Monday 24 July 2017

Willie Mullins crowned Ireland's champion jumps trainer following epic battle with Gordon Elliott

Ruby Walsh with trainer Willie Mullins following victory in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle (Grade 1) (Class 1) aboard Bapaume during day five of the Punchestown Festival
Ruby Walsh with trainer Willie Mullins following victory in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle (Grade 1) (Class 1) aboard Bapaume during day five of the Punchestown Festival

Ashley Iveson

Willie Mullins' illustrious training career is decorated by great achievements, but successfully defending his title this season after the most titanic of tussles with Gordon Elliott must be near the top of the list.

The Closutton maestro has dominated the National Hunt scene in his homeland for the last decade and only 12 months ago came mighty close to becoming the first Irish-based trainer to win the British trainers' title since the legendary Vincent O'Brien in the 1950s.

In the end, he was narrowly beaten by reigning champion Paul Nicholls on the final day of the season at Sandown.

At that stage few could have imagined that a year on Mullins would head into the Punchestown Festival with only a slim chance of holding onto the Irish crown that he has worn for so long.

The seismic shift came last September when the shock news emerged that Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud operation was to remove all the horses they had in training with Mullins - numbering around 60 - due to an apparent row over an increase of training fees.

While the empty boxes were filled within a couple of weeks, the quality that left the yard was difficult to replace.

The fact that Elliott proved the chief beneficiary, with around 20 big guns making the journey from County Carlow to County Meath, meant it was game on for the first time in recent memory.

Elliott, who runs far more horses during the summer than Mullins, already had a healthy advantage heading into the autumn and a host of big handicap successes in the first half of the season left the defending champ on the back foot.

Mullins suffered further body blows, with the brilliant Vautour sadly meeting his end after a freak accident in a field and the last two winners of the Champion Hurdle, Faugheen and Annie Power, suffering setbacks that would eventually rule them out for the campaign.

A brilliant Christmas period helped Mullins close the gap, but Elliott kept up the revs in front and even beat his rival to the leading trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

The juggernaut stables sent out six winners apiece, but it was Cullentra that triumphed over Closutton on countback.

Mullins was unable to bridge the gap back on home soil over the Easter weekend at Fairyhouse and, as a result, entered Punchestown week 400,000 euro behind.

Bookmakers had Elliott priced up as a 1-5 favourite to claim the crown for the first time.

Elliott has spent much of the season preaching he had "no chance" of fending off 'The Mullins Machine', but he maintained a significant advantage after the first three days of the Festival and there must have been part of him that felt he had one hand on the title.

However, the pendulum swung dramatically within the space of two hours on Friday, with Mullins landing successive Grade Ones before ending the day with a treble.

For the first time in a year, Mullins was top dog again and the fact all three winners were ridden by his son, Patrick, added further significance to a turnaround that had looked so unlikely.

It was not mathematically over heading into the final day, but there seemed to be a sense inevitability about the result.

Even a top-level victory for former Closutton inmate Apple's Jade, now one of Elliott's prized assets, was not enough to stop Mullins being crowned champion - with Bapaume's Grade One success later in the day effectively sealing the deal.

It will doubtless be another long night in the Mullins local, The Lord Bagenal. Who can blame them?

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