Sceaux sweet as old masters strike back
Mullins-Walsh axis comes up trumps for punters to blow away two days filled with regrets
The world grew small around Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh again in the ash-grey tint of Gloucestershire yesterday.
True, in most educated conversation, that revelation will never exactly find a market as breaking news. But given the disordered happenings of the opening two days here, it was hard to look at a rampant Ruby surging up the hill just after 5pm on Let's Dance and not suspect he might easily have swapped his silks for a loin cloth.
For it was a fourth victory in three hours for the Mullins/Walsh alliance that had left this place on Wednesday evening with pride in a sling, having blanked the opening 14 races.
On just about every level, fate tilted into a dramatic U-turn yesterday. It was a day the Irish, incredibly, plundered six from seven to stretch commandingly clear in the Prestbury Cup, two familiar faces blowing relentlessly through the winners' enclosure.
"Yesterday is history," declared Ruby with a smile after Un De Sceaux's imperious victory in the Ryanair.
Only one favourite had justified its billing through Tuesday and Wednesday, but three made it a redemptive card for punters yesterday, all of them saddled by WP Mullins. There was the gentle fragrance of romance in the air too, though. Presenting Percy's win in the Pertemps signalled a successful defence of that title (won last year by Mall Dini) from the tiny Craughwell yard of Pat Kelly.
A man of carefully rationed words, Kelly has a name for keeping his cards so close to his chest, they must leave indentations on his midriff. And he might be even more circumspect in the future should the BHA choose to take a dim view of his post-race outburst, accusing Phil Smith, the senior British handicapper, of treating him and his ilk "like a dog".
It would be a pity were that to happen because racing needs to hear more from people like Kelly, twice a Galway Hurdle winner who - depending upon who you speak to - trains anything between just five and a dozen horses.
He is described as "an absolute genius" by Presenting Percy's owner, Philip Reynolds, the son of former Taoiseach, Albert. There are others like him too but, increasingly, small yards are closing across rural Ireland because the appetite does not appear to exist to save them.
"Sure we don't make a living, we just try and stay going," he complained in the enclosure. "Look at Adrian Maguire the other day, we're just barely surviving. But I just don't want to go into that in public. We're only barely surviving. Adrian Maguire was man enough to come out. Like for what we charge and the way we're treated at home with the like of the county council rates... it's giving money for nothing.
"They don't supply lighting, sweeping, you've only potholes and floods... ah, I don't want to talk about it."
When past heroes of this place like Charlie Swan and Colm Murphy feel a need to bolt their gates, it's hard not to wonder if a day is fast approaching when the kind of fairytale that Kelly and Reynolds and Davy Russell wrote under Cleeve Hill yesterday will, in time, be unattainable.
Reynolds spoke beautifully after of Kelly and the nature of their connection.
"We owned a couple of horses together 20 odd years ago," he told us. "We were very unlucky in Galway and Pat and myself didn't see each other for a long, long time. Then I met him coming out of Mallow racetrack about five years ago and I said, 'Pat we ought to buy a horse together for old time's sake...if you ever see a nice one, give me a shout.'
"And it took him two years to give me that shout, which is most unusual for a trainer and especially one that had only two horses in his yard."
Kelly suggested going to see three horses in Tom Costello's and, of the three, the one they chose was Mall Dini. One year later they made the same trip, this time picking out Presenting Percy. Two visits, two Pertemps winners.
"He trains the old way," explained Reynolds. "He hasn't let the horses out on the gallops since they came over on Monday. He gives them loose rein on the sand arena below, lets them out for a roll in the morning. So nobody has sat on their backs since they came over here. He has his own way of doing things.
"He stays unbelievably close to the horses. Practically sleeps with them, loves them like kids. So there's only a certain number you can handle when you give them that sort of love and care and attention. That's what he does and you can see the results. He's a terrific man."
A story like Kelly's makes vivid all the tiny, everyday things that must be tended to keep a race yard breathing.
Things that tend to get whitewashed when the big houses flex their muscles. Yesterday, you could listen to Willie Mullins and imagine the business he is in demands little more than a resilient heart and a reliable eye.
Yet, as Yorkhill returned to the enclosure victorious in the opener, Mullins pointedly reached across to slap Walsh's left boot. It was about as animated a celebration as we are accustomed to see from him. Yorkhill is a handful of a horse and, maybe, not the easiest hand to be leaning on when you're trying to scramble your way clear from a two-day stormlight of bad news.
Then again, when Walsh is your jockey, maybe you're simply working with different odds.
An hour later, the same combination trounced the field with Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair, after which Mullins wore a smile concealing a multitude behind it. Out-stretching the two Gigginstown hopes up the hill in a race the maroon army so palpably yearned to win can only have brought the most profound fulfilment to Mullins, out of whose yard they'd pulled 60 horses last year.
Afterwards, Michael O'Leary found refuge in self-parody.
"A certain inevitability about that," said the Gigginstown and Ryanair owner. "We fight over fees, but he still takes the money off me at Cheltenham!"
That victory brought Mullins past the half-century mark for Festival wins and it was clear - all that bad weather having rolled away out of his thoughts - that he was now simply back doing what he does better than anybody else. Pursuing the big prizes with painful clarity.
"He's the ultimate iron horse I think," he said of the 7/4 favourite which had, simply, galloped the opposition into submission. "He does that every day at home, so you're trying to keep a lid on him all the time. He's as tough as nails and, fingers crossed, sound as a pound. He's extraordinary.
"My heart's in my mouth every morning watching him come up the gallop with Virginia (Bascop) riding him. She just keeps the lid on him, keeps talking to him. That's a real racehorse now, an iron horse to do what he does every day. I mean Ruby's only half in control I'd say half the time. When he put in a jump like he did at the first... (I had) memories of yesterday with Douvan. I thought if he keeps doing this, he's never going to come home. But he just seems to keep finding reserves from I don't know where.
"He's just so brave. He's everything you'd want in a racehorse."
Soon enough, Nichols Canyon - a horse Mullins described to this writer last year as "a bit of an oddball who often sleeps with one leg off the ground, like a dog nursing a sore paw" - had blitzed the field in the Stayers' Hurdle.
And when Let's Dance then came up trumps in the Mares' Novice Hurdle, a realisation had settled across Cheltenham that - with the big players in this game - trust is sacrosanct.
For as the last light began to bleed away, there at the top of the jockeys' leaderboard sat Walsh with a hard-charging Mullins second on the trainers' table.
"The team wasn't ever really off track," explained Ruby. "They were running well, they just weren't winning. Listen, things can't always go your way. That's life. There's ups and downs. Downs make you appreciate the ups. That's life, not just sport.
"People say you make your own luck, I'm not so sure."
When Baily Cloud went tumbling in yesterday's first, Walsh and Yorkhill were lucky not to go down with him.
"When I landed, I'm thinking, 'Hmmmm maybe our luck is in here!'" he grinned after.
So he went home last night, having moved to an astonishing 56 Cheltenham winners. "The bullets don't always land," he told us. "But he (Mullins) is a genius."
A status Ruby is familiar with.
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