Cheltenham is about a lot of things. It's about the horses, the best of their kind in the world. It's about the jockeys, warriors who go out to work every day facing the risk of serious injury yet chat happily to TV reporters on their way down to the start and, slightly breathlessly, on their way back from the finish. It's about the owners, from plutocrats who could buy and sell the lot of us to syndicates of friends who feel they've triumphed by just getting a horse there.
It's about the punters in the betting shops and the spectators, those there in the Cotswolds and those watching on TV at home. It's about Ireland v England. It's about passion, the kind described by the great George Ennor of the Racing Post writing about Danoli in the 1994 SunAlliance Novices Hurdle: "They cheered him down to the start, they cheered him as he started, they cheered more loudly as he took the lead and they raised the roof as he passed the post in front."
This year's most compelling storyline may be the battle between three trainers. There are other trainers - Henry de Bromhead, who almost unnoticed will end the Irish season with more wins and prize money than any third-placed trainer ever has done; Colin Tizzard, who after a long career as a journeyman finds himself with the top two in the biggest race of the Festival; the young guns, Joseph O'Brien and Dan Skelton, bidding to emerge from the shadows of their fathers; old masters like Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs and Noel Meade keen to show there's plenty of life in them yet.
But the three who will really matter at Cheltenham are the big three. The all-time record holder, the man who will take the record from him, and the man who hopes to succeed both of them. The trainer's son, the soldier's son and the panel beater's son. The king of Cheltenham past, the king of Cheltenham present and the king of Cheltenham future. The aristocrat, the gentleman and the worker.
Willie Mullins comes from National Hunt aristocracy. His family have been saddling winners for 64 years. His father Paddy trained the winner of perhaps the most memorable Cheltenham Gold Cup of all, Dawn Run, whose recovery to win the 1986 race when apparently beaten still looks impossible even when you know the result, Peter O'Sullevan's "the mare's beginning to get up" echoing down the years. Chances were Willie Mullins was going to be good. When Paddy died in 2010, Ted Walsh prophesied: "His son Willie could end up being an even better trainer than his father."
Few would have expected him to be quite this good, for the simple reason that nobody has been as good as Willie Mullins is now. In 2015, he set a Festival record of eight victories, last year he notched up seven, and he has been top trainer five of the last six years. There have been four Champion Hurdles in the last five years, three Supreme Novices Hurdles in four, eight Mares Hurdles in a row and Grade One triumphs galore, even if the Gold Cup has continued to elude him.
He has become to National Hunt what Aidan O'Brien is to Flat racing. This time last year it looked as though Cheltenham was on its way to becoming Willie Mullins versus the field.
The 12 months since have been unusually uneasy for the head that wears the crown. Injuries have cost Mullins the services of the two last Champion Hurdle winners, Faugheen and Annie Power. A freak training accident killed last year's Ryanair Chase winner, the immensely promising Vautour. Champion Bumper favourite Getabird has been forced out of the Festival. Michael O'Leary removed his 60 horses from the Mullins stable after an argument over training fees, and Gordon Elliott emerged as the first serious challenger to Mullins' domestic dominance since the Kilkenny man succeeded Noel Meade at the top more than a decade ago.
The odds on Nicky Henderson taking away his leading Festival trainer title have shortened considerably. Mullins' unusual vulnerability is most graphically illustrated by the fact that he is 10/11 to have fewer than 4.5 winners, though that seems worth a decent flutter to me.
Embattled though he may be, Mullins is still the best and should be leading trainer again though he may have to wait another year before having a shot at breaking his own record. Having spent years trying to knock Noel Meade off his perch in Ireland and Paul Nicholls off his at Cheltenham, he will not cede dominance lightly.
Just after Christmas came a reminder of the kind of firepower the master of Closutton still commands as he won 22 races in four days at Leopardstown and Limerick. It was like those bloody scenes in The Godfather movies when Michael Corleone, having patiently endured the challenges of lesser men, suddenly lets everyone know who's boss.
He may have started out as a member of the National Hunt aristocracy, but Willie Mullins has become royalty. If he's not the monarch of all he surveys, he's the monarch of a fairly large chunk of it.
In the same way that in England 'farmer' carries a connotation of privilege which doesn't apply in Ireland and 'the turf' isn't something you burn in 'the fire', horse racing means something different across the water.
Nicky Henderson might almost have been created to illustrate that difference. Educated at Eton, the son of a man who was Aide-De-Camp to Field Marshal Montgomery in the Second World War, Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire and chairman of White's, perhaps the most exclusive of all London gentleman's clubs, trainer to Her Majesty The Queen, Henderson seems like a character who might pop up at intervals in Anthony Powell's great novel sequence A Dance To The Music Of Time. Willie Mullins' father might have won at Cheltenham, Nicky Henderson's father Johnny led the group of investors which bought the course in 1963 before handing it over to the Jockey Club.
Henderson shares with many of Powell's characters a certain air of raffishness. There was the doping ban in 2009 which involved one of the Queen's horses. Henderson's decision to turn up no whit abashed to Royal Ascot soon afterwards displayed the roguish attitude which probably persuaded Her Majesty to retain his services.
Yet the most important thing about this scion of the establishment is that he is an extremely talented trainer. No-one has been better at Cheltenham where Henderson's 55 winners is the meeting record. In 2012, when largely written off as a spent force, he not only beat Mullins to the leading trainer title but set a new Festival record with seven wins. He's only had a couple of winners in each of the last two years but Henderson is poised to pounce should things go wrong for Mullins and is the only trainer who can deny the Kilkenny man a fifth Cheltenham title on the trot.
Cheltenham needs Nicky Henderson because, though over here we think of it largely in terms of the Irish runners, it is an English Festival and every year but two has seen more English winners than Irish. In a country where horse racing no longer enjoys the cultural centrality it does here, Henderson flies the flag for a sport and a class which are both embattled at the present moment. We may not see his like again.
Gordon Elliott is different. From the time that Willie Mullins was old enough to go to the races you can be sure people said to him: "You'll be training the horses some day." No-one said that to Gordon Elliott. Neither did they say: "Do you fancy giving the turf a whirl old chap?" If young Gordon told anyone he wanted to be a leading trainer, chances are they'd have smiled at his temerity. It's not easy to break into the business. Horse racing tends to be about dynasties: Willie Mullins' father was a trainer, as was Henry de Bromhead's and David Pipe's and Joseph O'Brien's, Philip Hobbs' father bred horses, Nicky Henderson's dad owned them. Elliott's father was a panel beater.
The Meath man's entrée into horse racing was through working at weekends for trainer Tony Martin from the age of 13 before becoming an amateur jockey. He took out a training licence at the age of 28 and a year later won the Grand National with Silver Birch. Silver Birch was 33/1 and won by a neck while Elliott had only won three previous races, none of them in Ireland. It was a fairytale story, the kind which tends to be a flash in the pan, yet Elliott had been outspokenly confident before the race. He believed.
Over the next decade he worked his way up the ladder, past Tony Martin and Eddie O'Grady and Noel Meade and the late and much lamented Dessie Hughes, to claim second place in Ireland behind Willie Mullins. A distant second place to be sure but last year's Gold Cup win with Don Cossack seemed to confirm that some time, well into the future, Elliott might challenge Mullins for the top spot.
This time last year the thought of any Irish trainer beating Willie Mullins to the 2016-'17 title seemed as unlikely as Donald Trump becoming President of the United States. And even when Elliott took an early lead in the standings, it seemed sensible to regard this as an evanescent phenomenon with normal service to be resumed when Mullins joined the battle in earnest.
Instead, Elliott has maintained his lead and has already won more races and more money in a season than anyone in Irish National Hunt history with the exception of Mullins. At the time of writing, he has more than €330,000 to spare over the champion, is the odds-on favourite for the title, and has set up the mother of all finales at Punchestown next month. This great season had been set up in part by Michael O'Leary's transfer of the best Gigginstown horses from Mullins to Elliott, but this would never have happened had Elliott not provided a viable alternative.
This brings pressure too. O'Leary is nothing if not ruthless and should Elliott not do the business you wouldn't be surprised to see those horses return to Mullins. Right now, though, before even reaching the age of 40, Elliott is challenging a man who 12 months ago seemed utterly untouchable.
Perhaps it was significant that even during the Mullins Christmas blitz which seemed conclusive proof of the foolishness of imagining the champion could be toppled, Elliott still managed to win the biggest race of the four days, when Outlander upset Mullins' Djakadam in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.
There is a quality of old-school elegance about not just the blue-blooded Henderson but also Mullins, with his trademark hat and quietly spoken gnomic observations. They seem like men designed to be addressed as 'sir.'
Elliott on the other hand sounds and looks more like one of the lads you normally see leading the horse around in the ring. I don't mean this as a bad thing. So do I. You probably do too. It is this very combination of ordinary mien and extraordinary talent which makes Elliott, and his battle with Mullins, so fascinating. He will not win the leading trainer title at Cheltenham this year but he will want to be within shouting distance of it.
That Willie Mullins has not yet won
the Cheltenham Gold Cup is remarkable. He has never been closer than in the
last three years with three runners-up, the last two achieved by Djakadam. There wasn’t much word about Djakadam earlier in the season with all eyes on Colin Tizzard’s Thistlecrack, which looked set to be the hottest favourite since the heyday of Kauto Star. Yet Thistlecrack’s withdrawal through injury seems to have thrown the race wide open. A 1-2-3 for Tizzard had long been predicted yet the absence of Thistlecrack seems somehow to have taken the gloss off his stablemates, Cue Card and Native River. Djakadam is the one horse whose odds have shortened significantly in recent weeks.
Yet Djakadam’s last outing resulted in defeat by Elliott’s Outlander in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. Outlander is in with a real shot although this will be his first time over three-and-a-quarter miles and Elliott says it would be foolish to compare him with Don Cossack, last year’s winner from the Meath man’s stable which misses out after being retired following an injury.
Injury has hit Mullins hard in the Champion Hurdle where a record-equalling third win on the trot looked almost certain before both Faugheen and Annie Power were ruled out. One previous hat-trick winner was Henderson who sent out See You Then to win in 1985, 1986 and 1987 and also won with Punjabi and Binocular in 2009 and 2010 respectively, making him the most successful trainer in the history of the race along with Peter Easterby.
Henderson will bid to take that title outright with Buveur D’Air, currently second favourite. Mullins’ best hope will probably be Vroum Vroum Mag, re-routed from the Mares Hurdle. Before last year no mare had won the race in 22 years. Annie Power did the trick for Mullins then and should Vroum Vroum Mag win it would prove to be one of the sweetest triumphs of his career as well as drawing him level with Henderson and Easterby.
Mullins and Henderson already look guaranteed one winner apiece with the two best horses at the Festival. Henderson’s phenomenal Altior is 2/7 at the moment for the Arkle Trophy on Tuesday and a win by anything less than half-a-dozen lengths would be a surprise.
Douvan, which won the same race last year by seven lengths, is 1/4 for the Champion Chase the following day and his main rival will be the memory of reigning champion Sprinter Sacre. Elliott has no such bankers but he does have a warm favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle in Death Duty for which he predicts a great future as a chaser.
Melon is similarly fancied for Mullins in the Supreme Novices, the first race of the Festival, though this may have something to do with the trainer’s record in the race. Two races later Elliott has an excellent chance of getting on the scorecard with Noble Endeavor, an impressive winner at Leopardstown during the festive season, in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
Then there are the races in which the big guns will lock horns. One of the most mouth-watering is the Mares Hurdle which, in the absence of Vroum Vroum Mag, looks like a straight fight between Limini and Elliott’s Apples Jade.
Mullins sends out a strong team at the start of the second day in an effort to repeat last year’s win in the Neptune Novices Hurdle with Bacardys and Augusta Kate possible winners, though the one they all have to overcome is the undefeated Neon Wolf, trained by English up-and-comer Harry Fry, who may however defect to the Supreme Novices if the ground is soft.
Henderson looks even stronger in the RSA Chase with a talented favourite in Might Bite and a powerful back-up in Whisper. In Tombstone, Elliott has the class horse in the Coral Cup, with his main rivals perhaps Henderson’s Consul De Thaix and another Elliott fancy Automated. The young pretender also has a live one in the Cross Country Chase with Cause Of Causes the most likely challenger to fellow JP McManus horse Cantlow, trained by Enda Bolger.
Henderson looks nicely placed in the Fred Winter Hurdle where both favourite Divin Bere and Dom Perignon Du Lys have been well backed. The Champion Bumper, which ends the first day, has been a Mullins speciality in the past and even in the absence of Getabird he has the outstanding contender in Carter Mckay.
Outstanding is the only way to describe last year’s Neptune winner Yorkhill which would probably have started as favourite for the Champion Hurdle had Mullins opted to run him there. Instead he should begin day number three with a win for Mullins in the JLT Novices Chase though Henderson will have hopes of Top Notch, fifth in last year’s Champion Hurdle and winner of his last four novice chases.
Perhaps the signal Mullins-Elliott clash of the Festival will come in the Ryanair Chase with the former fielding Un De Sceaux, last year’s Champion Chase runner-up, which goes in off the back of impressive wins in the Grade One Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chases. Empire Of Dirt, a close second in last month’s Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, represents Elliott and O’Leary.
With the McManus-owned and Alan King-trained Uxizandre, winner of the race in 2015 and recently returned from a two-year lay-off, this could be one of the races of the Festival. Elliott has the favourite for the Brown Advisory Plate in Diamond King, Mullins the odds-on favourite for the Mares Novice Hurdle in Lets Dance.
And if all eyes will be on the Gold Cup on St Patrick’s Day, Elliott could have his own personal parade. Death Duty goes into action in the Albert Bartlett, Tombstone would be the big fancy for the County Hurdle if he runs there instead of the Coral, and The Storyteller looks like the outstanding candidate in the Martin Pipe Hurdle.
He may not yet be Mullins’ equal in the Grade One races but it’s the ability to keep picking up wins in handicaps which has kept Elliott’s nose in front this term. He may come with a big finish.
Mullins has the advantage of having Ruby Walsh on board. The encomia to Tony McCoy on his retirement notwithstanding, when you talk about quality rather than quantity Walsh is arguably even greater. He has been leading jockey at Cheltenham eight of the last nine years and was at his imperious best last term with a record-breaking seven wins.
Barry Geraghty, the jockey who denied him the nine-in-a-row and was being mooted as a possible challenger this time, is out through injury. In his absence, the vastly experienced Noel Fehily will ride Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle while Nico de Boinville will also feature prominently for Henderson.
In 2013, Bryan Cooper’s three wins at the Festival when just 20 marked him out as the likely heir to Ruby’s crown. He’s been unfortunate with injuries this season but his position as Gigginstown’s jockey means he’ll have the pick of Elliott’s and De Bromhead’s yards. An even younger Kerryman, Jack Kennedy, will bid to get his Festival account off the mark and kick-start what promises to be a glorious Cheltenham career after a season where only Ruby has ridden more winners in Ireland.
Big-name trainers go together with big-name owners. Mullins’ mainstay Rich Ricci may keep a low profile but he does bring an aura of Sangsterian big bucks glamour to National Hunt. He also has the most appropriate name since Argue & Phibbs set up shop as solicitors in Sligo.
JP McManus, whose horses will be the backbone of Henderson’s challenge, may have moved on from the days when he was the bookie-bashing Sundance Kid to become an elder statesman figure doling out money for civic causes in his native Limerick and elsewhere. These days he just does things like win $17million playing backgammon. Nothing electrifies a betting shop like the odds shortening on a McManus horse. He is perhaps the one owner whose name gets top billing above his trainers.
Michael O’Leary is in a way the opposite to McManus, a crafty businessman who likes to look like a buccaneering gambler. His current feud with the British handicappers is classic O’Leary and you wonder if part of his reason for switching horses from Mullins to Elliott was just to shake things up a bit.
He’s been a disruptor long before that word became the rage in business circles. O’Leary’s decision to switch from Mullins to Elliott will go on trial at Cheltenham. Which, considering that O’Leary dislikes being proved wrong almost more than any other Irishman, adds another level of intrigue to the proceedings.
THEY’RE UNDER STARTER’S ORDERS
Two days left. The spine is tingling and the stage is set. For the top three trainers, how well they do this week depends on how well they’ve done their work all year. They’ve done it well, of course, but the question is whether they’ve done it better than the guys who’ll be striving to beat them. The four unforgiving days of Cheltenham will tell them, and us. There will be no hiding place.
That’s how it goes for The Aristocrat, The Gentleman and The Worker.
Sunday Indo Sport
Though hardly a sport graced equally by plutocrats and paupers, golf remains a remarkably democratic pursuit. Which explains how it can link such diverse figures as a sculptor, a champion jockey, a civil service mandarin and leading tournament professionals with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
In the town of Pembroke on Wales's south-west coast, a couple of betting shops have been having an unexpectedly difficult winter and will struggle to reach their target profit for the year unless the Cheltenham Festival goes particularly well. The reason is Tobefair, a locally-trained racehorse so cheap he once changed hands for nothing, which has somehow turned into a winning machine.
Without uncertainty, there would be no Cheltenham Festival, but this year's meeting seems to be pushing things to extremes. Three days before the first card of the meeting, there are still plenty of horses with a choice of two, three or, in the case of Vroum Vroum Mag, no fewer than six possible engagements over the course of the week, while the betting suggests that the ground on day one could yet be good, good-to-soft or soft.