Friday 16 November 2018

Mullins secures Festival history but next generation breathing down his neck

Closutton 'genius' overhauls Henderson's record but Elliott ready to pounce

Penhill enjoys a well-earned drink of water yesterday after giving trainer Willie Mullins another victory at Cheltenham in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Penhill enjoys a well-earned drink of water yesterday after giving trainer Willie Mullins another victory at Cheltenham in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

It may only last for a day but Willie Mullins etched his place further into the history books yesterday by surpassing Nicky Henderson's all-time Cheltenham Festival winners tally as his unparalleled brilliance once again shone bright.

Few would have thought that possible but with 36 winners at the last six Festivals, and counting this year, Mullins has edged ahead by one (61 to 60) with a blistering series of results.

Not one for worrying about the record books or eulogising about the past, Mullins was surprised to learn of his feat and addressed it with his usual modesty.

"It's unbelievable. When you start training you hope for one Cheltenham winner - that is the greatest aspiration that most Irish trainers have. This isn't something we ever dreamt of because we thought we couldn't do that based in Ireland," he said.

What separates the Closutton maestro from most other trainers was clear for all to see with his training performance of the brilliant but fragile Penhill (12/1). He wasn't seen on the racecourse in 323 days and yet was fit enough to take yesterday's Stayers' Hurdle.

Uphill

Mullins noted just two weeks ago the uphill task facing Penhill and yet he was able to produce the seven-year-old to score to become the first Albert Bartlett Hurdle winner to follow up by taking the three-mile championship event - in the hands of Paul Townend for Tony Bloom, who is also owner of Premier League side Brighton.

"A lot of credit has to go to Holly Conte who leads him up, rides him and does everything with him. She has virtually trained this horse herself, I think. She minds him because he is fairly fragile," Mullins said.

"Coming here without a prep race to win a championship race is a huge achievement to the horse. I was quite surprised how little he was blowing during the race - Paul was blowing more in the parade ring after than the horse was. I would like to put him away now for Cheltenham next year."

There were more smiles from the Mullins camp 90 minutes later when Laurina (4/7 favourite) dotted up by a stunning 18 lengths in the Grade Two Mares' Novices' Hurdle and before racing away to collect the jockey's prize, Townend - completing a 19/1 double - had a short but sweet answer when asked to describe his boss with the word "genius" as accurate a summary as anyone could give.

Mullins now leads the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award with seven winners but hot on his heels is Gordon Elliott with the Meath trainer just one behind as he solidifies his status as the successor to Mullins as the king of Irish National Hunt.

Completing a 209/1 treble led by the brilliant mare Shattered Love (4/1) in the Grade One JLT Novices' Chase - and supplying a double for Davy Russell with Delta Work (6/1) and The Storyteller (5/1 favourite) - the Cullentra handler has already emulated last year's Festival tally of six with a day to spare.

"Good horses, good owners and good staff" was Elliott's simple explanation for his meteoric rise. One of the hallmarks of Mullins' reign at the top has been Ruby Walsh and Elliott has his own special pilot in the Kerry teenage sensation Jack Kennedy, who gave another masterclass aboard Shattered Love to bring his tally to three for the week on his only ride of the day.

Kennedy said of Elliott: "He's a genius - he has all these horses spot on for the week and it's just a privilege to ride them. He leaves no stone unturned and he is the best around," while Russell added: "He is a master; a marvellous man. I have known him a long time, he is a great man. It's not even work - it's pleasure every day, with a pleasant atmosphere. He gives me so much confidence."

Only the Warren Greatrex-trained Missed Approach in the last could deny the visitors an unprecedented clean sweep of all seven races as the Prestbury Cup (Ireland v Britain) was secured with a day to spare after the visitors reached 15 winners.

One of those was a major upset as the odds-on favourite Un De Sceaux (8/11) was turned over by Henry de Bromhead's Balko Des Flos (8/1) in the Ryanair Chase with Ryanair chief Michael winning the race he sponsors on a special day for Irish racing.

"Good horses are rewarded in Ireland, they don't have to go handicapping," Mullins said when asked to explain the Irish success. "It's totally down to the HRI programme, race planning and the prize money that they give to good horses in Ireland.

"English owners are realising that, they can buy a good horse to be a good horse and have races to run him in whereas over in England a lot of the novices have to go to a handicap to win prize money and you leave a lot of good horses behind you doing that.

"Our programme is better I think and it's reflected in these results this week."

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