Wednesday 18 October 2017

Comment: Two great men light up the season

Willie Mullins after clinching the jump trainer’s title. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Willie Mullins after clinching the jump trainer’s title. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Johnny Ward

You're Willie Mullins, and not long into the season, you are set a task. "Right Willie," the immortal creator would perhaps have said. "I'm big into this idea of spreading the wealth, even though there's only so much I can do. It's getting a bit too easy for you, isn't it?

"This season, I'm going to deprive you of three of the best horses you've ever had: Vautour, Faugheen and Annie Power. But that's not all.

Paddy Power makes him hot favourite again, but the volume Elliott has could get him over the wire. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Paddy Power makes him hot favourite again, but the volume Elliott has could get him over the wire. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"In September, Michael O'Leary is to kick up a fuss after you go through with those training-fee increases you were on about. Think about it for a time but I order you stand firm. You'll lose 60 horses.

"You may conclude Willie that your challenge is to make it a 10th successive Irish title - but you'd be wrong. I want you to do that, true, but I also demand you win it with more prize-money than ever before."

To which the great man may have replied, "Leave it with me."

When it was over on Saturday, Mullins having taken the lead in a year-long race only the day before, the 60-year-old implied that he rather wallowed in winning the title without duress. "I'm glad it's over, it wasn't very enjoyable," he said.

Mullins' anxiety was not so much evinced by what he said in the latter months of 2016 but rather by the paucity of interviews. One could understand why he was not as prominent in the media, given that Faugheen and Annie Power were not sparkling and he lost Vautour to a freak accident too.

It was quite a punt getting rid of the Gigginstown horses, but their departures did not quite have the detrimental effect one may have envisaged. True to a season which was replete with injured stars, both Don Poli and Valseur Lido - two of the best horses Mullins lost - were out of all the spring festivals.

Last year, the prospect of an out-of-the-blue British championship assault presented itself and he gave it all he had, falling short near the wire in what was something of a novelty race for Closutton. Then, he put what eggs he could in the Aintree basket; 12 months on, Mullins runners in Liverpool were conspicuous by their absence.

He attacked Punchestown around €400,000 behind, Douvan added to a sorry list of injured or retired. With four €250,000 races in which Elliott would be poorly represented, he had a chance. The photo-finish defeats of Djakadam and Nichols Canyon cost him a crucial €200,000 - yet Mullins was still able to prevail.

Elliott can ponder what might have been, likely concluding he could have done no more. He had 1,234 Irish runners, a colossal wipe of the floor with anything seen before. Mullins had 571; his barn still has more top-notchers.

"We'll have to up our game next season," Mullins admitted with relief on Saturday.

Paddy Power makes him hot favourite again, but the volume Elliott has could get him over the wire. Intriguingly, both know they are in for a proper slog, and that can only enhance the urge to procure more young stock. Elliott needs more Grade One horses.

Remember that his season was hardly without misfortune - Don Cossack in particular - and in Fayonagh, Apple's Jade, Death Duty and Mega Fortune, he has top-class steeds to wave the flag for some time to come.

Their mutual respect amid the battle was a measure of what they are - fierce competitors, humble gentlemen - and it helped make the season so enthralling, the highlight being Ireland's 19 winners at Cheltenham.

Perhaps they were upstaged by a woman in her 70s. Jessica Harrington's winning of the Gold Cup with her first runner was an endorsement her career warranted. By the time she teamed up again with Robbie Power to take the Punchestown Gold Cup, they had already won their first Irish National.

One of the most fascinating aspects of next season will be what Power steers in the Gold Cup. My bet is he'll get off Sizing John for Our Duke. "Mr Potts, have you a moment...?"

Given recent revelations of the conditions the Irish ladies' soccer team had to endure, it is heartening that sexism has no place in racing. I doubt Rachael Blackmore is apt to pontificate about feminism: her staggering conditional title illustrated that if you are talented enough, and toil long, you will succeed in racing. As an amateur, she was going nowhere. She who dares...

True to the game's vicissitudes, she suffered concussion on the final day of the season. Unlike Alexis Sanchez, she didn't take to Twitter. And Harrington is back riding out after a wrist accident skiing.

It did not work out for Sandra Hughes, despite loyalty of many owners; she has done her best in trying circumstances. Today, Sarah Lynam takes on the big boys at Naas, conscious that being Eddie's daughter will matter for nothing if she does not train winners.

We suspect she will do just fine. To Mullins, Elliott, Harrington, Blackmore et all, not to forget champion amateur Jamie Codd and Ruby Walsh, thanks for the memories. It was fun.

RIDE OF THE WEEK

Plenty. Patrick Mullins gets it for getting Wicklow Brave home in the Champion Hurdle. It must be tough for riders atop a keen horse, Mullins making a call that the pace was steady so he could chance sending him to the front. He just held on.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

Backed from 50/1 into 8/1, one could see why in the bumper on Friday, Canardier under Mark O'Hare for Dermot McLoughlin scoring after moving like a nice prospect.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I was heart-broken leaving here last night but that equals Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that it would be something. Of course I wanted to win (the trainers championship) but at least that is something good."

- Gordon Elliott after Apple's Jade's win.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

"Well done and thank you to all my owners and staff for a great season! Massive respect to @WillieMullinsNH and his team. Roll on nxt season!"

- Elliott (@gelliott_racing) is magnanimous in defeat.

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