Willie Mullins’ big-race tactics work oracle as Gold Cup returns to Closutton
From the threshold of disaster, they played chicken with the field.
It was a game entirely of Willie Mullins’ choosing and, for a time at Cheltenham yesterday, the crazy drench of sound around him suggested that he alone knew it.
Half-way through the Gold Cup, Galopin Des Champs was running and jumping like a horse with tender hooves.
The favourite looked in trouble.
Mullins has a private spot on a corner of the Princess Royal Stand from where he likes to watch each Festival race, free of uninvited counsel. Everyone has an opinion in this world, few enough burdened with anything as cumbersome as knowledge.
He’s taken himself to that spot so often in recent times, Cheltenham ought really consider erecting a plaque there now that his tally of Festival winners has spiralled to 94. Because it isn’t so much a vantage point anymore as a throne.
The street-fighter in Paul Townend wanted to go to war here, but Willie sensed that that would just be playing into the hands of snipers.
“No, I want you to jump off in the second row,” he told the jockey. “You’ve got the fastest horse and they’ll go a quick gallop because they’re going to try and test your stamina!”
You get a thousand different plot-lines in a race like this, everybody chasing the right one. In this instance, Mullins admitted to the creeping sense of an unfamiliar pressure.
In the eyes of a particular cognoscenti, he’s been building the wrong career for Galopin Des Champs you see, trying to shape a speed-merchant into a stayer. And when the market backs your judgment, a man feels the obligation to be right.
“I think what stands out is just the pressure that I put myself under,” he reflected when it was over. “I was surprised actually how much I started to feel it.
“The pressure was coming from the fact that we disagreed with everyone and said, ‘He will stay!’ The fact that so many people thought he wouldn’t. That put pressure on us I think. It’d be different if he was a 10/1 shot or something like that. But he was favourite and people backed him in the belief that I was right I suppose.”
True, but let’s rewind momentarily here. This is a resolutely grown-up world they build their reputations in and bad days leave their scars.
Mullins and Townend may represent a kind of magic ticket now, but theirs isn’t a world entirely devoid of turbulence either.
It can’t be.
During the recent Dublin Racing Festival, the trainer found reason to publicly criticise Townend rides on Facile Vega and Lossiemouth. Without candour in this environment, honesty is an inevitable casualty.
And without honesty, you are ruined.
Men like Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy proved gushing in their praise of Townend’s second circuit on Galopin Des Champs yesterday, reading it as an almost perfect essay in composure, McCoy even went so far as to describe it as “brilliant a ride as I’ve ever seen!”
Essentially, the Midleton man managed to settle a horse that had, initially, been guilty of ragged jumping into a virtual pleasure-steamer coming up the hill.
True, there had been a share of luck too that would be denied Rachael Blackmore on defending champion, A Plus Tard. When Ahoy Senor went tumbling six from home, it seemed a minor miracle that only Sounds Russian came down with him.
Townend was lucky to just about step around the carnage, but – three from home – he still had four horses barrelling along in front of him.
One of them, Hewick, would take a hideous-looking fall – neck-first – two from home, a panicked ‘Shark’ Hanlon sprinting to the scene where, mercifully, his horse was back on his feet and intact as he arrived.
But it was right there, at that fence and precisely at that moment that Mullins felt all pressure fall off his shoulders. Why? Because Galopin cleared it lying second.
After a mistake just before it, Townend had got his mount back on the bridle and bought him time. In doing so, potential crisis flipped into opportunity.
Coming up the hill then, his third Gold Cup win in the bag – only Pat Taaffe has more – everything about Townend articulated easy control.
Had it felt that way?
“To be honest, I had a messy start and was further back than I wanted to be,” he would tell us later. “But I got a bit of luck then with the faller, to get outside him. Luckily, when we turned down the hill and I put the bit up in his mouth, he came alive underneath me.
“It shows the level of ability he has I think. There was a lot of horses trying to be where there wasn’t room for a lot of horses, in on that fresh ground. Just a couple of messy jumps in front of me, that put him off a little bit.
“Credit to him to get back on an even keel after that. A lot of horses wouldn’t. And I was happy to see them coming off one by one in front of me turning in. That allowed me a chance to just fill up my horse after making up a lot of ground. He’d made a mistake coming down off the hill as well.
“That just meant I had to give him another chance to catch his breath.”
The way he describes it, winning this kind of race is all but reduced to a board-game puzzle. A challenge tackled coldly and in something close to abstract terms when, in fact, this kind of pressure can turn a man’s brain to putty.
Watching, Mullins recognised the nerveless eloquence of that slender figure on Galopin’s back.
He seldom asks Townend to ride work on the horse, entrusting that role to Adam Connolly who “keeps a lid on him”. Accordingly, any relationship between Galopin and the Festival’s leading jockey (this is Townend’s third time topping the charts) is restricted to the white heat of the battlefield.
“Paul is ice-cool and I’m always saying it, he’s so good under pressure,” said Mullins now. “When the chips are down, he’s very, very good.
“To me, the way he rode the horse on the last circuit… he’s just very cool. The horse made that mistake at the third last and some other jockey might give him a slap and pull him together, but Paul just let the horse come back on the bridle. Gave him a breather and a bit of confidence.
“Just the way he timed his challenge. Some other guys might have gone that bit quicker and maybe be fading towards the winning post. But he got him out, got him on an even keel and got him balanced down over the last two fences.”
In doing so, Galopin Des Champs served to grow the ever-lengthening shadow of Closutton’s authority in this storied old valley, Mullins now sure to be a short price to push his Festival total through the century-mark next year.
The arithmetic, he admits, is staggering.
Yesterday, Mullins recalled a time in the distant past, driving away from a Vincent O’Brien Gold Cup with wife, Jackie, the two of them wondering if they might ever have a horse good enough to contest a race of such calibre.
The best horse in their yard back then was a hurdler, rated at 126. “He was our Saturday horse!” smiled Willie now. “But what is in Closutton... every night I go through the barns, looking at them and I pinch myself.
“Look, we know what we have. We don’t take any of this for granted.”