Ruby Walsh got straight back in the winning habit with his first ride after an absence of almost four months, looking fit and effective as he guided Lareena to a five-length success at Thurles. It was only a low-key maiden hurdle and he was on the favourite but there seems little doubt that Willie Mullins now has a healthy jockey to ride his fleet of fancied runners at the Cheltenham Festival.
“I thought I was all right, anyway,” Walsh said, when asked to assess his own state of fitness. “She won, didn’t she?” Just five days before the Festival, this comeback was cutting it rather fine and there had been some loose talk in the past fortnight that perhaps, at 38, the great man was finding his bones no longer knit back together as readily as they did 20 years ago. Under Walsh’s original plan, formed soon after he broke a leg in November, he would have been back in action for a fortnight by now.
Jockeys talk of the importance of being “race-fit”, an exalted peak that cannot be reached in any gym but requires many rides over several weeks. Walsh will not have time for that before Cheltenham but it was hard to see a weakness as he rousted Lareena towards the final flight for her first hurdles success in five attempts.
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Of his plans between now and Tuesday, Walsh said: “We’ll see what Willie decides but I don’t mind and I’ll do whatever Willie wants me to do. When you’re back, you’re back and he’s my boss now again.”
The two men appear to have decided that, rather than cram in as much racecourse exertion as possible, the best course is to use Walsh sparingly with the aim of arriving in Gloucestershire on Tuesday in one piece. He will have just one ride at Leopardstownon Friday, on Karalee in the opening hurdle race. The grey is probably not good enough to win but, with just four others in the race, the potential for something to go wrong is limited.
Bryony Frost was another high-profile jockey to enjoy success from just one ride on Thursday. The popular youngster marked International Women’s Day with victory at Wincanton on Moabit, who looked like being no better than third at the top of the straight.
Frost had nothing but encouraging words to offer about her RSA candidate Black Corton, who she rides every day. At this stage, he is her only confirmed mount for Cheltenham next week but she added: “I’m going to the Festival on a horse that has a chance. A lot of people can’t say that and I’m fortunate.”