No jockey has had a more profound impact on the Festival than Ruby Walsh, leading rider at 11 editions between 2004 and 2017, partnering a record seven winners on two occasions.
Following his retirement last May, seven weeks after riding his 59th and final Festival winner on Klassical Dream in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, it is fitting that his former colleagues will compete for the Ruby Walsh Trophy at the 2020 meeting.
Walsh was an 18-year-old amateur when riding Alexander Banquet to land the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at the 1998 Festival. Hitting the front two furlongs down and driving out the Willie Mullins-trained gelding to hold off Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey Conor O’Dwyer on Joe Mac, the youngster already showed many of the qualities that would inform his career: composure on the big occasion, acute tactical awareness, raw strength and a rare finesse.
While Walsh won the Champion Bumper for Mullins again on Missed That in 2005, he had achieved the majority of his Festival victories through the first third of his career on British-trained horses.
Azertyuiop, on whom he won the Arkle Chase in 2003, gave him a first Festival showpiece triumph when landing the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase the following year, scoring with spectacular ease after the exit of the Irish-trained favourite Moscow Flyer four out.
Walsh’s association with Azertyuiop’s trainer Paul Nicholls provided many of the decade’s highlights. His first Cheltenham Gold Cup victory on Kauto Star in 2007 was achieved in fairly straightforward fashion at odds of 5/4, although its significance was enhanced through the landing of the Betfair Million bonus, and as a culmination of an unbeaten six-race campaign over an impressive range of distances.
The following year Walsh came out second best in one of the most memorable Gold Cup clashes in history as Kauto Star’s stablemate Denman delivered a devastating performance under Sam Thomas.
Spectacular redemption came in 2009 when Kauto Star did what no horse had ever done before in reclaiming the Gold Cup crown.
His 13-length defeat of Denman was arguably the finest single moment of Walsh’s career and brought his tally for the week to a magnificent seven, including a repeat of his 2008 Champion Chase win on the brilliant Master Minded.
At the 2009 Festival, Walsh inaugurated two significant sequences, the first of four victories for Big Buck’s for Nicholls in the Stayers’ Hurdle, and the first of six on Quevega for Mullins in the Mares’ Hurdle.
In 2011, he won the Champion Hurdle on Hurricane Fly, who regained the title in 2013.
Further Champion Hurdle glory followed with Faugheen (2015) and Annie Power (2016), one of a record-equalling seven winners at the fixture, all supplied by Mullins.
He broke fresh ground in 2017 by becoming the first jockey to ride four winners on a single Festival card.
Two years earlier he had come agonisingly close to a four-timer on the opening day of the meeting. After partnering Douvan in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’, Un De Sceaux in the Racing Post Arkle Chase and Faugheen in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, he was clear on odds-on favourite Annie Power when she took a dramatic fall at the last flight in the Mares’ Hurdle.
That was a rare moment of Festival heartache for Walsh, who graced the Cheltenham stage with distinction for two decades.
The big-race wins will live long in the memory, but for a snapshot of his unique talent there is perhaps no better example than the 2011 Randox Health County Hurdle, in which he brought Final Approach with a relentless late run, passing about 15 horses from the final flight, to defeat the Anthony McCoy-ridden Get Me Out Of Here by a nose.