Ruby Walsh, arguably the finest National Hunt jockey that the sport has seen, announced his immediate retirement on Wednesday evening, shortly after riding Kemboy to a two-length victory over Al Boum Photo, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, in the Punchestown Gold Cup.
Walsh was at his impeccable best for the final ride of his brilliant career. He made the running on Kemboy and then galvanised his mount for a final effort as Al Boum Photo started to make ground in the closing stages. He had enough in hand to wave to the stands crossing the line, which soon turned out to be a goodbye.
A sell-out crowd at Punchestown gave Kemboy a rapturous welcome as he returned to unsaddle and Walsh, who will be 40 this month, announced his decision to retire as soon as his feet touched the ground.
Tony McCoy rode more winners, but Walsh, who was the leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival 11 times between 2004 and 2017, would be the choice of many as the finest all-round jockey. He rode for Paul Nicholls, the 11-times British champion trainer, during seasons when some of the greatest horses of the past two decades – including Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded – were at their peak, and then moved home to Ireland at the start of the 2014-15 to ride as stable jockey to Willie Mullins, the country’s outstanding trainer.
Nicholls said: “He’s been a fantastic jockey, a fantastic ambassador for the sport and he’s just a great man. He’s one of the best jockeys ever to ride for us and will always be a friend.”
Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA
Mullins was also full of praise and said: “It will be strange without him. He was just a natural. I just shook his hand. It was totally out of the blue.”
Walsh, who retires as the all-time leader in Cheltenham Festival winners with 59, took the Grand National twice on Papillon – trained by his father, Ted – in 2000 and then five years later on Mullins’s Hedgehunter. He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, in 2007 and 2009, on the great Kauto Star, and took the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day five times on the same horse between 2006 and 2011.
Like any jump jockey, Walsh rode with the constant threat of serious injury and suffered many falls over the course of his career. His spleen was removed after a fall at Cheltenham in November 2008 but Walsh was back in action in time to ride Kauto Star to victory at Kempton a few weeks later.
He suffered a broken shin in the early part of his career when a leg collided with a running rail during a race at Pardubice in the Czech Republic, but recovered in time to ride Papillon to victory at Aintree a few months later.
Walsh has also suffered fractured wrists and hips, cracked an elbow, dislocated both of his shoulders and suffered cracked and bruised vertebrae. His most recent serious injury came in a fall from Al Boum Photo in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March 2018. He had only recently returned to action after a broken leg and aggravated the injury in the fall, which forced him to miss the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals.
Walsh was reminded of that moment in an interview on Racing TV shortly after his retirement had been confirmed. “I did think this isn’t the way I want to finish,” he said. “My goal was to get back and get out in one piece.
“Papillon [in the Grand National] was the one above all that you couldn’t repeat, but I’ve been so lucky that to pick out one would be unfair.
“I’d made up my mind that if Kemboy won I would get out after that, so it’s brilliant.”
Walsh was Ireland’s champion amateur rider for two years before turning professional at the start of the 1998-99 season. He rode more than 2,000 winners over the course of his career, including 212 at Grade One level.
“I was very lucky to ride for, to me, two of the greatest trainers in Paul and Willie,” he said, “and to ride a lot of the best horses of my generation. Any jockey is only as good as the horses they ride and I rode superstars, from Imperial Call here [at Punchestown] 20 years ago to Azertyuiop, Kauto [Star], Denman, Big Buck’s, Master Minded, Vautour, Annie Power, Faugheen, Hurricane Fly … you name them, I rode them all. I was so lucky to come across a golden bunch of horses.
“Even with a crystal ball you couldn’t have seen how lucky I’ve been, but you have a dream and you keep going until the dream turns into a nightmare and thankfully it never did.”
Walsh, who has worked as a pundit and columnist for Racing TV, now hopes to pursue a media career. “I got to live that dream and I did it for 24, 25 years, but now it’s time to do something different,” he said.”