Monday 20 November 2017

Mullins master of all in epic National Hunt year

Willie Mullins
Willie Mullins
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Any sense that Willie Mullins might be sad to see the curtain come down on a sensational year is countered by the fact that the brilliant champion trainer's incredible dominance shows absolutely no sign of abating.

Once Leopardstown's racing festivities get under way on St Stephen's Day, there are seven Grade Ones up for decision across four days. It's possible that Mullins will saddle the market leader in each and you can be sure that he will come away with his fair share of the spoils.

He has already plundered an unprecedented 20 top-level victories in 2013, a year in which his supremacy has gone stratospheric. Back in February, he toppled Aidan O'Brien's 1996 record of 155 winners in a jumps campaign en route to a final tally of 193 that rises to 202 after foreign successes are factored into the equation.

When Mozoltov won at Fairyhouse recently, Mullins was claiming a fastest century in a season for a fourth time in three years. Not content with doing it once every 12 months, he actually broke the record twice in 2012, once in February and again the following December.

A first double century must be on his agenda, as the gap between the seven-time champion and his rivals continues to widen. In a way, conditions have conspired to permit Mullins' stunning hegemony, with more racing and more Grade Ones taking place than ever before.

Combine that with the manner in which so many other yards' ownership base and equine numbers have been ravaged by the harsh economic climate and it has been a perfect storm for the Closutton, Co Carlow outfit. However, that analysis doesn't do Mullins justice either, as this is an operation that he has gradually fine-tuned into the insatiable leviathan that it is.

Remember, it is nearly 19 years since Tourist Attraction delivered his first Cheltenham Festival winner under Mark Dwyer, but it was 2007 before any of his runners sported the colours of JP McManus or Rich Ricci. Next month will mark just the third anniversary of the first Gigginstown House Stud steeds to compete in his name, while Graham Wylie and Alan Potts only came on board two years ago.

Mullins always had good owners like Archie O'Leary and John Brennan, but the manner in which he was pulverising his rivals compelled all these enormously wealthy individuals to put whatever foibles they might have aside to allow him to train for them all under one roof. The Kilkenny-born wizard dictates the terms of engagement and, if there are tensions over horses clashing or pecking orders, you hear very little about it.

The net result is that Mullins is in the extremely powerful position that he is in now. Like Liverpool Football Club during the 1980s, the recent Kilkenny hurling onslaught or even Paul Nicholls' big-race muscle up to recently, his is a relentless juggernaut.

SETBACKS

Sure, there are setbacks along the way, but they only ever seem to be fleeting, never remotely absolute. He is in his pomp, and, short of the yard being struck down by a debilitating virus, that's exactly where he is staying for the foreseeable future.

Never was Mullins' formidable strength more evident than at Cheltenham in March. By the end of a memorable first day that will go down in folklore as one of the most euphoric for the raiders in recent times, he had matched his 2012 haul of three to replace Tom Dreaper as the great Festival's most successful Irish trainer.

Courtesy of inspirational Ruby Walsh steers, Hurricane Fly and Quevega brought the house down with a pair of historic and courageous victories. The following day, Walsh guided the unbeaten Briar Hill to a scarcely believable 25/1 rout in the Champion Bumper, a fifth and last triumph for Mullins that assured him a second leading trainer award in three years.

His running tally of 29 means he is the fifth most successful Festival trainer of all time and Quevega is the only horse other than Gold Cup icon Golden Miller to have won there five times.

Somewhat unexpectedly, though, the heroics of Mullins were only part of what proved to be a sensational week for the Irish delegation en masse which clocked out with 14 winners.

A new record, the massive yield represented the first time that the away team had outscored the home team (13), providing the Irish racing industry with an enormous fillip.

Going into the week, the fear was that if 'Team Mullins' didn't fire, last year's modest total of five might be considered an acceptable return. It was remarkable, then, to think that he didn't train a winner on the final two days, yet eight other individual stables rowed in to contribute to a truly exhilarating bonanza in the revered Cotswolds amphitheatre.

Mullins' Sir Des Champs fell just short in his quest for Gold Cup glory under AP McCoy on the Friday, but his brother Tom later combined with the incomparable Co Antrim native to complete a four-timer for the raiders aboard Alderwood. Earlier on that magic afternoon, Bryan Cooper excelled aboard Our Conor and Ted Veale to bring his score to three.

Effortlessly stylish, the prodigious youngster exuded cool. He might have modelled himself on Paul Carberry, who 24 hours earlier had claimed a deserved first triumph in one of the Festival's marquee events when deputising for Davy Russell on Solwhit in the World Hurdle.

Despite his 39 years, Carberry's trademark panache was a joy to behold as he and Charles Byrnes' injury-prone star strode clear up the famous Prestbury Park hill. In all, Irish horses plundered prize money totalling £1.8m during the four days of heady achievement, 20 of the 27 winners were bred here and 19 were ridden by a jockey that was born here.

There is simply no other elite international sporting arena in which our participants exert such a critical influence.

While the issue of champion jockey Russell's spontaneously punctured lung was one of the week's more sombre episodes, it was the cruel fate suffered by JT McNamara, whose pugilistic joust with Russell in the 2002 National Hunt Chase remains one of the Festival's least likely modern day highlights, that triggered a collective gloom.

McNamara was hurled head-first into the Cheltenham turf when Galaxy Rock crashed at the first fence in the Kim Muir Chase on the Thursday. Once the extent of his injuries began to emerge the following day, the subdued atmosphere didn't reflect the success out on the track.

Time allows us to reflect more enthusiastically on what was achieved, but sadly it doesn't have the same healing potential for McNamara. He is a giant of the amateur riders' scene whose paralysis is a shocking reminder that the fates are utterly indiscriminate.

The spring brought a couple of real treats on the local scene, with Liberty Counsel grinding out a shock 50/1 Irish Grand National coup for Dot Love and Ben Dalton in April.

Sprinter Sacre hails from far less modest confines, but such a rare equine talent is universally appreciated in this part of the world, so his swansong under Barry Geraghty at Punchestown later the same month provided the ultimate celebratory climax to the campaign.

EXPLOITS

In between, not content with his exploits here, Mullins went and plundered the most valuable triumph of his career when Walsh and Blackstairmountain pulled off an audacious swoop on the €565,000 Nakayama Grand Jump in Japan.

He added to his array of records by accumulating €3.9m in Irish prize money and an enormous 13 Punchestown Festival winners.

Then Hurricane Fly, a horse that somehow has never captured the public imagination in the way that similarly unique operators like Istabraq, Sprinter Sacre or Kauto Star have done, returned in November and started all over again.

Although undercooked, the gifted two-miler did what was needed in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown to claim a world record 17th Grade One

While it was regrettable that such a landmark feat occurred at odds of 1/16 in a Punchestown contest that didn't nearly justify its status, it was nonetheless another definitive accomplishment that further embellishes Mullins' legacy.

Simenon's galling Ascot Gold Cup defeat and his subsequent gallant Melbourne Cup fourth certainly did nothing to detract from that magnificent list of exploits.

Indeed, if anything they offered a timely reminder of the enduring skill and versatility of a man who commands the single most unrelenting National Hunt battalion in the history of the game in this country.

Conquering those more exotic Flat outposts will remain high on his list of things to do, as will the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The illustrious blue riband event is still his Holy Grail and the next step on that road will come when Sir Des Champs endeavours to get his crusade back on track in the Lexus Chase on Saturday.

Interestingly, the Leopardstown Grade One is one of the few domestic showpieces that have yet to feature Mullins' name on their roll of honour.

It will surely be a good omen for March if that much is rectified come the weekend.

Irish Independent

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