The 18th of March 1998 saw the dawning of a new era at the Cheltenham Festival as a fresh-faced Ruby Walsh notched the first of 59 winners at Prestbury Park. Paddy’s ambassador spearheaded the revival of Irish jockeys at The Festival and he sat down with another great, Barry Geraghty, to discuss their triumphs and tragedies over the years.
Alexander Banquet was the first horse at The Festival to give Ruby that winning feeling in the 1998 Champion Bumper and it’s a race he remembers well. But what really sticks out is the final 100 yards which felt more like 1,000.
“When we’d gone over the last hurdle and Joe Mac hadn’t gone by me I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, I could out battle him’, Ruby said on our Cheltenham Rewind special. “Then I know from there up it was, will I ever get to the winning post? Is it ever going to come? Can I actually get there?
“The last 100 yards, it’s just a feeling you get, that I got that day and a few other days as well, the last 100 yards seems… to… take… forever. The emotion at the end was a little bit of disbelief. You’ve watched something for so long and you’ve envisaged yourself being there and all of a sudden it happens to you.
“You know it’s enormous, you know it’s incredible.
It’s just disbelief that it’s actually happened.
“I’d ridden a couple the day before and it was my 3rd ride of the Festival. My dad had ridden four winners there in his life.
WATCH THE FULL SHOW BELOW: Ruby and Barry sit down with Paddy Power to discuss their favourite Cheltenham memories
“Conor O’Dwyer, at that stage, had ridden one Cheltenham winner in the Gold Cup. Irish jockeys didn’t have the wonderful record there then that they have now. I don’t remember the olden days, the 70s, when it was a golden era for Irish jockeys, they were only names in the history books for us. We remembered the 80s and the early 90s and Irish jockeys didn’t dominate.”
Of course, it wasn’t all glory for Ruby with his famous fall on Annie Power in 2015 remaining the one the got away. But it was her redemption in the Champion Hurdle 12 months later which sticks out as one of Ruby’s all-time great Cheltenham moments.
“Barry knows this as well, we both got our fair share of abuse over the years for things that went right and wrong but I was very fond of this mare,” Ruby explained. “She had been unlucky in the Stayers’, twice she was unlucky in the Mare’s Hurdle.
“I thought she was just a hell of a good racehorse. She won in Punchestown, we’d supplemented her, a big conversation. Do we, don’t we? Stick your neck out, let’s stick her in it, I think she’ll win.
“You book her out in front every step of the way. You never miss a beat. You’ve backed yourself for three weeks on what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and you’re hoping on what the outcome will be.
“There is that relief that goes with it as you’ve put your head on the block. It’s a business decision and you put your head on the block. She was a bit low on the second last but I knew she’d find plenty.
“Approaching the last you’re thinking, get it up there and it was just pure pleasure. It meant a lot and I got a hell of a lot of pleasure out of that race.”
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