By Michael O’Leary
CLOSUTTON MASTER’S 25 YEARS OF CHELTENHAM TRIUMPH
Al Boum Photo’s successful defence of the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, was the 1st time since Best Mate in 2003 that a horse that won the prestigious feature the previous year(2002), returned 12 months later to Triumph again in the Blue Riband of jump-racing.
It was another Festival success for the Champion trainer maestro Willie Mullins, who with 7 more winners at this year’s 2020 Festival cemented himself as the outstanding trainer in Festival history with 72 victories, since it all began for the Closutton maestro 25 years ago.
Toursit Attraction under the guidance of twice Gold Cup winning jockey Mark Dwyer was a shock 25/1 winner of the opening race of the Festival, the Supreme Novices Hurdle back in 1995, and that victory provided the platform for a quarter of a century of subsequent success.
Willie was still riding his own horses in bumpers around that period, and a year later in 1996, he was aboard Wither Or Which to provide him with the first of 10 Festival Bumper triumphs – Ferny Hollow last Wednesday was his 10th – before the first superstar emerged from the stable in 12-times Grade 1 winner Florida Pearl.
Florida Pearl gave Mullins his 2nd consecutive bumper victory in 1997, before the gamble to plunge him into the world of steeplechasing paid dividends when he won the Sun Alliance Chase 12 months later (1998), while later that particular day Alexander Banquet provided a third Bumper victory in succession as Ruby Walsh was on board to gain the first of his 36 Festival winners for the Champion trainer.
The Violet O’Leary colours of Florida Pearl won the Festival Bumper again in 2005 courtesy of Missed That with Ruby again on board, and from the mid-2000s onwards the Ruby Walsh/Willie Mullins partnership started to assert and establish themselves as one of the best in Irish Sport.
Hedgehunter provided the duo with a career highlight when winning the Aintree Grand National in 2005, while legendary stalwarts like the brilliant mare Quevega and Hurricane Fly confirmed their ever growing reputation.
Hurricane Fly was one of the great hurdlers in history as evident by his 22 Grade 1 triumphs which included two Champion Hurdle victories in 2011 and 2013, and in the process he became the 1st horse to regain the two mile showpiece since Comedy of Errors back in 1975.
Meanwhile, Quevega achieved legendary status in 2014 when making history by winning the Mares Hurdle for a 6th straight consecutive year, and in the process she became the 1st horse ever to win at the Cheltenham Festival 6 years in a row eclipsing the 5-in-a-row Gold Cup triumphs of Golden Miller back in the 1930s.
Having achieved so much in Racing, Willie must himself have been wondering was the most prestigious prize in steeplechasing going to elude him having been runner-up on 6 occassions.
Florida Pearl(2000), Hedgehunter(2006), Sir Des Champs(2013), twice Thyestes Chase victor On His Own(2014), and 2015 Thyestes winner Djakadam (2015 & 2016), while during the Autumn of 2016, the Clossuton native suffered a huge blow as he parted ways with the Gigginstown Stud.
However, similar to the Kilkenny hurlers and Brian Cody who bounced back to win All-Irelands in 2006 & 2011 after they were written off following defeats in the 2005 All-Ireland Semi-Final to
Galway and having been well beaten in their quest for 5-in-a-row to Tipperary in the 2010 All-Ireland Final, Willie Mullins displayed adversity and perseverance throughout his most testing period.
With Mullins and Gigginstown parting ways and losing 60 of his charges to other trainers, Gordon Elliott emerged as a major rival, and he benefited greatly by picking up most of the Champion trainer’s previous brigade.
Throughout the 2016-2017 season, Elliott was leading the trainer’s Championship all season, and he was Champion elect heading into the end of season Punchestown Festival.
However, that all changed on the penultimate day of the Festival as Willie and his son Patrick combined for a treble which included double Grade 1 success with Wicklow Brave and Bacardys.
Those victories changed the complexion of the outcome completely, as Willie snatched the Championship from his main rival in the most unlikely circumstances, and in the process won a 10th consecutive trainer’s title.
A similar outcome transpired 12 months later, as the Champion trainer enjoyed the most incredible of weeks.
A staggering 18 winners at the Punchestown Festival which included 9 Grade 1s, and an astonishing 6 winners on Day 2 – Wednesday – saw him completely overhaul Gordon Elliott as he surged clear on his way to defending the Championship once again.
Two of the old stagers Un De Sceaux and Faugheen were the stars of an amazing week as they were the most impressive and hugely popular winners of the Boylesports Champion Chase, and Champion Stayers Hurdle respectively.
Ultimately, his Gold Cup duck was broken with Al Boum Photo last year, and having successfully defended his crown this year, he will
return all going well in 2021 in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Golden Miller (1932-1934 – won 5-in-a-row in 1936 -), Cottage Rake(1948-1950), Arkle(1964-1966) and Best Mate(2002-2004) who won the most prestigious race in Steeplechasing three years in succession.
Having drawn a blank until the final race on day two of this years festival, the Closutton maestro bounced back with 7 winners that included a 4-timer on Gold Cup day to end up been leading trainer over Gordon Elliott despite both finishing with 7 winners each.
However, Willie emerged as leading trainer after countback of placings.
One of the quartet that was victorious was Saint Roi who was most impressive in winning the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle, and who along with Al Boum Photo were winners on the same card at Tramore’s New Years Day meeting in January.
It was 7th time in the last decade that the 13 times Champion trainer finished up as leading trainer of the Cheltenham Festival, with 55 of his 72 festival victories having been acheived since 2011.
His dominance over the last 10 years has firmly established himself as the most outstanding trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, and possibly the greatest National Hunt trainer of all time for all his unprecedented acheivements throughout the last 25 years.
Without question one of the great Irish sports people in history for all his unprecedented acheivements throughout the last 25 years, Willie probably hasn’t always got the credit he has deserved on a wider sporting scale, but their can be no disputing his remarkable success and their is plenty more still to come.