Nicholls holds off Mullins in dramatic finale
Willie Mullins has had a glorious season by any standard but the last of his formidable raiding parties on British shores failed to make the expected impact, allowing Paul Nicholls to bound clear on the final day of the UK trainers' title race. The Somerset man was both joyful and deeply satisfied by this championship, the most closely contested of the 10 he has won in the past 11 years, but is clearly right to anticipate that it will be tough to hold off the Irishman next term.
Mullins, trying to be the first since the great Vincent O'Brien to be British champion jumps trainer from an Irish base, reckoned he needed four winners on this card to seize the crown. In the event he managed only one and rather an anticlimactic one at that, when the 16/1 shot McKinley landed the handicap hurdle at the very end of the day, by which time the title race had been over for almost two hours.
Nicholls ended the day more than £97,000 in front, almost doubling the lead he had held in the morning. While that counts as an emphatic winning margin, it remains less than Mullins' Vautour would have won a fortnight ago at Aintree if he had not taken a most uncharacteristic tumble at halfway.
Of all the many races which could have changed this outcome, that one will surely play most in the minds of the Mullins camp as they reflect on this season.
And it may also be that losing Ruby Walsh to a broken wrist on the eve of the Grand National was a significant blow. A handful of runners since then may arguably have produced a better effort for that finest of jump jockeys.
Mullins fielded the first two favourites here but Voix Du Reve compromised his finishing effort in the opener by failing to settle, while Valseur Lido fiddled the final fence when he needed an impressive leap in the Oaksey Chase. He was outbattled up the hill by Menorah, winning this race for the third time.
By the time of the Celebration Chase, Mullins was sorely in need of a victory but his Un De Sceaux was disconcerted, as at Cheltenham, by facing competition for the early lead.
This time it was Sire De Grugy which matched him from the outset, with the result that Un De Sceaux's jumping became ragged and let him down badly at the third-last, where Sprinter Sacre floated clear for another imperious success to complete a faintly miraculous unbeaten season.
Mullins had saddled runners-up in the first three races, with Nicholls third each time. The Irishman's chance to close the gap was dwindling and finally expired when his two runners in the Bet365 Gold Cup failed to make the first 10 home.
Nicholls was narrowly denied what would have been a famous success when his Just A Par was short-headed by The Young Master but that, along with fourth place for Southfield Theatre, was enough to seal his championship.
"It's been a tough season for lots of reasons," said Nicholls, relief being among the various emotions he showed in quick succession.
"We hit a flat spot and all sorts of gossip and rumours about things weren't right. We had to dig deep and keep going." This, he said, was "far and away" the best of his 10 titles, setting aside the very first breakthrough success. "Because we had to fight and you don't want to give it up easily."
Both men made a point of dismissing rumours that there was significant tension between them and Mullins appeared alongside Nicholls immediately after the Bet365 Gold Cup to say: "Well done and enjoy the party. Cheers!"
The next thing on Mullins' mind was withdrawing his star mare Vroum Vroum Mag from the next race - news which was naturally received poorly by many.
But she could land a much greater prize, worth €118,000, in the Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown this week. Once the entire reason for running her here had evaporated, it would have been very hard to expect connections to race her anyway. The stewards imposed a £1,000 fine and at least one of them appeared to believe a much higher amount could have been justified.
But it could be argued that Mullins had already contributed an enormous amount to this day by running as many of his stars as he did. And it seems he can be relied on to enrich the next jumps season in Britain. He is not a man who enjoys the sense of frustration and a still greater travelling presence shores next winter appears odds-on.
Sprinter Sacre will also be something to look forward to, even at the age of 10. Reflecting on his success, the trainer Nicky Henderson said: "It's been a long journey but this season has been amazing. He's great for the racing game, I hope, he's good for me but my old heart might not take much more of it."
Sunday Indo Sport