Stratum and Ruby Walsh wins the 2m 110y maiden hurdle. Galway, last September. Picture: Patrick McCann
It’s one of the great privileges of this job that you get to attend major sporting events and the Cheltenham Festival is an annual highlight.
I’ve done the opening day of nine of the last 10 festivals, and my standout memory remains the 2013 edition when Ruby Walsh rode a remarkable hat-trick of wins on Champagne Fever, Hurricane Fly and Quevega.
It was the most miserable of afternoons weather-wise, but I can’t think of any comparable sporting occasion when I was left so stirred by excitement, so captured by the drama and so appreciative of the talents of the sportsman who helped deliver those feelings.
One whose career legacy forms an exhaustive list of such afternoons.
For so long now,Ruby Walsh has been Cheltenham’s leading man, but his leg break last Wednesday has left me wondering just how long more we’ll see the very best of him at Cheltenham.
I don’t know is the answer to that question, but aged 38, and with a career weighed heavy with injuries behind him, it’s not something I’d be putting money on.
That’s a sobering thought because nothing brings someone’s contribution into sharp focus like idea they may not be around much longer.
And in that sense we enjoy a strange relationship with Ruby Walsh in Kildare, where often, his sometimes surly persona is the first point of discussion, not the greatness of his career.
On occasion, I too have been guilty of the same charge and I’m really struggling to figure that out.
Because unlike other counties, Kildare are without an All Ireland in either code for more than 90 years, we’ve no great soccer tradition, no Sligo Town, nor a Dundalk.
Our successes are modest compared with other counties when it comes to field sports. Yet we whinge loudly when results don’t go our way, even though we’ve no real winning tradition to speak of.
Into this void arrived one of greatest jump jockeys the world has ever seen, every ounce a winner, but over time we’ve become less than impressed.
Someone from Cork once said to me that, if Ruby was theirs, they’d have a statue of him at the top of Patrick Street.
But horse racing aside, we forge a different sports star in Kildare, typically ones without the kind of grit and resolve needed to dominate at the highest level in the fashion, like, yes, you got it — Ruby Walsh.
Ruby has ridden 58 Cheltenham Festival winners, 24 more than his nearest rival Barry Geraghty, at time of writing.
And it’s a running total that dates back to Alexander Banquet in 1998.
This a time when the world was still getting used to push button mobile phones.
His successes have punctuated our sporting lives for two decades and this 20-year tenure at the top has been so long, and so consistent, that we’re guilty of taking his talents for granted in Ireland, in Kildare in particular.
It could be the case that we’re pretty shabby when it comes to celebrating our own prophets, which ironically is exactly how Ruby Walsh is perceived in Britain.
I think now of Kempton Park in 2011 when he rode the famous Kauto Star to a history-making fifth win in the King George VI Chase on ‘Boxing Day’, the most English of racing afternoons. And how afterwards, Ruby cantered back and forth along the Grand Stand for some minutes to the adulation of the audience, his audience.
Even watching on TV, the connection between sportsman and sporting public felt tangible.
Of course, countless such embraces have followed Ruby’s innumerable flourishes at Cheltenham, but that kind of scene at Kempton always made me feel that Ruby’s persona made a better fit Britain, where he’s consistently elevated for the kind of qualities deemed less than desirable back home.
Uncompromising, steely focused, a born winner with an allergy to bullshit.
But so too do we have to use words like brusque, curt, dismissive and impatient to describe Ruby Walsh.
Less flattering certainly, but irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things, and at the same time necessary on the grand stage of sport.
Robert Mulhern is a London based journalist contracted to RTE's The Documentary on One. To contact our columnist, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Much of what we are missing as a sporting county in other words, and at the same time have a distaste for.
Because Ruby’s true estimation is the coming together of all these qualities and the stamp of this winner is the joyous feelings he’s created again and again and again for the last 20 years.
We’ll miss him when he’s gone, that’s for sure. Because our sporting history is anything to go by, the void is going to get a lot darker.