Tuesday 26 March 2019

Undisputed master still hunting the big one

Willie Mullins looks back at his six Gold Cup runners-up and assesses his chances this year

Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Fergus McDonnell

What do you give the man who has everything? Well, almost everything. In Cheltenham terms, Willie Mullins has more silver lining than clouds. Since Tourist Attraction became his first Festival winner in 1995 he has trained a record 60 more. But there are still four words missing from his CV: 'Gold Cup Winning Trainer.'

If it irks him, he hides it well. The consistent answer to incessant questioning on the topic is that he never thought he'd even have one Festival winner, never mind 61, and that every year he brings his team to the Cotswolds his ambitions don't extend beyond getting one success on the board and bringing horses and jockeys back safe and sound.

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But in a race that represents the pinnacle of steeplechasing - three miles, two-and-a-half furlongs and 22 fences that demand incredible sure-footed stamina - Mullins has saddled the runner-up no fewer than six times. That has to hurt. "I'll probably have to wait, like my father, to get a good mare to win it," he said last year, recalling Dawn Run's victory in the 1986 renewal.

Since that day, when legendary commentator Peter O'Sullevan announced to his television audience that "the mare is beginning to get up" to catch Wayward Lad, Mullins' Gold Cup campaigns have been a case of close, but no cigar.

"The only one I have regrets about is Florida Pearl, the very first one," he recalls at his yard in Closutton. "Early in his career, we were always trying to keep a lid on him and settle him in his races. It was Martin Molony (who rode Silver Fame to win in 1951) who said it to me that maybe we should try and let him gallop a bit because he is such a good jumper.

"And that's probably the one I wonder should we have been a bit more adventurous with, but there was always a stamina doubt about him. Florida Pearl won fantastic races for us and was a game-changer for the stable. Everything else, I was happy with what we did; there wasn't much I'd change."

In that 2000 race, See More Business, Looks Like Trouble and Florida Pearl were lining up behind Gloria Victis as they raced down the hill towards the finishing straight. Gloria Victis came under pressure and fell at the second last, leaving Paul Carberry in front on Florida Pearl.

But Florida Pearl didn't quite get the trip and was hanging on to second as Looks Like Trouble won it. "Next year will probably be his last chance to be really competitive," Mullins said in the aftermath of the race, but sadly the foot and mouth outbreak meant there would be no 'next year', and Florida Pearl was a distant 11th when Best Mate won in 2002.

Mullins' next near miss came in 2006 when War Of Attrition stormed to victory despite a brave effort from the previous season's Grand National winner, Hedgehunter, to close the gap in the final yards. Mullins was thrilled with the runner-up's display.

"I never thought I would be so delighted to finish second in my life but I am after the way mine have been running," he said. "He jumped fantastic and ran a fantastic race. The pace was a bit strong in the first half-mile but he warmed to it nicely and he will definitely go for the Grand National now." Hedgehunter then narrowly failed to defend his title at Aintree, finishing second to Royal Auclair.

Next up in the bridesmaid stakes was Sir Des Champs, which came second behind Bobs Worth after the winner was almost brought down when Silviniaco Conti fell.

But 2013 will always be remembered for the tragedy that unfolded when JT McNamara was thrown from Galaxy Rock in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup, sustaining back injuries and a broken neck which left him paralysed.

"There's no glory in victory today," said Bobs Worth's jockey Barry Geraghty. "John Thomas is a friend of mine. He's a senior rider in Ireland, he's very popular and we have grown up riding against each other. He's a good friend in hospital in bad shape. It's a sad moment."

McNamara died on July 26, 2016 at the age of 41.

If there is a stand-out 'one that got away' in Mullins' seconds string, it is surely On His Own, which finished runner-up to 20/1 shot Lord Windermere by a short head in 2014. A lengthy stewards' enquiry left the result unchanged.

"On His Own was a hurtful defeat," Mullins recalls, "where he was carried across the track by Lord Windermere, but we didn't object. I didn't want to win the race in the stewards' room. We might have done that, but it is not the way to win the Gold Cup."

After two false starts delayed proceedings, the winner spent most of the race detached from the back of the field but started to move up three fences from home. On His Own was headed but then rallied, just failing to catch the winner.

During the enquiry, which was televised live by Channel 4, David Casey, who partnered On His Own, said, "I felt, with a straight run, I would have won the race." Davy Russell, who rode Lord Windermere, said that his horse had been intimidated by Silviniaco Conti, which had hung towards him on the run-in.

Casey wasn't originally down to ride On His Own, but Ruby Walsh had broken his arm in the first race of the day. Jim Culloty, who saddled Lord Windermere, became only the fourth man to train and ride a Gold Cup winner, 10 years after winning the race for a third time on Best Mate.

Mullins' last two second places came courtesy of Djakadam - runner-up to Coneygree in 2015 and to Don Cossack the following year. Coneygree was the first novice to win the race for 40 years - since Captain Christy in 1974 - and came home a length and a half to the good.

Knowing how much victory in the race means to a trainer, Mullins was quick to congratulate his rival Gordon Elliott after Don Cossack's success. "We have no excuses. He did everything right and even jumped better than the winner over the last three fences but still couldn't win. It's great for Gigginstown, for Gordon and for Bryan (Cooper, winning jockey) and it must be a big relief to him that he chose right."

Ruby Walsh, who partnered Djakadam, knew his mount had been beaten by a better horse on the day. "He travelled really well but Smad Place was jumping right in front of him for most of the way. It was what it was and Don Cossack was a really good winner. He (Djakadam) has always been a very good jumper so that never concerned me. He's run his race but the winner was very good on the day. Fair play to Bryan Cooper, he got it right."

Mullins actually rode a Gold Cup winner in the race - although it was 12 months after Bregawn was victorious in the 1983 renewal. By then, Bregawn had lost his mojo, with Timeform commenting that he "fell from grace faster than Icarus".

"He was a quirky individual," recalls Mullins. "I don't know if I was riding him or he was carrying me. But we pulled up at the last. Yet it was still a great thrill to have a ride in the Gold Cup, even if Bregawn was a light of former days by then. I knew one of the owners and he asked me would I like to ride it. Maybe they were hoping that I, as an amateur, would be able to give the horse a more sympathetic ride.

"I'd ridden him to win a race at what was then Limerick Junction and maybe the hope was that I could get him going. We were a furlong behind the pace with a mile to run, but I knew the horse and just sat there and let him do his thing. We got the last fence gaining ground, but the race was away from us by then."

So on Friday next Mullins once again hopes to saddle the winner in a race that has yet to show him any kindness. How does he rate his four contenders?

"There's Al Boum Photo, Invitation Only, Kemboy and Bellshill - and I'll probably run as many as I can. Those four can run there, anyway.

"It would be nice to win the Gold Cup, and we have as good a chance this year as any. You can make cases for them all. Bellshill jumps particularly well, and we saw Kemboy skip over those fences at Leopardstown. I hope he'll be able to do the same in Cheltenham.

"I don't think we've seen the best of Al Boum Photo yet. We decided we'd take him to Cheltenham fresh. He shouldn't have any problem with the Gold Cup trip.

"Invitation Only probably has to step up a bit. Kemboy put in a huge performance at Christmas in Leopardstown on very good ground. If it comes up like that on the fourth day of Cheltenham - which it can - he must have a very good chance. I think the further he goes the better he'll be, too. He's one that has sort of jumped out this season. He got a very brave ride at Christmas, and it paid off.

"Bellshill has lots of stamina and jumps particularly well. That's a huge plus for him. Cheltenham hasn't been Bellshill's luckiest place. Maybe this is the year that he's going to change that. He's handling left-handed tracks well. He is now the horse we thought he would be. I think it's all coming together this season."

And maybe this is the season Willie Mullins' Gold Cup hopes and dreams come together too.

SECOND BEST: Mullins' misses

Florida Pearl (9/2) Beaten 5l by Looks Like Trouble in 2000

Hedgehunter (16/1) Beaten 2ƒl by War Of Attrition in 2006

Sir Des Champs (4/1) Beaten 7l by Bobs Worth in 2013

On His Own (16/1) Beaten a short head by Lord Windermere in 2014

Djakadam (10/1) Beaten 1ƒl by Coneygree in 2015

Djakadam (9/2) Beaten 4ƒl by Don Cossack in 2016

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