Wednesday 23 May 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Magnificent sporting battle awaits at Punchestown

‘After his victory last year, Mullins praised Elliott (pictured) for “being a gentleman”. It was a nice tribute, especially if you believe in the adage that it takes one to know one’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
‘After his victory last year, Mullins praised Elliott (pictured) for “being a gentleman”. It was a nice tribute, especially if you believe in the adage that it takes one to know one’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

So, Mister Mullins, it appears we meet again. Mister Elliott, I've been expecting you, muhuhahaha. There's that kind of vibe about this year's Punchestown Festival. It is, in the immortal words of baseball legend Yogi Berra, "déjà vu all over again." Twelve months ago, Gordon Elliott led Willie Mullins by around €400,000 going into the Festival which is the finale of the Irish National Hunt season. This year, at the time of writing, the gap is a hair over €500,000.

Did we expect the same kind of battle this season as last? Not entirely. Last year's dénouement which saw Mullins utterly overpower Elliott, finishing with a €199,495 advantage after out-earning his rival by €600,000 at Punchestown, increased the aura of invincibility surrounding the Closutton man.

It was his tenth trainers' title on the trot and the odds on him making it 11 were pretty short. It appeared that Elliott had taken Mullins by surprise last season, building up a lead because the champion, used to utter dominance, took it handy early on. When Mullins led in the autumn the chances of another nail-biting climax seemed slim.

Yet here we are with Elliott in pole position once more. He is the bookies' favourite to win his first title, same as he was last year. Perhaps he's asking the question once posed by US war hero John Rambo, "Do we get to win this time?"

Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The younger man has spoken about dreaming of beating Mullins. Literally dreaming, when he's asleep. So it's possible there have been a few nightmares about Punchestown 2017, in particular the extraordinary hat-trick of winners ridden by Patrick Mullins for his father on the Friday which wiped out the gap with a day to spare. Wicklow Brave's surprise victory in the Champion Hurdle and Bacardys' incredible win in the Champion Novices Hurdle summed up the inexorable quality of Mullins' comeback. "I didn't think it was possible to be quite honest," Mullins admitted, "but it all came together in the end."

A couple of banner wins notwithstanding, Elliott's Festival could perhaps best be summed up by the stable's desperate attempts to persuade the eccentric Labaik into making a contribution. Yet there are good grounds for thinking this year will be different.

If the Gordon Elliott who challenged for the title last year was something of a surprise package in the eyes of the Irish sporting public, he is now regarded as a major player. Any idea of last season being a flash in the pan was scotched when he beat Mullins to the leading trainer title at Cheltenham for a second year in a row. With 201 winners to date, he has already broken Mullins' single season winners record of 193.

It was difficult to miss the symbolic significance of the finish of the Irish Grand National where Elliott's General Principle beat Mullins' Isleofhopendreams by a head. But just in case you did, 12 days later another Elliott horse Tiger Roll beat another Mullins horse Pleasant Company in the English version of the race by the same margin. The finish to the Fairyhouse race might prove the season's decisive moment, General Principle's late rally under JJ Slevin making a difference of €170,000.

That the rivalry has caught the public imagination, and was a major factor in attendance records being shattered at Punchestown last year, owes a lot to Elliott. Not just because he's emerged to challenge a man who just a couple of years ago appeared utterly peerless, but because he's made it clear how much victory in this battle means to him.

His line about dreaming of beating Mullins was typical. So was his assertion, right after winning the National at Aintree, that an Irish trainers' title would mean more to him. When battle was originally joined between the pair, there were some suggestions that the title didn't mean all that much. Elliott could have supported that reading by saying what mattered to him was how well his own horses went, he didn't worry about how others did, etc. Instead he's been honest about how important a trainers' title would be for him.

Mullins tends to keep his own counsel. Yet his jubilation was obvious last year. He wouldn't be human if he didn't relish proving he was still number one even after Michael O'Leary had taken the Gigginstown horses away from him and given most of them to Elliott, the move which began the rivalry in earnest.

After his victory last year, Mullins praised Elliott for "being a gentleman". It was a nice tribute, especially if you believe in the adage that it takes one to know one. Yet there is an edge to the contest, not a mean-spirited grudge match type of edge but the kind you'll always have between two supremely talented performers competing against each other.

Were Mullins to take the title this year it would represent the most astonishing achievement of his career. Last season he had to overcome injuries to key horses, this season he has had to do without the services of Ruby Walsh for almost six months.

In Walsh's absence, Davy Russell's season has been almost as remarkable as Elliott's. To, at the age of 38, become leading jockey at Cheltenham and win the Grand National for the first time and add the Irish jockeys' title represents a remarkable renaissance. But to do it shortly after the death of his mother Phyllis lends huge emotional resonance to what will be one of the great Irish sports stories of the year.

There was a celebratory air to last year's Punchestown following the record-breaking 19 winners at Cheltenham. Predictions that this was a freakish haul were disproved when this year yielded 17 winners. England did keep its end up by providing the winners of the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase but the gap in quality between Cheltenham and Punchestown is diminishing all the time.

A host of winners at the Cotswold festival will be togging out in Kildare this week.

Among them will be a pair of prodigies, Samcro and Laurina. The former has been tagged as a wonder horse ever since his debut and his easy victory in the Ballymore Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham confirmed that impression. Yet the latter's 18-and-a-half-length victory in the Mares Novices Hurdle the following day was even more impressive. Between them they are undefeated in 11 races with an average winning margin of ten lengths. Should they, as seems likely, go head to head in Friday's Champion Novice Hurdle, a race for the ages awaits. Added spice would be provided by the fact that Elliott trains Samcro and Mullins Laurina. The title race should still be in the balance when they meet.

Maybe all will still be up for grabs on Saturday when another memorable Elliott-Mullins showdown looks likely in the Mares Champion Hurdle. Apple's Jade has been Elliott's stable star for the last couple of years, an apparently irresistible force which had won five Group Ones in a row before being upset by Mullins' Benie Des Dieux in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham. A rematch awaits in the Punchestown equivalent.

But perhaps the most potentially intriguing clash of the Festival is a Mullins v Mullins one. Few horses have looked as definitively bound for greatness as Douvan did when winning the Arkle Chase in 2017. All rivals were brushed aside with ease and a patina of legend had already begun to accrete around the name of this extraordinary chaser. Then came the injury at Cheltenham which led to many people doubting whether we'd ever see him in action again.

He made a surprise return at this year's Cheltenham and looked partly back to his old self. What would have happened had he not fallen while bowling along in the lead four out in the Champion Chase is something we'll never know. However, his performance in Tuesday's Champion Chase will give us an idea.

His main rival will be Great Field, a horse of large and quixotic talent. Nothing at last year's Punchestown was more eye-catching than his 11-length victory in the Ryanair Novice Chase, achieved in his trademark manner of bolting straight to the front and making all the running. There is a kind of wonderfully untamed quality to Great Field, which missed Cheltenham but returned to win at Navan four weeks ago. Were he and Douvan to be at their best, an extraordinary contest could ensue.

Willie and Gordon cast a long shadow. At Cheltenham, they won more races than every other trainer combined, the first time any pair had been so dominant. You sense they will throw everything at each other over the coming week. When the dust settles we will witness either the end of an era or its apotheosis.

Like Cork and Tipp in the early 1950s, Dublin and Kerry in the '70s and Garret and Charlie in the '80s, Elliott and Mullins are engaged in one of the great Irish rivalries. By Saturday evening, we'll know who's winning.

There can be only one.

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