Saturday 24 March 2018

Giants of the Cotswolds

Visionary trainers O'Brien and Mullins redefined perceptions of what it is possible for an Irish-based handler to achieve at the Cheltenham Festival, writes Richard Forristal

Vincent O’Brien and Willie Mullins
Vincent O’Brien and Willie Mullins
Lester Piggott and Vincent O'Brien
Vincent O'Brien and family at Ballydoyle with Royal Tan
Willie Mullins with Vautour and Djakadam (right, with Ruby Walsh) at his yard in Closutton, Co Carlow, ahead of the Cheltenham Festival
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

It's curious to see how the Cheltenham Festival exploits of two of the most influential figures in the history of the sport contrast.

Many of the parallels between Vincent O'Brien and Willie Mullins are clear. Both visionary masters of their trade whose first mentors were fathers who had earned the respect of their peers as astute horsemen, the sons affectionately known as MV and WP have transformed perceptions of what it is possible for Irish handlers to achieve in the glorious old Cotswold amphitheatre and beyond.

However, it is the conflicting chronology of Cotswold events that catches your eye. O'Brien, who burst on the scene from his north Co Cork homestead in Churchtown, went straight in at the top.

His first runner in Britain, when he was just 30 years of age, was Cottage Rake in the 1948 Gold Cup. An Irish Cesarewitch and November Handicap winner that twice failed to sell early in his career when he failed the vet for his breathing, Cottage Rake overhauled Happy Home on the gruelling climb to the line to achieve glory under Aubrey Brabazon.

O'Brien could hardly watch, because his father Dan had sold Happy Home's dam Golden Emblem for a pittance to his friend Michael Magnier of Grange Stud in Fermoy, where Cottage, sire of both Cottage Rake and Happy Home, stood. He was destined to do more than breed a Gold Cup winner.

Magnier's grandson, of course, is none other than John Magnier, married to O'Brien's daughter Sue and one of the Holy Trinity - along with his father-in-law and Robert Sangster - who built the Coolmore empire. Cottage Rake would win three Gold Cups in succession.

When he went back to Prestbury Park in 1949, Hatton's Grace went with him. A small, scragged, light-bodied nine-year-old often referred to as a bit of an ugly duckling, Hatton's Grace would win the first of three Champion Hurdles in a row under Brabazon.

O'Brien also brought Castledermot across for the four-mile NH Chase. Partnered by Lord Mildmay, he won, too. Four runners in his first two Cheltenham forays - four winners.

Come 1952, O'Brien plundered the first of 10 Gloucestershire - now Supreme - Novices' Hurdles when Cockatoo obliged for his brother, Phonsie, who also steered Royal Tan to victory in the four-miler. Two years later, Royal Tan would become the middle leg of the famous O'Brien Grand National treble. Prior to Early Mist initiating that stunning feat at Aintree in 1953, O'Brien plundered a fourth Gold Cup with Knock Hard.

Talk about taking the jumps scene by storm. O'Brien's four Gold Cup and three Champion Hurdle wins would become known as the Super Seven. It was a simply stupendous achievement to mastermind seven victories in the sport's two marquee championship events so early in a career and in such a short time frame. Eight of O'Brien's last nine Festival wins came in one or other division of the Gloucestershire. His supremacy was strangely front-loaded. Upside down, almost.

A week after Hatton's Grace's third Champion Hurdle triumph in 1951, O'Brien relocated from Churchtown to Ballydoyle. In 1959, 11 years after Cottage Rake's ground-breaking mission, he saddled his final Gloucestershire winner in York Fair, and switched exclusively to the Flat.

It's tempting to describe Mullins's progression as more conventional, but there isn't too much conventional about the Closutton wizard.

He had enjoyed two Festival wins as a jockey in the NH Chase aboard Hazy Dawn (1982) and Macks Friendly (1984), both saddled by his legendary father, Paddy.

As a trainer, though, he was 35 years of age before he embarked on a Cheltenham raid, which, in relation to his heavy artillery assault these days, wasn't really a raid at all.

His first two runners there, Closutton Express in 1992 and Maringo in 1994, weren't mapped. When he returned in 1995, the mare Tourist Attraction, successful in just one of her four previous hurdle starts, landed a memorable edition of the Supreme under Mark Dwyer. Two days later, Mullins steered Skehanagh Bridge into third in the Champion Bumper. A template had been set.

He would return 12 months later with just one runner, Wither Or Which. Together, they would triumph in the Champion Bumper to initiate a hat-trick in a Grade One that was in its infancy. That was Mullins's final outing in the saddle at Cheltenham. His two subsequent Champion Bumper winners, Florida Peal and Alexander Banquet, were ridden by the peerless Richard Dunwoody and an up-and-coming amateur by the name of Ruby Walsh.

Mullins's running tally in the Champion Bumper now stands at eight. He has won five Supremes, including the last three. He would train 14 Festival winners in one or other of the novices' events before landing a first in open company courtesy of Quevega's 2009 victory in the Mares' Hurdle.

The diminutive mare did much to confirm his status as a colossus to rival O'Brien by winning the Grade Two at six Festivals on the spin. Her last five wins there came on her seasonal bow, an exploit comparable to O'Brien winning the 1977 Irish 1,000 Guineas with a track debutante in Lady Capulet.

Be it Champion Bumpers, Supremes, Neptunes or RSA Chases, Mullins has utterly dominated the ranks of the fledgling stars. Of his 41 Festival winners, 25 fall into that bracket.

He finally made the breakthrough in the senior championship events with the indomitable Hurricane Fly in the 2011 Champion Hurdle. A year later, the exceptional French Flat recruit couldn't cope with Rock On Ruby, but in 2013 he returned to his tenacious best when fighting back from a seemingly hopeless position under the pump of Walsh to double up in thrilling style.

After accruing a record 22 Grade Ones, you'd think Mullins might have struggled to replace the Hurricane. Last year, though, his devastating 2014 Neptune hero Faugheen stamped his authority all over the two-mile division with a barnstorming front-running display.

In the same way that O'Brien advertised his astute brilliance by winning the Gold Cup with a supposedly unsound Flat horse, Mullins did so with Faugheen. A slightly ungainly point-to-point winner, he looked a long way removed from a pacey two-mile hurdler when winning over three miles in bottomless ground at Limerick over Christmas 2013.

Yet Mullins saw something in him that others didn't, and Faugheen, sadly absent this year, proved himself as an elite championship contender in the ultimate speed discipline. That is an indecipherable instinct common to both men.

With 41 Festival victories across 21 years, Mullins is heading toward doubling O'Brien's tally of 23. Intriguingly, their averages are almost identical; Mullins averaging 1.95 wins a year and O'Brien 1.91.

O'Brien paved the way for generations of Irish horse racing success. If he modernised the vocation, right now it feels as though Mullins is perfecting the art form.

No-one has ever exerted so much influence at the sport's highest level, with Mullins having already won eight of 2016's 11 scheduled Grade Ones. Last season, he recorded a world record 30 Grade One wins in a season, and then set another by clocking out with 33 in the calendar year. His 2016 count is 33pc better than it was at the same stage last year. It is a staggering reign.

In 1949, O'Brien became the first man to travel horses by air when he flew his trio to Cheltenham.

Mullins is now rewriting the jumps history books, and in 2013 he became the first European handler to win Japan's Nakayama Grand Jump with Blackstairmountain, still his single most valuable win.

Likewise, neither made nor makes any bones about their ambition. Once, in the early days, when it was put to O'Brien that he had already won everything that there was to be won in game, he responded: "Is there anything wrong with winning everything all over again?"

Last autumn, as the sheer depth of Mullins's firepower became clear, someone observed that he possessed an embarrassment of riches. "I'm not embarrassed by it at all," he deadpanned.

Similarly humble family men, Mullins is married to Jackie and O'Brien was to Jacqueline, both pivotal figures behind the scenes. If there was a professor-like demeanour to O'Brien, Mullins is less enigmatic. There was an aristocratic authority to O'Brien that just isn't Mullins. Both, though, could irrefutably be described as geniuses.

Remember as well, that, while Mullins saddled an unprecedented eight Festival winners last year, O'Brien departed Royal Ascot in 1975 with no less than six from just seven runners. Each a sensational accomplishment, and it is a mark of both individuals that they excelled in two disciplines.

Mullins saddled Simenon to win twice at Royal Ascot in 2012, before so nearly foiling the Queen's Estimate in the Gold Cup a year later. He has secured four wins at the royal meeting, an Ebor with Sesenta and a Lonsdale Cup with Max Dynamite, which so nearly plundered last year's Melbourne Cup. In short, O'Brien was and Mullins is an all-round horseman of infinite equine wisdom.

Soon their CV's could become even more similar. If Mullins's pursuit of the British jump trainers' championship is successful, he would emulate O'Brien, whose back-to-back titles in 1953 and 1954 remain the sole victories for an Irish-based handler.

And if Mullins is to prevail, nailing an elusive Gold Cup triumph on Friday could prove invaluable. Indeed, 30 years after his father masterminded that unforgettable, spine-tingling, last-gasp coup with the gallant Dawn Run, it would also be apt.

Time to lift a nation's spirits once again.

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