In a valley of ghost stories, there is but one enduring silhouette of certainty. It is of a brown trilby materialising in the winners’ enclosure.
Willie Mullins spent a small lifetime trying to train a Gold Cup winner at Cheltenham until Al Boum Photo won the race twice in successive years in 2019 and ’20. The wait seems bemusing now in hindsight, an aberration to challenge the smartest minds.
Yesterday Energumene summoned another, successfully defending his Champion Chase crown with such easy authority, the rest of the field looked in need of maps and ordnance charts simply to find the hill.
So how on earth did it take Paddy Mullins’s son three decades to master a race he now appears to hold in the palm of his hand?
It is a question that surely furrows brows in all of the big England yards, as they watch the digits on Mullins’s Festival record spin inexorably towards a century. At the end of day two, his four victories had stretched his career Festival tally to a runaway 92, the only surprise being that not one of his ten entries in the Bumper managed to see off 86-year-old John Kiely’s favourite, A Dream To Share.
It took Mullins 13 years to train his first ten Cheltenham winners, but another 82 have followed in a similar time span since. He commands such presence here today, it is as if the air changes every time he strides into the enclosure.
It didn’t take long for the imposing Energumene to scald local optimism (or innocence) for Edwardstone and Editeur Du Gite here, Paul Townend’s mount leaving them so effortlessly behind in his muddy slipstream, they looked like belching old freighters, arriving late to port.
Only Henry de Bromhead’s Captain Guinness – Rachael Blackmore on board – came even close to giving the race the illusion of a contest.
It made a small mockery of the purchase put on events here in January, 46 days earlier to be precise, when Energumene trailed home third in The Clarence House Chase switched from a frozen Ascot. So many on this side of the Irish Sea seemed to summon a blizzard of sweeping deductions from what they witnessed that day, it was as if they’d seen a champion broken.
Yet Townend’s appraisal ran to a different galaxy.
“Paul came home from the Clarence House and said they won’t beat us again,” reflected Mullins yesterday, Energumene’s winning price of 6/5 suddenly seeming an act of compassion from the hard hearts of turf accounting.
“He had a very positive frame of mind going out. He thought everyone was going to be very tight and wanted to be away fast, which is the way the race worked out.
“I was way more confident coming into this year’s race as we hadn’t got Shishkin to take on – and we thought if there was any improvement from the Clarence House that, with hopefully with a clear round, he would win.
“The horse’s work and jumping has been brilliant. We were just fingers crossed for that clear round.”
For all that, he had scarcely envisaged such a casual destruction of the big English hopes.
Then, again, nobody did – which, perhaps, qualifies as naivety on the grandest scale now.
Because from the top of the hill, it was clear that Edwardstone just wasn’t traveling and, soon enough, Editeur Du Gite began foundering too. Only Blackmore had enough horse beneath her to press the champion.
Just not sufficiently to make Townend even turn his head.
“That was easy, to be honest,” he reflected afterwards. “I got in a lovely rhythm on him. After the first two fences he was taking them on, he was quick at them, and it was simple – it was just a matter of keeping him in a rhythm after that.
“He allowed me to ride him more forward (than in January) because he took on his fences better today. Looser ground probably helped as well. He felt a different horse today.
“It was a dream ride and I was able to take it all in coming up the straight, which doesn’t usually happen in these championship races.”
In two hours yesterday, Mullins did not simply double his tally at this year’s Festival, but give nourishment to the idea that he now has two more superstars in his care.
After the imperious Impaire Et Passe led a 1-2-3 for his yard in the opening Ballymore Novice Hurdle, the idea that Mullins might just have a horse worth taking a swing at Constitution Hill in next year’s Champion Hurdle was too tempting to resist.
“I think that was the horse’s fourth run in his life, so there’s huge improvement there,” he declared of Impaire Et Passe. “I’m looking at him as a chaser, but you have to ask yourself now, do you stay hurdling?
“What would you do? You have to look at everything, including the Champion Hurdle.
“Yesterday I was telling Michael Buckley (owner of Constitution Hill), we’ll have to go shopping again to find one to beat you. But maybe we won’t!
“Because he’s in the same sort of mould with his speed, jumping and the way he came up the hill. So maybe we have one.”
Those last five words will surely turn English blood cold today. Because short of taking a Beretta to Irelands’ champion trainer, how on earth can they ever hope to defeat his optimism?
It was 1988 when Willie Mullins took over from his father – and now, at just 66, he seems a long way from the complacent comforts of retirement.
On the contrary, a gentle giddiness lights his eyes when he talks Energumene and Impaire Et Passe and Tuesday’s Arkle Chase winner, El Fabiolo.
Paddy Mullins built an empire on the virtues of intelligence and patience, on an understanding that no great scholastic qualifications were required to understand horses. Just intuition, empathy and the gift of timing.
“Everything I learned, I learned from my dad, including patience,” said Willie some weeks back on reaching the scarcely fathomable mark of 4,000 winners.
“Something I probably didn’t want to learn when I was younger. You don’t realise the things you are learning when just doing day-to-day stuff until you come across those problems and instances in your life that you think back and go ‘Oh he would have done this or would have done that!’
“Then things become simpler and clearer.”
So simple and clear today that it feels as if this story is still just gathering steam.