Bidding for more magical memories
Patrick Mullins scored a dream treble at Punchestown last year and would love a repeat
Sometimes sport spoils us, providing epic encounters, performances to quicken the pulse and warm the soul, glory days that last mere moments but whose memory lingers long after the race is run.
The final Friday in April last year was one such day for jockey Patrick Mullins. With his father Willie engaged in a titanic battle to retain his title as champion trainer, an absorbing duel with Gordon Elliott that pulsated through the seasonal finale of the Punchestown Festival, Mullins rode a treble that clinched an improbable championship for his father.
"It was a magic day," the younger Mullins recalls. "The trainers' title was coming down to the end of the season and that was a very important day as we were still behind Gordon and needed big results. It was great to help my father retain the title. I was trying to win the amateur jockeys' championship as well so there was a lot of pressure and expectation but it was great that it worked out for my dad. I am very lucky to get the opportunities that I do as an amateur so it means an awful lot to convert them. That is a day that will live long in the memory."
Wicklow Brave in the Grade One Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle, the triumph of Bacardys in the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle and Montalbano in a two-mile novice hurdle helped the Closutton yard creep in front of Elliott and secure the title.
For that triumph, Mullins endured disappointment, losing his own battle with Jamie Codd for the champion amateur's crown.
"Was it enjoyable? Yes and no. At the time yes, because those 30 seconds after the race when it is just yourself and your horse pulling up are very special but I was trying to win the amateur title so I needed to stay focused on winning each race that I was riding in. After the treble on Friday, it meant that I needed two winners on Saturday to beat Jamie but I got one. It was disappointing not to win the championship myself but that's sport."
Mullins is assured of regaining his crown as champion amateur on Saturday with his lead over Lisa O'Neill in second place currently 34. The focus is on retaining the trainers' title.
"We are happy with the quality and quantity of our team for Punchestown and the competition is good to watch and good for the sport and I hope people enjoy it. Last year it wasn't enjoyable but for some reason it feels like there is less pressure this year and it is more enjoyable. Hopefully it will be a fantastic week and that dad comes out on top, but Gordon and Willie both desperately want to be champion and there will be no let-up from either of them, I think it is fantastic for racing."
The Mullins yard is a veritable Milky Way of equine stars and many of the brightest in the galaxy will be shining at Punchestown this week.
Majestic Douvan has dazzled there on both his Festival wins and at Cheltenham he looked as if he retained much, perhaps all, of his former brilliance, before he and Mullins fell with four fences left in the Champion Chase.
"Douvan is in brilliant form, working well and he schooled well on Thursday. I think he showed enough at Cheltenham that the Douvan of old is there and he is the horse I am most looking forward to seeing at Punchestown. I have so much faith in him and it is important for him to get back to the top."
A year ago Bacardys earned his moment in racing folklore with his brave victory part of that stunning Mullins treble and the jockey feels that he will make another intervention in this year's title race in the Grade One Stayers' Hurdle on Thursday.
"Penhill and Bacardys will both go for the Stayers' Hurdle," he says. "The stayers' at Cheltenham suited Penhill better because it turned into a four-furlong sprint at the end and that would have suited him because, (a), he is a Flat horse and, (b), he hadn't run in a year. Bacardys was in the process of running a huge race when he came down at the last, he jumped the hurdle fine but seemed to stumble when he landed. I think he will finish very close to Penhill."
Footpad's startling acceleration and sublime jumping were highlights of the Cheltenham Festival and he should be back in the Grade One Ryanair Novice chase on Thursday, while Min, second to Altior in the Champion Chase and filling the same step on the podium in the Grade One Melling Chase at Aintree last week, has a choice of challenges.
"Min came out of Aintree in fine form and he could go in the Champion Hurdle on Friday or join Douvan in the Champion Chase. Footpad will run in the two-mile novice, I imagine; the scope was bad timing for Aintree but he seems to be over that now and we will see how he does over the next few days."
As is customary, the Mullins yard has a strong team for Wednesday's Grade One Racing Post Champion Bumper, headed by Cheltenham heroine Relegate, but Mullins thinks Blackbow will react better to Punchestown than Prestbury Park.
"We have a great bumper team - Relegate, Blackbow, Tornado Flyer, Colreevy - and I think they all ran exceptionally well at Cheltenham. I rode Blackbow there and he didn't handle the atmosphere whereas Relegate is much more laid-back and relaxed. She doesn't show that much at home and it's hard to know how good she is but she keeps on winning. I think Blackbow will enjoy Punchestown more and will be much closer to her than he was at Cheltenham."
If the fates are to allow a fairy tale at Punchestown this week, then it will be victory for Faugheen in either the Champion Hurdle or the Stayers' Hurdle.
"There has been no decision yet on which race Faugheen will go for," Mullins says. "He wasn't himself after Cheltenham but he is back in good form now. This season has been in and out for him and there is no real reason why that is. The positive for him is that his visit to Punchestown earlier in the season was successful and maybe returning there this week will light his fire."
And for cut-the-air-with-a-butter-knife levels of tension, then Benie Des Dieux fending off Apple's Jade in Saturday's Grade One Mares' Hurdle would be worthy of plotting by Atwood or James.
"Benie Des Dieux will try and confirm the Cheltenham form with Apple's Jade but that won't be easy if Apple's Jade runs to her best. I think Benie will improve for her Cheltenham run as she came back from fences to race over hurdles and her jumping this time should be slicker. That race is the second last Grade One of the season and it could come down to that for the title!" Mullins adds.
It would be a glory day for the ages on Punchestown's field of dreams.
Sunday Indo Sport