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'Once I saw him look up and wave to the crowd I knew it was over'

Eyewitness tales from the day Ruby Walsh announced his retirement

Legendary jockey Ruby Walsh with his family after his retirement announcement in 2019
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Ruby Walsh turns 42 on Friday, so to mark the occasion we look back at the moment he brought the curtain down on a phenomenal 24-year career when surprising the racing world at the Punchestown festival in 2019, announcing his retirement after an exceptional winning ride on Kemboy in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup.

In an article originally published on April 23, 2020, Mark Boylan spoke with some of those at the centre of the drama to hear their eyewitness tales from a day that will live long in the memory.

Ted Walsh

Ruby's father, Grand National-winning trainer and RTE broadcaster

We talk every day about everything and I knew he was thinking about retirement on a few occasions.

When he told me he'd be calling it a day at Punchestown, I just said for him not to put a day or race on it – you know when you pull up if it's the right moment. I thought he shouldn't put pressure on himself thinking "this is my last ride".

When I saw him wave I knew it was over. He never waves. Sometimes he'd stand up and punch the air in excitement crossing the line but once I saw him look up and wave to the crowd, I knew it had come to an end then. 

Ruby Walsh bids farewell to race-riding on an emotional day at the Punchestown festival

I was covering Punchestown for RTE on the day but there have been other times when it's been tricky to balance the different roles too.

I had done the Irish Grand National coverage in 1998 when Bobbyjo beat us with Papillon, and again in 2005 when Ruby won on Numbersixvalverde ahead of our horse Jack High in second.

They weren't easy ones to do for television, as was the case when Katie won the Irish National in 2015 on Thunder And Roses, but over time you get used to handling those emotional moments.

Watch Ruby Walsh's final winning ride aboard Kemboy in the 2019 Coral Punchestown Gold Cup

I never knew when he went out for the Punchestown Gold Cup that it would be his last ride. He could have waited for Chacun Pour Soi, Benie Des Dieux or another of his rides later in the week.

The fact it was spontaneous and the crowd weren't aware of it probably made the whole thing even more special. Some people knew he was thinking about it, but nobody knew when exactly he'd call it.

He didn't want to tell anyone until he'd told Willie [Mullins] after the race. Ruby told Willie that he'd better get someone to ride for him in the next race because that was it. Willie thought he was after hurting himself or something at first, but Ruby told him 'I'm done, that's the end'. It was a real surprise.

Kemboy repelled his stablemate Al Boum Photo to land the 2019 Punchestown Gold Cup

If he didn't ride a winner at Punchestown he'd probably have waited for Benie Des Dieux in France, or if Rathvinden had won the Grand National a few weeks before he'd probably have called it a day then either. It was great for Ruby that it happened at Punchestown, though.

He'd been coming there since he was very young. The local schools used to close during Punchestown because back then kids would walk to school and the traffic going to the track meant the children's safety would have to be looked after.

It was fantastic for him to go out the way he did. I'd say he knew he'd given Kemboy a real good ride too. It was typical of one of his great rides. He could have ridden a steering job but it was brilliant to see him go out like that. I'd reflect on it as a very emotional day.

'We backed him here and there at 66s and 50-1 for fifty or a hundred quid'

Gillian Walsh

Ruby's wife

I knew it was coming so I didn't have the surprise element to it, but for me it was pure joy. I was so pleased he could retire on his own terms at his local track.

He'd had an awful time with injury over the previous year and a half and my fear was that he could have another injury and not go out the way he wanted. Not every jockey or sportsperson gets the chance to do that.

Ruby Walsh is surrounded by his family following his announcement to retire from riding

The crowds were incredible and we were both overwhelmed by the response. It was only in the days after that we realised the extent of how big it was.

The kids were taken by surprise because I couldn't tell them and Ruby was adamant that he didn't want anybody to know – we had to respect that.

He didn't want to build up to it. Even over the years when we'd have watched other people retiring, he always said he'd love to just hop off one at Punchestown at the end of the year and say 'that's it'.

It was very hectic in the parade ring when he came back in, madness really! I was conscious of telling the girls over the few months beforehand that when daddy retires we can do this and that - I had to prepare them for this being a joyous occasion whenever that moment came.

I didn't notice any change in him during the week of Punchestown before he announced his decision. He was 100 per cent about it, very calm. As the time came closer, Ruby was more and more adamant about it.

He was confident he'd win on Kemboy and down through the years, I know that when he gets that way in terms of belief, he generally wins barring something out of the ordinary happening.

Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins lift the Punchestown Gold Cup ? their final winner together

I don't think he really wanted it to go into the weekend, which I felt was all about Paul Townend and Willie Mullins winning their respective championships. It was brilliant that the final winner did come for Willie, the icing on the cake.

He said he'd probably have retired if Rathvinden had won but that was possibly more of an afterthought. The plan was Punchestown because nearly all our family members had the chance to be there.

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the couple of days after that at the races. The pressure was off.

It was strange seeing 'R Walsh' down to ride in the racecard but knowing he wouldn't be out there. I was never as happy that it wasn't 'R Walsh' getting the leg up to ride!

Shona Dreaper

PR and communications manager at Punchestown racecourse

There had been rumours within the industry about Ruby potentially calling time on his career but I can remember watching him wave and thinking "oh my God, this is actually happening and we're not ready".

I had made a few inquiries before the festival to see if it was on the cards because we always wanted to mark it properly if he was retiring at Punchestown, but it was Ruby's own low-key style to do it as he did.

Ruby Walsh is surrounded by members of the media following his shock announcement

I could see Ted welling up in the RTE studio area when Kemboy was coming back in and it clicked with me that this is definitely happening – all of a sudden there were Walsh family members coming out of the woodwork.

We accepted it was out of control and that it would happen very organically – it was such a special moment.

Personally, I was so honoured that Ruby, who won big races everywhere, let it happen the way it did at Punchestown – it couldn't have been more perfect. All hell broke loose, but it was perfect.

There have been emotional moments at Punchestown in recent years but grown men were crying that day.

He's the greatest rider of my lifetime and to see proper racing and sports fans sharing in that occasion was a definitive moment. 

Later in the evening after racing had ended, I headed up to a box where Ruby and Gillian were. He gave me a big hug and I thanked him. He was delighted and said it was the dream to go out on his own terms, surrounded by his family and friends.

Ruby Walsh celebrates his final winner in the saddle after Kemboy's Punchestown victory

It really hit home that it was the end of an era the next day when I saw him walk through the turnstiles and come through the crowds, no longer a jockey. That even felt like a big moment and there's no doubt that his announcement added hugely to the whole week here.

Richard Pugh

RTE Racing commentator

When you do any commentary, the hope is always that you capture the moment accurately, but that moment is normally apparently obvious – horse A beating horse B, for instance.

The next thing is to give the moment what it deserves. You'd love as a commentator to have your own moment of "the nation holds its breath" [George Hamilton's 1990 World Cup commentary of Ireland's penalty shoot-out win over Romania] or "the mare is beginning to get up" [Sir Peter O'Sullevan's memorable call of Dawn Run's Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 1986].

It was different when it came to commentating on Ruby's final winner, though. I didn't know he was retiring.

However, in seeing him do what he did crossing the line, you knew it was completely different to anything he'd ever done before. He was so animated and was going out of his way to tell us something. Ruby is very measured and doesn't do anything without thinking about it thoroughly.

Ruby Walsh shares a moment with his children during an emotional day at Punchestown

At that time I didn't have any idea why he did it, just as Willie Mullins didn't either, and therefore I had to refer to it. "Kemboy wins the Gold Cup, Ruby Walsh waves."

I couldn't say anything extra on top of it, all I could do is acknowledge the gesture and let Ruby decide what comes next. The way things unfolded after makes you glad you picked up on it.

I absolutely love commentary, I can never describe why but I do, and the privilege of calling some iconic moments on RTE is fantastic.

You're very fortunate in that position to have your voice attached to those occasions. I had nothing to do with Ruby's career and mere mortals like us have no business being involved in the greats of sport, but you wing it by talking about it. It really was a day to remember.

Patrick Mullins

Most successful amateur jockey of all time and assistant trainer to father Willie

It was completely unexpected. Earlier in the day Jamie Codd had asked me if I thought Ruby would retire but I told him there was no way he'd be calling it a day – look at all the good horses he had to look forward to the next season. Why would he retire?

We were watching it in the weighing room and then there was obviously that somewhat strange celebration. 

It was interesting and got us thinking, but then again, he'd done something a little similar when winning the Irish Grand National on Burrows Saint the previous week, so we weren't sure. He could have perfected the wave a little better, I think it was a little poorly executed, myself! 

Kemboy clears away from Al Boum Photo to provide Ruby Walsh with a farewell winner

I wandered off a little. I had a ride in the next race, the Champion Bumper, and then somebody let a shout inside in the weighing room that Ruby had retired. I couldn't believe it at first.

I didn't actually get to see him until the next day because I was riding in the last race as well but his announcement was definitely unexpected.

Kevin O'Ryan

Racing TV presenter and jockeys' agent

I wasn't aware that it was going on and I ended up being totally caught by surprise.

I interviewed Ruby on Racing TV reflecting on his decision and I think he was dead right to go out the way he did. 

It got a really special reaction from everyone there and the whole day typified Ruby. He's his own man and makes his own decisions, going out his own way – it was fantastic. 

Ruby Walsh comes back into the winner's enclosure for the final time as a licensed jockey

The crowds were surreal when it was announced over the public address system and it created an electric atmosphere. Everyone wanted to cheer him on when he was getting his presentation and doing interviews.

It was also very apt that he brought the curtain down on his career at his local track, he went on his own terms at the highest level like any sportsperson would aspire to do.

He's the greatest jockey I've ever seen. He made something so difficult look like something anyone could do and the reception at Punchestown was fitting of his phenomenal career.

The public came out in force to show their appreciation.

Read more from our Magic TV Moments series:

'The most amazing race, not only that I've commentated on, but that I've seen'

'The television didn't lie, they came pretty close' - France's craziest race

Rishi Persad: 'The thought in my head was 'holy s***, this is massive''

Hayley Moore: 'It was a random thing to do. I didn't expect it to go viral'

Luke Harvey: 'It very soon dawned on me that I was part of television gold'

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All hell broke loose, but it was perfect. There have been emotional moments at Punchestown in recent years but grown men were crying that day
E.W. Terms