So the Silver Fox has called it a day. We will never see Ruby Walsh, the man whom even Sir Anthony McCoy modestly calls the best jump jockey ever, riding competitively again. Though sad for his countless fans in Britain, it is entirely understandable that Ruby chose to announce his retirement at his beloved Punchestown last week after riding Kemboy to victory in the Gold Cup. But the racing authorities here must find an appropriate way of celebrating his stellar career.
Ruby wasn’t as physically resilient as A.P. and had to cope with some dreadful injuries along the way, but there has never been a more intelligent rider over obstacles. I will always remember champion trainer Paul Nicholls telling me approvingly how Ruby coped with pressure so much better than his other jockeys: ‘He was arrogant, he was tough and he was hard.’ Yet those who seek to emulate him should note Ruby’s description of how most race riding is actually in the head. ‘It’s a series of mental tasks rather than one physical one and brains will beat brawn every time if you use them the right way. Your physical strength might only win you one race in a hundred, if that.’ As his father Ted reflected, Ruby got into other riders’ minds as well: ‘When he was in front they’d be thinking, “When is he going to come back?” and when he was dropped in they’d be thinking “Where is he?”’ Incomparable.
Let’s hope that the riders of our Twelve to Follow this Flat season show some of Ruby’s ability to keep horses relaxed until the right moment. Whatever happens we are unlikely to do as well with our Twelve as we did last year when they returned a healthy profit to a £10 level stake of £233, helped considerably by Accidental Agent’s 33–1 Ascot victory. In assembling that Twelve, I debated including Michael Dods’s sprinter Mabs Cross but left her out suggesting: ‘She may not be ready yet for Group Ones.’ How wrong can you get? Third in one at Royal Ascot at 20–1, she was then beaten by a nose in the Nunthorpe at York at 14–1 and finally triumphed across the Channel in the Prix de l’Abbaye at 12–1. She opened her 2019 season with a 6–1 victory at Newmarket and is first on my list this year. For handicap sprints, too, I like John Quinn’s consistent El Astronaute.
Swiftly included was Felix, the Lope De Vega colt bred and owned by Luca Cumani’s Fittocks Stud who has been entrusted to Sir Michael Stoute’s care now that Luca has retired from training. He was fourth over ten furlongs on his seasonal start. Another Stoute inclusion is the four-year-old filly Rawdaa, who caught my eye when third at Kempton. Charlie Fellowes, who has taken over Cumani’s former yard, has a fine prospect with King Ottokar, who won well at Newbury last month, while Bell Rock, trained by the much in form Andrew Balding for Fitri Hay, scored nicely over seven furlongs at 33–1 on his Newmarket debut last October. You won’t, alas, get that price again.
At Goodwood last Saturday I was much taken with the lightly raced four-year-old filly Enbihaar, trained for Hamdan al-Maktoum by John Gosden, as she and the classy Klassique came clear of the pack. Weak last year while growing into her big frame, she could repay her connections’ patience handsomely. Mark Johnston is apparently excited with his Frankel colt Fred so he becomes our two-year-old choice, and we must have a filly trained by Ralph Beckett. I will take Desirous, a winner over seven furlongs last October. Since Roger Varian is red-hot this season, I include two of his: Zabeel Prince, whom he says has improved remarkably from two to three and the pacey six-year-old Spanish City. Finally, from Richard Hannon’s yard I go for Urban Icon, who disappointed in the 2,000 Guineas but has real potential.
And how did we do with our Twelve over the jumps? The galling answer is that we did pretty well but lost £40 overall to a level stake. In 40 races we scored 11 victories, a strike rate most trainers would happily settle for. Seven of the Twelve won races. Warren Greatrex’s La Bague Au Roi was one of the novice stars of the season and Henry Daly’s Atlanta Ablaze won nearly every time she completed. But too often victories were at cramped odds for them and for the other winners Bags Groove, On The Blind Side, Vision D’Honneur, The Big Bite and The Last Day. Don’t lose faith in two who didn’t win. Paul Nicholls surprisingly ran four-year-old hurdler Ecco just twice, in the Adonis Hurdle and as a 100–1 shot in the Triumph at Cheltenham. Timeform called him ‘one to keep tabs on’ and he will pick off simpler targets with ease. Russian Hawk went down only a head at Ascot in a race too short for him and the comment was ‘should make a cracking chaser over 3m’.