Mullins' eight smashes record
Champion trainer rounds off memorable week with brace but Gold Cup still eludes him
RECORD-BREAKER Willie Mullins confirmed his status as the king of Cheltenham yesterday but he was denied his crowning glory.
The trainer walked out of what is fast becoming his own personal fiefdom with an unprecedented eight Cheltenham Festival winners but he endured more Betfred Gold Cup heartache when Djakadam was denied by the gallant Coneygree in an epic spectacle.
A final-day double maintained Mullins' iron grip on the leading trainer prize.
First up, Wicklow Brave pulverised the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle opposition to give Paul Townend his third winner of the week at odds of 25/1.
That brought Mullins level with Nicky Henderson's 2012 haul of seven, and Killultagh Vic's last-gasp head victory under 18-year-old Luke Dempsey in the conditional jockeys' race gave the champion trainer the record.
For the fourth time in five years, Mullins departed Prestbury Park with the Dessie Hughes Irish Independent leading trainer award, and Djakadam went agonisingly close to giving him an elusive first Gold Cup. It was the third year in a row and fifth time in all that he had saddled a Gold Cup runner-up.
"We didn't have any hard luck," Mullins conceded magnanimously. "Djakadam had a fantastic run and jumped great, so I don't have any excuses. It was a brave decision by the winner's connections to run in the Gold Cup and it paid off. Coneygree did it the hard way out in front and I was delighted with my horse. He is only a six-year-old and the winner is an eight-year-old; in those conditions, with stamina to the fore, age will always beat youth."
When Mark and Sara Bradstock opted to bypass the novices' RSA Chase for Coneygree, they were gambling on the forecast rain arriving in time for their mudlark. Fortune favoured the brave, as the eight-year-old became the first freshman chaser to secure the Gold Cup since Pat Taaffe's Captain Christy in 1974.
While the slow ground enabled Coneygree (7/1) to dictate, it also suited Djakadam. Ruby Walsh brought him through to challenge down the hill, but Coneygree was always just out of reach. Djakadam eked his way past Road To Riches 50 yards from the line. When Coneygree lugged right, opportunity knocked.
However, Nico De Boinville kept his composure, holding his mount together to prevail by a length-and-a-half after a punishing climb up the hill.
Road To Riches was a couple of lengths back in third. The reigning champion Lord Windermere was pulled up by Davy Russell after misfiring completely. Indeed, there were many disappointing performances in the three-and-a-quarter-mile Grade One, though it was reassuring that the first three home were all progressive.
Killultagh Vic, backed from 12/1 into 7/1 before completing Mullins' 207/1 brace, stuck his head out to give Dempsey a first taste of Festival success, and the Carlow-based wizard paid tribute to his Closutton team.
"Everyone at home has worked so hard to make this happen," he said. "It wouldn't be possible to do what we have done without them. It has been fantastic because it's so hard and competitive here. We've had a fantastic spring and not had sickness with any of the horses. Thankfully it has worked out."
After Martello Tower's gritty Albert Bartlett win, On The Fringe annihilated the Foxhunters field for a poignant victory. JP McManus' Enda Bolger-trained 10-year-old left behind his timid 2014 third to streak 17 lengths clear for Nina Carberry (above), prompting the exquisite rider to rue the absence of JT McNamara, who was so badly injured here in 2013.
"JT always believed in this horse and he has proved him right today,"Carberry said. "It's just a pity that he couldn't be on him when he did it."
A lamentable post-script to a fantastic four-days were more whip bans.
Heskin received two days for his efforts on Martello Tower, while Bryan Cooper picked up a total of 15 for his whip use on No More Heroes and Road To Riches, ruling him out of the Irish and English Grand Nationals.
Richard Forristal's day 4 Race Reads
1.30 Triumph Hurdle 2m 1f
This was a measured turn from Barry Geraghty on Peace And Co, which he managed to switch off just behind the leaders. He came there down the hill but then waited, letting stablemates Top Notch and Hargam tussle away.
Top Notch led over the last as Hargam began to wilt, and to his credit the eventual runner-up kept Peace And Co honest. Geraghty got after his mount and they led halfway up the run-in before holding on by a neck. He is a fair horse.
Hargam was four lengths back, with Devilment fourth. Dicosimo and his big, gangly stride set a sensible gallop. He jumped well but didn't have the gears at the end. He forfeited the lead turning in and walked up the hill. Petit Parisienne led the chasing pack initially and toughed it out gamely for fifth.
2.05 Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f
Wicklow Brave filleted the field. He had missed the start at Sandown on Saturday and never ran his race, but he sluiced eight lengths clear like a fresh horse, having been brought through from the rear by Paul Townend. There was a stampede to two-out, but he quickly turned the supposedly competitive handicap into a procession.
Quick Jack came there to run his race from mid-division, eventually getting run out of it for second by Sort It Out, which emerged from a similar position. Max Dynamite was settled further back and stayed on nicely in fourth, just ahead of Analifet and Sempre Medici.
The Game Changer didn't get the gaps he needed but emptied up the hill anyway, while the favourite Princely Conn got cut up on the final bend when he was running well. Lucky Bridle exited two-out when he was still going okay.
2.40 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle 3m
This was a typically dour and determined effort from Martello Tower. Always close the pace, he ground the pacesetting Milsean into submission halfway up the run-in. The return to three miles brought out the best in him. Milsean made him work for it. Danny Mullins did everything right but he was always going to be vulnerable to getting mugged in the conditions.
It's hard to know what No More Heroes lost when Milsean squeezed him up on the rail before the last flight. There wasn't really a sufficient gap there in the first place and his run was impeded. He was only beaten a length-and-a-half, but the winner might also have had more in the tank if required. Arbre De Vie ran well from behind to be a clear fourth, while Out Sam fell down the back the final time. Black Hercules never looked like getting into it from the rear.
3.20 Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase 3m 2f
A very professional display from a talented horse that had run just three times over fences. In those three starts, Coneygree has hardly been headed, and he wasn't to be denied here.
The ground, which jockeys roundly called soft, suited both him and Djakadam, and it meant they were not drawn out of their comfort zone, which usually happens inexperienced horses on good ground in this race. Road To Riches led to the first as Coneygree missed the break slightly, but the winner took over then. He jumped with aplomb, and the result really only looked momentarily in doubt when he went right up the run-in.
That opened the door for Djakadam, but he just couldn't get by. The Bradstocks rolled the dice by running a novice, but their judgement was vindicated in style. Djakadam got a lovely run down the inside. While he kept finding, he was denied a length-and-a-half by a better horse on the day.
He is just six years old, so he will be back, as will Road To Riches. He was ridden aggressively, and would have got closer than the three-and-a-half lengths he was denied had the ground stayed good. Holywell plugged on in fourth, but little else got a blow in, with Silviniaco Conti floundering under pressure.
Well beaten in seventh behind On His Own and Many Clouds, he has never got it right here. Previous winners Lord Windermere and Bobs Worth ran poorly, especially the reigning champion.
4.00 Foxhunter Chase 3m 2f
On The Fringe laid to rest any doubts about his stamina with a facile 17-length rout. Nina Carberry eased him into contention down the hill and he took over on the home turn.
It was the sort of display that he had promised as a young horse. The runner-up Following Dreams was handy all the way and kept going, while Paint The Clouds was a neck further back in third. The softer ground probably wasn't ideal for him. Carsonstown Boy made the early running. He was thereabouts all the way, eventually finishing fifth. Salsify pulled up after failing to get involved.
4.40 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle 2m 4f
Luke Dempsey brought KILLULTAGH VIC with a well-timed run around the outside. Noble Endeavour had come through on the inner having sat quite close to him in the rear of mid division early. He made the eventual winner work hard, but credit to Killultagh Vic, he found enough to get back up by a head on the line. Kauto Grand Mogul was in there pitching turning in but didn't get home as well, while the early pacesetter Shelford plugged on gamely for fifth. Roi Des Francs ran an honest race four-and-a-half lengths back in third.
5.15 Grade Three Grand Annual Handicap Chase 2m 1f
NEXT SENSATION was handy all the way. He took command before turning for home and wasn't for catching. AP McCoy tried his best to cajole Ned Buntline, but he was hanging on to little, eventually finishing a one-paced fourth. Eastlake came through with a flourish for second, while Croco Bay kept going in third, having also been up there early.