in All Hell Let Loose.

Bryan Cooper - who rides both Petit Mouchoir and All Hell Let Loose - will feel his own pressure. Rumours that Gigginstown will replace him won't go away, and he will be praying that he gets through the Festival unscathed.

When Clarcam hit the deck here three years ago, the Tralee native suffered what Adrian McGoldrick, chief medical officer of the Turf Club, called "the worst fracture I've ever seen". Such incidents only make them more eager to return.

The Irish arrived in numbers yesterday. If they flew Ryanair, they were greeted by Michael O'Leary checking their tickets at the gate, maybe even throwing out a tip or two ("board the plane").

Mark Walsh and O'Leary have little in common except a love of this magnificent place. Bring it on.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph