Donn's Articles » Mullins v Elliott

Mullins v Elliott

In the end, it was Willie Mullins who emerged on top, it was the perennial champ who won the battle and claimed the Irish National Hunt trainers’ championship again.  But what a battle.

This one ran and ran, and Gordon Elliott pushed Mullins all the way to the wire.  The destination of the title was not decided until late yesterday afternoon, on the final day of the 2016/17 Irish National Hunt season, in a battle that had raged for the previous 364. 

And it mattered.  It is difficult to over-estimate how much.  Titles matter in sport, championships matter.  They matter in racing as much as they matter in rugby or in hockey or in hurling.  To be crowned champion trainer, the best in your sport, the best in your profession: that’s monstrous. 

The Mullins/Elliott duel has been a thematic sub-plot that has under-pinned the entire National Hunt season.  Mullins the perennial, the undisputed champion; Elliott the pretender, the new force.  Until this season, it was difficult to envisage a situation in which Mullins’ dominance of Irish National Hunt racing could even be threatened.  That’s what a decade’s reign will do. 

In each of the four seasons that ran between 2011 and 2015, Willie Mullins amassed more prize money than the sum of the totals earned by the trainers who finished second, third and fourth behind him in the championship.  Then last season, Gordon Elliott emerged from the pack as clear second best, with total prize money of €2.56 million, more than twice as much as that earned by Henry de Bromhead in third.  But Mullins won the championship with an incredible total of €4.49 million.  There was no real threat.

Elliott rolled through the summer.  He won the Galway Plate with Lord Scoundrel and he won the Kerry National with Wrath Of Titans.  But Willie Mullins won the Galway Hurdle with Clondaw Warrior, and there was still no title-threat talk.  Then, at the end of September, there was the high-profile split between Willie Mullins and champion owners Gigginstown House and, in a heartbeat, everything was on the table.

The loss of 60 Gigginstown horses, many of them high-class, was a hammer-blow to Mullins, and the champion trainer had to re-group. 

It was inevitable at the time that the loss of the Gigginstown horses was going to lead to a significant loss of earnings for Mullins, and so it transpired.  Valseur Lido went to Henry de Bromhead and won the Grade 1 Champion Chase, Petit Mouchoir also joined de Bromhead and landed the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle and the Grade 1 BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle. 

In terms of the trainers’ championship and the impending challenge for the title from Gordon Elliott that was inevitably going to ensue, it was a double-blow.  Around one-third of the Gigginstown horses that left Mullins joined his main title rival. 

A Toi Phil won four races after joining Elliott, Don Poli finished second in the Lexus Chase and third in the Irish Gold Cup, Apple’s Jade won the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, beating the Mullins-trained Vroum Vroum Mag by a short head.

While the addition of the Gigginstown House horses was obviously a fillip for Elliott, it was only a contributory factor to his ascendancy.  The flames of his career were raging anyway.  The additional Gigginstown horses only added fuel.

Before the 2007/08 season, Elliott had not trained a winner in Ireland.  Aintree Grand National-winning trainer he may have been by that time, but he hadn’t had a winner at home.  Six winners in 2007/08 was followed by 14 in 2008/09 and 26 in 2009/10.  Then he exploded. 

Last season, he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack, and he went through the 100-winner barrier for the first time, amassing that prize money haul of €2.56 million. This season, he had 100 winners in the bag by mid-November, the fastest 100 ever recorded by a National Hunt trainer in Ireland.

Elliott dominated the valuable handicap chases.  After landing the Galway Plate and the Kerry National during the summer, he continued with the Munster National, the Troytown Chase, the Paddy Power Chase, the Dan Moore Chase and the Leopardstown Chase.  But it was not only in the handicaps that Elliott excelled.  He did not have Don Cossack this term, but he still had Grade 1 success with Apple’s Jade, Outlander, Death Duty and Mega Fortune.  And that was before the Cheltenham Festival rolled around.

Of course, prize money earned at the Cheltenham Festival does not count towards the Irish National Hunt trainers’ championship, but that did not stop the Mullins/Elliott duel from spilling over across the Irish Sea.  They each had six winners at Cheltenham.  Incredible.  Elliott had a treble on Tuesday and a double on Wednesday.  Mullins had a four-timer on Thursday.

You can get consumed by the domestic championship, with the parochialness of it all, but it is significant that both trainers were also as successful as they were this season at the Cheltenham Festival.  And not only did Mullins and Elliott run riot on Prestbury Park, there were seven other Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham.  There were 19 Irish winners in total, the most ever, as Irish trainers stretch to reach the bar as Mullins and Elliott push it higher.

Mullins suffered high-profile losses.  He lost Vautour and Avant Tout at the start of the season.  We didn’t see Faugheen all season, we didn’t see Annie Power all season, we didn’t see Min after Christmas.

Mullins’ strength in-depth meant that he still managed to dominate at the highest level with Nichols Canyon, Airlie Beach, Djakadam, Min, Douvan, Saturnas, Vroum Vroum Mag, Bacardys and Augusta Kate all winning Grade 1 races in Ireland.

Even so, at the start of Punchestown week last Tuesday, with €2.9 million up for grabs, Elliott still had a cushion of €400,000, and the bookmakers bet 1/5 Elliott, 7/2 Mullins.  On Tuesday, Mullins had the 1-2 in the Grade 1 Champion Novice Hurdle with Cilaos Emery and Melon.  On Wednesday, Elliott had two Grade 1 winners in Champagne Classic and Fayonagh, while Mullins had the 2-3 behind Champagne Classic in the Grade 1 novice hurdle, and he had the 1-2 in the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle with C’est Jersey and Battleford.

On Thursday, Mullins’ Nichols Canyon was beaten a head by Unowhatimeanharry in the Grade 1 Champion Stayers Hurdle, but he won the other Grade 1 race on the day with Great Field, and he won the mares’ novices’ hurdle with Asthuria.

Then on Friday, the balance titled Mullins’ way with a Grade 1 double via Wicklow Brave and Bacardys, both ridden by his son Patrick, and he followed up with the 1-2 in the two-mile novices’ hurdle. 

Yesterday was not a lap of honour for Mullins, Elliott mounted a spirited rally when he won the first Grade 1 contest on the casd, the Mares’ Champion Hurdle, with Apple’s Jade, but, when Ruby Walsh kicked Bapaume home in the Grade 1 Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle, that was it.  The title was Willie Mullins’ again.

It was some year though, it was some duel, it was a dramatic season that saw the reputations of both trainers significantly enhanced.  This one was about the destination all right, but it was also about the journey.

© The Sunday Times, 30th April 2017