Thursday 26 April 2018

Stirring our emotions and igniting our passions

Bryan Cooper celebrates his Gold Cup victory on Don Cossack at the Festival-of-all-Festivals. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Bryan Cooper celebrates his Gold Cup victory on Don Cossack at the Festival-of-all-Festivals. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Ian McClean

On Friday evening somebody asked, "So how does this year compare to previous Festivals?" For someone outside racing it is difficult to comprehend quite how complex that question is to answer. The giant magnetic field that is now the Cheltenham Festival has evolved into sufficiently numerous dimensions as to make even Alan Turing's head ache. Dimensions, to name but some, that range from the economic to media, PR, catering, social, sporting, betting, fashion, Anglo-Irish rivalry and corporate hospitality: enough to almost obscure entirely the small matter of the horse. Almost.

Horseracing as the sport of kings is a well-worn cliché but, as with all clichés, it was hewn for good reason. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked how "the rich are different from us". The top four owners in the earnings list at this year's Festival - Ricci, O'Leary, McManus and Wylie - have in common that they are each financially out of sight from the rest of us. Their daily preoccupations are not ours. They are not tethered by the concerns of the common man struggling to pay a mortgage, put the kids through school and keep the boss happy. So, with the removal of the financial strains and the daily grind, the rich are free to concentrate on the knotty dilemma of what Abraham Maslow described as self-actualisation. To do so, some find God, some find charity, and others find Cheltenham.

These men are captains of industry who can afford to control, manage and dispel any inconvenience, discomfort or challenge simply by throwing enough money at it. Masters of the universe all, they also have the common distinction of being bitten by the racing bug. Suddenly, the quest becomes to find the next Arkle, to become associated with that thing that is immortal, and that, however much wealth you hold, is wholly beyond anyone's control.

Eddie O'Leary summed up the irony neatly on Thursday's Ryanair Chase day where the firm also inherited sponsorship of the World Hurdle - "Two Ryanair-sponsored races and we get beaten by two aeroplanes". He was referring of course to Vautour and Thistlecrack, neither of whom in spite of the years of thriftless spending, ended up in the maroon-and-white Gigginstown silks.

To paraphrase the old Castrol GTX advertisement tag-line from the '80s: horseracing gets to parts of the rich man's engine that other sports don't reach. In their daily lives these men of granite are defined by commercial guile, reason and calculated composure. Suddenly at Cheltenham granite is turned to putty. In the wake of Don Cossack's Gold Cup win Michael O'Leary announces, "I'm so happy I could cry". Rich Ricci cannot gather himself sufficiently to even watch his races. The normally mild-mannered Graham Wylie becomes suddenly animated (witness his interview after the Grand Annual win of Solar Impulse - and this was just the Grand Annual). JP, palpably, has been at it that bit longer. For men whose lives are defined by control, predictability and risk mitigation here is the outlet wholly characterised by unpredictability that triggers the outbreak of the very thing they strive to contain throughout the everyday routine - emotion.

The extent to which control of events is relinquished is starkly reflected in the fact that while Gigginstown House won its second Gold Cup with Don Cossack on Friday, it also lost a potential future Gold Cup winner when No More Heroes lost its life on Wednesday. And while the Riccis celebrate as leading owners this week with five winners, they also lost Long Dog and Pont Alexandre on the field of battle.

Pivotal to the success of all four leading owners is Willie Mullins.

Mullins's rise and dominance is beyond anything this sport has ever seen. On Monday Willie misjudged a stream as he tried to leap over it in Cheltenham's in-field and landed up to his ankles in water in his brand new boots. He may have had four faults at the water jump, but that was his only error in another wonderfully memorable week where, with seven wins, he fell just one short of last year's record haul of eight.

This year marks a significant landmark in Irish political history. It is a significant landmark in Mullins's professional history too. In 1986 his father's Dawn Run won the Gold Cup to become the only horse in history to win both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup. Twenty years ago in 1996 Willie, one of only four non-professionals in the race, won the Champion Bumper on Whither Or Which.

Back in 1986 the landscape was glacially bleak for the Irish. Against a back-drop of mass emigration, 20 per cent unemployment and 18 per cent interest rates the bellwether of the Festival showed that alongside Dawn Run, Ireland only had one other winner (Buck House) that year. In both 1987 and 1988 Galmoy was our solitary flag-bearer in the Stayers Hurdle and when Rustle defeated Galmoy in the same race in 1989 Ireland drew a total blank at the Festival.

Contrast then with now. We have moved from whitewash to greenwash. Ireland has recorded double-digit victories in five of the last six years and on Friday supplied the first four home in the Gold Cup. Ireland's rising has been index-linked to Mullins' relentless emergence as the dominant force across both islands, to a point where he not only claims half of the Irish strike of 14 winners, but is now within just £120,00 of Paul Nicholls in the UK trainer's title this season.

Punters who enjoyed the Festival-of-all-Festivals with ten winning favourites (36 per cent) have been quick to board the Mullins success train and with good reason. Between this year and last year the Closutton yard, remarkably, has been responsible for no fewer than 14 horses that started at 3/1 or shorter. Of those, 11 won, two finished second and one fell. The faller, infamously of course, was Annie Power when a street clear in the mares' race last year. Part of the Mullins formula is being able not only to find horses that are good enough to win at Festival level, but also bring them to peak performance on the day - to the extent that they win with impunity on the day that matters most.

Many close to Mullins would ascribe to him a sixth sense that sees beyond the obvious in a way that often results in a choice many would question at face value. By all accounts the inclusion of Vautour on the Festival horse-box was not founded on any recent homework anyone in the yard had seen. Even Ruby Walsh admitted after the victory in the Ryanair that he would have left the horse in Carlow if the choice had been left to him. Nothing was working, so Mullins simply ditched the trainer manual and relied on his gut to completely invert the horse's routine. Just in time, but the rest is now history. Mullins's decision to drop the obvious four-miler Black Hercules back in trip by a mile and a half to contest the JLT was obviously nuts. Until it wasn't.

His ability to deviate from a plan on a whim based on an intuitive sense - whilst it may be infuriating for punters at times (and owners like 'Switch' Ricci as he was being labelled following Vautour's 11th-hour diversion to the Ryanair) - is a tremendous asset and often proven correct in the fullness of time. Remember after the Festival in 2014 Vautour was going down the Champion Hurdle route while Faugheen was going over fences? That plan was summarily reversed to many people's surprise, and just look how that worked out.

The mad-intuitive-genius side (that never writes anything down apparently) is paralleled with a militaristic operating system that can project manage a battalion of 60 horses to and from the Festival while at the same time managing the expectations and foibles of his many high-roller owners (he is the only trainer to have horses from each of O'Leary, McManus, Ricci, Potts and Wylie) all of whom are competing to buy that same coveted piece of history.

From here on as the Festival dust settles, Willie will have many interesting riddles to solve. What to do with Yorkhill, who looked a monster on Wednesday in dispatching the supposed good thing Yanworth in the Neptune? Yorkhill is obviously good enough for a Champion Hurdle but already Faugheen and Annie Power are forming an orderly queue for 2017. The Arkle looks more likely. And what of Douvan? Do you keep it simple and pursue the Queen Mother or step up for a Gold Cup? The glaring omission on the Mullins CV is the race where he has finished runner-up five times and for the last four years. There is an itch that refuses so far to be scratched.

Meanwhile, conversations are already in play with Ryan Moore to check on his availability for a date with Limini in mid-June in the Ascot Stakes.

Such speculation led me to a sudden realisation of what precisely is the kernel of racing's magnetic attraction: it stirs our emotions as we look backwards and ignites our passion as we look forward. Romantic Ireland might not be quite yet dead and gone and it certainly is not with O'Leary in the grave. As a very live Ryanair supremo declared on Friday: "For everyone in Ireland a winner at Cheltenham makes your week. A winner of the Gold Cup makes your decade."

Phil Bull famously described horseracing as the great irrelevance. In another dimension that is not entirely true.

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