'Future Gold Cup horse' Footpad delivers as Walsh oozes pure class
That's what the fuss was all about last week. That's why his return was so important. This man is class.
Thurles had a rare moment in the spotlight last Thursday when Ruby Walsh made his return from nearly four months out of action with a broken leg by winning a €10,000 maiden hurdle there on Lareena.
Just how important that was became clear five days as the festival master showed all his skill and judgement to land the Racing Post Arkle Chase on Footpad, the horse trainer Willie Mullins rated his best hope of the week.
That hope did not look too hopeful for much of the way as a five-runner race appeared to be turning into a match, with Saint Calvados and Petit Mouchoir going at it up front, 15 or 20 lengths clear of the 5-6 favourite.
That's when you need someone with the experience and confidence to sit tight, to refuse to panic even when a difference of opinion at the sixth of the 13 fences almost ended in disaster.
Someone, in short, who'd ridden 56 Cheltenham Festival winners and been top jockey at the meeting 11 times. Walsh never flinched on his way to making it 57.
You don't amass figures like his without knowing when the leaders are going too fast and he was content to bide his time.
It was clear as he made his ground ominously well going to the third-last fence that he had victory in his sights – as Saint Calvados dropped out, he headed Petit Mouchoir before two out and galloped clear to score by 14 lengths from Brain Power, who kept on late for second.
"It's great to be back and ride a winner and get the pressure off," said Walsh.
"I suppose when you make a call in a big race like that and sit 15 or 20 lengths off the pace you're probably slightly relieved when it comes off.
"They were two very good horses a long way in front and I was hoping I'd done the right thing. I'd made a plan and I had to stick to it – luckily it worked out."
Reflecting on the mistake that caused Footpad to land on top of the sixth fence, he said: "I thought we were going quick enough and I was trying to let him pop and he wanted to come up.
"But he has a great way of jumping and even though he landed on it he gets high in front and keeps his hind-end below his withers, so he's not likely to pitch over."
The watching Mullins was not so sanguine, and admitted: "After that fence I thought, 'We can't win from here'.
"They were going a huge pace and Ruby was quite happy to let them at it. Then he made a mistake at a crucial time when they were going downhill fastest and you were just hoping Ruby had done the right thing, to sit and suffer and let the race come back to him, and that's exactly what happened. His experience and racecraft – he's a legend."
Mullins reckons Footpad "could be a future Gold Cup horse", and Walsh was full of praise for the third Arkle winner of his career.
"He has brains, he has pace, he has stamina," he said. "Qasim Raza looks after him and when he was drifting in the betting last week he said, 'Bigger price, have more money on!'"
Victory was a boost for owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, whose Top Notch, Sceau Royal and We Have A Dream suffered recent setbacks, and a delighted Souede said of Footpad: "I was jumping higher than he was – and I don't get off the ground well!"
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