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Willie Mullins

It is 20 years this year since Florida Pearl first ran in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  The RSA Chase winner of 1998, Willie Mullins’ horse had won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown on his last run before the 1999 Cheltenham Gold Cup, and he was sent off as favourite at Cheltenham.  He didn’t run badly either, he travelled well to the third last fence before his stamina ebbed and he faded to finish third See More Business and Go Ballistic.

For trainer Willie Mullins, it was a fine first attempt at winning National Hunt racing’s blue riband.  You thought that it would only be a matter of time before he won it.  And it was.  Twenty years’ time. 

Gold Cups came and went, and Willie Mullins went close.  Florida Pearl went back to Cheltenham in 2000 and finished second.  Hedgehunter finished second in 2006, Sir Des Champs finished second in 2013, On His Own went as close as you can go without winning in 2014, going down by a short head to Lord Windermere.  Djakadam finished second in 2015 and again in 2016.

Six seconds, no wins.  It was an oversight in racing’s micro-universe that Willie Mullins had never trained a Gold Cup winner.  

Mullins said on Friday that it used to bug him.  The second time he finished second, the third time, maybe the fourth time.  Finishing second in the Gold Cup but not winning it.  Then he relaxed about it.  Racing was very good to him, he reasoned.  It was easy to count his blessings: fantastic owners, top class horses, great staff, great people around him.  He decided not to allow it burrow into his mind.  If it happened, it happened. 

It happened all right on Friday. 

Mullins ran four in the race.  He said afterwards that he thought Al Boum Photo was only number three or four of the quartet but, before they got to the half-way point of the race, he was number one. 

Kemboy unseated his rider at the first, Bellshill made mistakes and was pulled up at the top of the hill, Invitation Only fell at the fence before they turned into the home straight first time and slightly interfered with Al Boum Photo.  Invitation Only was fatally injured.  It would tame lions this game.

Al Boum Photo travelled for Paul Townend.  He jumped his fences with an efficiency and an accuracy that belied his relative inexperience, he moved easily down the hill and he hit the front as they straightened up for home.  He was strong over the last two fences too, he stayed on all the way up the hill to the winning line.

It was a superb ride by Townend.  He didn’t panic when his stable companion fell in front of him, he just allowed Al Boum Photo dance around him.  He made his ground gradually, and he delivered his horse at the perfect time.  The rider said afterwards that he owed it to the horse, no doubt referring to the incident at Punchestown last April, when they ran around the final fence in the Growise Chase instead of jumping it when they had the race at their mercy. 

An incident like that could have had a significant detrimental impact on a rider’s career.  It was a tough day and night for Townend but, with the support of good people around him, he showed remarkable character.  He bounced back the following day at Punchestown and rode a treble.

He thanked people yesterday.  Al Boum Photo’s owners Joe and Marie Donnelly for sticking with him, his trainer Willie Mullins, his mentor Ruby Walsh.

Townend started in Willie Mullins’ as an apprentice when he was 17, and he hasn’t left.  That’s just over a decade ago.  He has plied his trade as number two rider behind Ruby Walsh – better than most number one jobs – and he has harvested the opportunities with which he has been presented.

It is 33 years since Dawn Run won the Gold Cup.  Willie Mullins was at Cheltenham that day.  He turned around after his father’s mare had been headed on the run to the final fence, he was sure that she was beaten, gutted, and he made his way in under the stands.  Then he heard the cheer and he turned around and saw a hat being thrown into the air.  He knew that the cheer was for the Irish mare, his father’s mare.  He figured that only an Irishman would throw his hat into the air.

A generation later, and this time the Gold Cup cheer is for Willie’s own horse.  His father, the late and legendary Paddy Mullins, is with us no longer, but you could tell how much it meant to the trainer that his mother Maureen was there, at Cheltenham.  Two weeks before Cheltenham every year, the trainer told us, his mother starts to get ready.  She comes into top form for Cheltenham every year. 

Willie Mullins was crowned leading trainer at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.  Four wins and five seconds was enough to see off Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott and wrest the title back.  Those four wins took Mullins’ total of Cheltenham Festival winners to 65, more than any other trainer ever.

Of those 65, you know that, when the dust settles, Al Boum Photo’s Gold Cup will be up there with the most cherished.  Now Willie Mullins has won a Cheltenham Gold Cup.  Now that oversight in racing’s universe has been corrected.

© The Sunday Times, 17th March 2019