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Down Royal Winter Festival success can pave way to Cheltenham glory, says Ruby Walsh


Ruby Walsh experienced highs and lows at Down Royal's Winter Festival

Ruby Walsh experienced highs and lows at Down Royal's Winter Festival

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Jockey Rachel Blackmore poses with the Ruby Walsh Trophy at Cheltenham

Jockey Rachel Blackmore poses with the Ruby Walsh Trophy at Cheltenham

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Ruby Walsh experienced highs and lows at Down Royal's Winter Festival

Ruby Walsh has hailed Down Royal’s Champion Chase as the perfect pathway to success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

And the racing legend knows better than most having ridden the great Kauto Star to victory twice in both races.

The prestigious two-day Winter Festival starts at Down Royal on Friday, with the feature £100,000 Champion Chase on day two, when crowds will flock to the Maze track again given the easing of Covid restrictions.

Walsh, who retired from race riding in May 2019 just before turning 40 following a glittering career, said: “The Champion Chase is a superb race, the first Grade 1 of the season. It’s ideally placed in the calendar for Cheltenham Gold Cup horses. It’s a great race at just the right time of the year and is run on a fine course — the ground staff do a wonderful job.”

Walsh also won the race on Taranis in 2007 and Valseur Lido in 2016, with his triumphs aboard racing royalty Kauto Star in 2008 and 2010.

“Kauto Star was a special horse I was very fortunate to ride and I feel very privileged to have done so,” said Walsh, who is also synonymous with Ulster-owned legend Hurricane Fly, winner of the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle in both 2011 and 2013.

“I was lucky enough to get to ride a horse like Hurricane Fly as well, the hurdler of a lifetime — very talented and very tough,” said Walsh, high praise from a man whose CV boasts wins in all the major races including Aintree Grand National successes on Papillon in 2000 and Hedgehunter in 2005.

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And he was thrilled to see Rachael Blackmore triumph in the great race onboard Minella Times last April, the first female jockey to achieve the feat with Ruby’s sister Katie Walsh also going close on a few occasions.

“Rachael Blackmore’s win was huge for racing,” he said. “The growth of women’s sport in the last few years has been phenomenal and rightly so. Rachael and other female jockeys compete on a level playing field with male counterparts, they don’t get weight allowances or other advantages. All you have to be to succeed is good enough.

“The Cheltenham Festival is very special but in terms of media coverage the Grand National is way ahead of anything else so that really highlighted Rachael’s win for the great achievement that it was.”

For all the incredible highs experienced by jump jockeys like Walsh and Blackmore, there is no sport that brings its stars down to earth with a bump quite like racing, Walsh suffering one of the worst falls of his career at the 2010 Down Royal Winter Festival, at a course where he has enjoyed many special moments.

“I ended up in the Royal Victoria hospital with a badly broken leg but I was extremely well looked after. The care I received was excellent. I was lucky enough to have a career with many highs and not too many lows,” said Walsh, who now works in the media, covering the sport during the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

“Horse racing was lucky in the pandemic in that it was one of the few sports able to continue, albeit behind closed doors. That had a lot to do with the professionalism of the industry. So racing had the stage pretty much to itself. While racecourses suffered financially due to no crowds being allowed, the sport itself grew in popularity,” he said.

“Not much changed in the sport throughout the pandemic. Work habits didn’t change — there’s no such thing as working from home!”

Top trainer Gordon Elliott is now back in the racing fold following his ban for being pictured sitting astride a dead racehorse.

Walsh admitted it was an act of folly but added: “Gordon Elliott will get back to where he was. He has a special talent.”

Walsh is currently involved in championing a mental health app aimed at jockeys.

He said: “It is a really good idea, the way it is designed and the way it works. It’s not like having to attend an appointment. It’s a brilliantly simple idea and 88% of jockeys who tried it are still using it. It helps them keep going.

“Retirement from riding was a huge life change for me. Most people retire at 65, but I stopped riding at 40 — you just can’t spend all your time playing golf at that age. So I would regard it as a career change rather than retirement. I have carved out a career for myself in the media.

“There’s definitely a buzz and there are good days and bad days and days that excite you. It’s not all that different from racing!”

‘An Evening with Ruby Walsh’ will be at the Europa Hotel on October 29 - see sportsentertainmenttours.com for further information

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