Saturday 24 February 2018

Mullins' miracle comeback clinches epic title race

Trainer Willie Mullins with the Irish Champion Trainer trophy during day five of the Punchestown Festival in Naas. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Trainer Willie Mullins with the Irish Champion Trainer trophy during day five of the Punchestown Festival in Naas. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Eamonn Sweeney

All season long Gordon Elliott led. And all season long Willie Mullins tracked him, implacable and relentless as the bounty hunter who can't be shaken off in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The young pretender came to Punchestown with more than €400,000 to spare over the king of jump racing. He was 1/6 to deny Mullins a tenth title on the trot. When Ruby Walsh said that Mullins needed a miracle to retain his crown, he was merely echoing the general opinion. Ahead for several months, Elliott had merely to see off the Mullins onslaught for a final five days.

Yet after the fourth race of the second last day of the final meeting of the season, Mullins took the lead for the first time when his son Patrick rode the 12/1 outsider Wicklow Brave to victory in the Champion Hurdle. Half-an-hour later the same jockey was on board Bacardys as that 10/1 shot beat hot favourite Finian's Oscar by a short head in the Champions Novice Hurdle. And that was the moment, the first of the season, that you knew Willie Mullins would be champion yet again.

There was something extraordinarily appropriate about that Bacardys victory. Like Willie Mullins, the horse seemed to have too much to do on the run-in yet found the strength for one last miraculous effort. And the contribution of the trainer's son was fitting because the Mullins family are one of the great Irish sporting dynasties. Willie's father, Paddy, won ten Irish trainers titles during his career. Now Willie's son was helping his own father equal that record. In the end it all came down, as things often do in Irish life, to family.

Patrick's intervention was crucial because Ruby Walsh, so long the mainstay for Mullins, had endured a uniquely frustrating time at Punchestown. Beaten a short head, beaten a head, beaten a neck, the master of the tight finish had seen the tables being turned against him. Yet when Apples Jade's victory in Saturday's Mares Hurdle gave Elliott one last glimmer of hope, it was Ruby, winning the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, who finally shut the door on the challenger. He deserved that final word.

There was something awe-inspiring about the way Mullins managed to outscore Elliott by half-a-million euros in five days. It had looked for a long time as though this was simply not meant to be the Kilkenny man's season. The immensely promising Vautour died in a training accident while the two outstanding hurdlers in the sport, Faugheen and Annie Power, never raced at all in the campaign due to injury. And when he lost two of the four biggest races at the festival by a short head and a head, it seemed as though destiny was conspiring against the greatest trainer in the history of national hunt racing. Yet he kept on and he prevailed.

Gordon Elliott has lost little caste in defeat. He actually ended the season with more winners than Mullins and became only the second trainer in the history of Irish jump racing to top €4m in earnings for the season. Yet he will be bitterly disappointed. The moment on Friday when Elliott was down at the start desperately trying to get the enigmatic Labaik to start in that Champion Hurdle, which Wicklow Brave went on to win, will stick in the mind. It spoke of a contest where neither principal left any stone unturned in their efforts to win.

It must have been a bitter blow for Mullins when Michael O'Leary withdrew his Gigginstown Stud horses from the champion trainer's stable and, in transferring the best of them to Elliott, gave the younger man a chance to take on someone whose position at the top had seemed as impregnable as any in Irish sport. Yet O'Leary's move not only set the stage for a tumultuous and thrilling contest, it also meant that Mullins was finally faced with a worthy protagonist. Vanquishing Elliott must have required the greatest training achievement of Willie Mullins' career.

This was his finest hour.

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