Friday 25 May 2018

Mullins honoured to match Dreaper's feat

Nina Carberry after her retirement with daughter Rosie and husband Ted Walash at Punchestown yesterday. Photo: PA
Nina Carberry after her retirement with daughter Rosie and husband Ted Walash at Punchestown yesterday. Photo: PA

Aisling Crowe

Dick Francis or Agatha Christie may have been capable of writing a plot with as many twists and turns as this year's 2018 Punchestown Festival conjured up, but those lacking the imagination and talent for crafting a story would have struggled to devise the screenplay of the climax to this year's National Hunt season.

At the end of five days' racing Willie Mullins stood atop the podium, crowned champion trainer for the 11th successive season after pulling off a triumph that appeared unlikely, improbable and inevitable at different points during the preceding days.

Mullins, a gentleman to the marrow, was characteristically graceful and self-effacing in a victory that joined him with Tom Dreaper on 12 trainers' championships since records began in 1950. "I am humbled to be alongside Tom Dreaper in the statistics, he was god when we were growing up," remarked Mullins.

"I'm delighted for the whole team, they take so much pride in this and I have built up a fantastic team of people - Patrick, David Casey, Ruby, my wife Jackie - it is just an awesome team. Everyone takes a different aspect of training and I try not to interfere. All the time we are trying to source new material, thinking of next year and the year after that."

Reflecting on the extraordinary week he experienced, beginning almost half-a-million euros behind Gordon Elliott, through that bizarre finish to Tuesday's Grade 1 on to Wednesday's unprecedented six winners, and his domination of the Festival which saw him beat his own record of 16 winners at the meeting, one emotion overrode all others. "We have enjoyed some great weeks here but there was a lot of relief on Wednesday, and that's how it feels to me. The team enjoy it more, the owners enjoy it more, but for me it was pure relief to get back in to a challenging position on Wednesday because I thought the whole thing was over after the second-last race on Tuesday," he confided.

The words of Kipling's oft-quoted poem 'If' - If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same - never seemed so apt as when applied to the National Hunt season's champion jockey. Following the most infamous cup of tea in racing folklore, Davy Russell transformed his attitude and approach, remembering the joy of racing that fuelled his earlier days as a jockey and he crowned a fantastic season which encompassed that nail-biting Aintree Grand National victory on Tiger Roll and the leading rider award at the Cheltenham Festival with his third championship - the first since Michael O'Leary invited him for a New Year's cuppa between races at Tramore and ended Russell's retainer.

"It has been a fantastic year and it started just trying to get the wheels back in motion," said the newly minted champion. "I've great support from Gordon Elliott, Kevin O'Ryan is the glue that knits it all together, and I've great help at home in the yard with Colman and the lads."

Along with the ecstasy there has been heartbreak too for Russell, and his family, as his beloved mother passed in the week before Cheltenham. She has never been far from his thoughts in his many successes. "It has been a tough year in other ways, losing Mam. She was a wonderful woman and would be the proudest person in Punchestown if she was here today."

There were no garlands or awards for Elliott at the end of a season that included his second Aintree Grand National victory, a first in the Irish version, and the leading trainer award for the second successive year at Cheltenham. In any previous year, Elliott would have been champion trainer with his extraordinary tally of 210 winners and more than €5 million in prize-money. His rivalry with Mullins and attempts to win his first trainers' title have been riveting and spurred each trainer on to greater heights in their tussle for glory and it is sure to be the story of next season too.

One person who will no longer thrill with their skill as a jockey is Nina Carberry, who announced her retirement from riding after winning the opening race. The pioneering trailblazer for women in racing was champion amateur and successful at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals as well as victorious in the 2011 Irish Grand National. Surrounded by her family, she bowed out on the highest note.

"It was brilliant and to win around the banks was really sweet, I couldn't go on after that. Either way I would have stopped today but it was nice to have Josie [Josies Orders] to bring me home in front. I am sad and I am happy - I'm sad that it's finished but I'm happy to be starting a new chapter in my life," she smiled.

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