Ruby Walsh spoke of his sympathy for the riders, owners and horses whose achievements at this week’s Cheltenham Festival have excited everyone but have been greeted in the winners’ enclosure by an amazing applause from their colleagues. Emotions were high and some reduced to tears.
The famous meeting is being held behind closed doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic, though there has still been plenty of drama so far, not to mention a lot of Irish success stories.
Rachael Blackmore’s brilliance, Tiger Roll’s enduring class and the endearing glory of small Kilkenny trainer Paul Hennessy with Heaven Help Us have all charmed punters and supporters after two days of racing.
But Walsh, working as a pundit for ITV at the festival, said the absence of crowds means the occasion has lost some of its sparkle.
“I thought Galway was strange. Leopardstown at Christmas was weird. This is just off-the-charts different – it’s so eerie,” he told RTÉ’S Game On.
Blackmore tucked in behind chief British hope Bravemansgame, but took over heading up the Cheltenham hill and was already three lengths clear at the last en route to victory by seven and a half.
Blackmore was impressed as Bob Olinger took his winning sequence to three, and doubled his Grade One tally.
“It’s unbelievable,” she told ITV Racing.
“I’m so delighted for (owner) Brian Acheson and his family – he puts a lot into this game and he’s got a very special horse on his hands now.
“His potential is sky high, I’d say – he was phenomenal there.
“He won a point-to-point for Pat Doyle, and Henry got him then – anyone who’s ever been associated with him has thought an awful lot of him. Winning at Cheltenham is what it’s all about. and he’s done that now.
“There will be plenty of big days in him hopefully, but it’s just fantastic for everyone in the yard.”
“It’s such a special place. Richie Condon rode a winner for Paul Hennessy [aboard Heaven Help Us], it should have been such a magic day for them, and yet they turn at the top of the track, walk back down at the front of the grandstand and there’s literally five people. It’s so eerie.
“Everyone that’s there is trying their best to cheer each other on. All the Irish stable staff are in the Best Mate Enclosure – you can nearly tell who is shouting because you can hear the individual voices, there’s that big an echo around the place.
“I was so lucky in my career to have walked back down that chute so many times in front of a packed grandstand with so many well-wishers. It’s like a lap of honour on a pitch. No one is getting a lap of honour.
“The achievement is still there – and that is what it’s all about, the achievement. They are all achieving, but they’re not getting the plaudits they should be experiencing. I do feel a little sorry for each and every one of them.”
Regardless of the oddness of this year’s festival, Walsh did point out that the jockeys have little problem adjusting to the quieter surrounds.
“For us it’s a novelty to perform in front of 70,000 people,” he said.
“You’d get it in Galway with 40,000-odd people, but Cheltenham and Aintree are the only places big enough and with that volume of people. It’s a novelty. Monday to Friday, all year round, you are basically performing in an empty stadium. You’re well used to it.”
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