Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott

Fifty-one weeks of the National Hunt season gone, just one to go.

This time last year, on the eve of the Punchestown Festival, it was a different scenario.  Gordon Elliott led the trainers’ championship by over €500,000 from Willie Mullins.  We knew that Willie Mullins would come at him at the Punchestown Festival, Willie Mullins always comes at you at the Punchestown Festival, but even so, €500,000 was some chasm.  The bookmakers made Elliott favourite. 

And after the Growise Chase on the first day of the Festival, when the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo ran out at the final fence when looking a likely winner, the chasm looked even wider.  Al Boum Photo’s departure left the way clear for a Gordon Elliott 1-2-3, The Storyteller, Monbeg Notorious, Jury Duty, rat-tat-tat.  That was €89,000 for Elliott and €4,000 for Mullins in the race (Rathvinden finished fourth), as opposed to €60,000 for Mullins and €15,000 for Elliott.  Al Boum Photo’s departure probably effected a swing of €130,000, and Elliott remained favourite. 

Then Willie Mullins cut loose.  Incredibly, he trained six of the seven winners on Wednesday, obliterating the €400,000 gap and, after that, Mullins was not for catching.  He ended the week €800,000 clear of Elliott and champion trainer again, for the 12th time in a row and the 13th time in total.   

It’s different this year.  The trainers’ championship narrative is not really a thread that has run through the season.  Willie Mullins started the term well and he has continued the momentum.  He is over €1 million ahead of Gordon Elliott going into Punchestown week, and that should be enough to see him home.  

Not that Gordon Elliott has had a bad season.  On the contrary, it has been another memorable one so far for the Meathman.  He has had 11 Grade 1 winners to date, including Jury Duty’s Grand National Hurdle at Far Hills in America.  He has had Delta Work and Battleoverdoyen and Felix Desjy and Commander Of Fleet.  

He has had Envoi Allen, four from four in bumpers, winner of the Grade 2 bumper at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival and winner of the Grade 1 Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival.  And he has had Apple’s Jade, winner of three Grade 1 contests in the space of two months, the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, the Christmas Hurdle and the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle, by an aggregate of 62 lengths. 

And then, of course, there was Tiger Roll.  Little Tiger Roll, clever Tiger Roll, who danced over the Aintree fences again with Davy Russell and won the Grand National.  The first horse since Red Rum to win back-to-back Nationals.  It was another milestone in the rich history of the Grand National.

It has been a season of milestones too for Willie Mullins.  Leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival again, still more winners at the Cheltenham Festival than any other trainer in the history of the event, and looking set to register 200 winners in an Irish National Hunt season for the second year running.  Also, a first Cheltenham Gold Cup and a first Irish Grand National.  In the space of six weeks, Mullins filled in two of the few remaining gaps on his CV.

He had gone close in the Gold Cup before.  Six times he had watched as one of his horses had finished second.  The fact that Willie Mullins had never won the Gold Cup did not sit easily in racing’s universe.  The best trainers win the best races, that’s the way it is, that’s the way it should be.  Then Paul Townend delivered Al Boum Photo with that run from the top of the home straight, and the pair of them came clear of their rivals and up the Cheltenham hill, and racing’s universe could rest easily again.

It was a similar story with the Irish Grand National last Monday, but it was different.  With fully a circuit to run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Al Boum Photo was the only one of Mullins’ four representatives who remained in the race.  In the Irish Grand National on Monday, the Mullins masses assembled and, with three fences to jump, it wasn’t a question of whether or not the trainer would win it, it was a question of with which horse. 

With Burrows Saint, as it turned out.  Susannah Ricci’s horse travelled well through his race under a seamless Ruby Walsh, and he saw out the distance well.  He is only six years old and, all going well, he is a horse with a future too. 

It has been a tremendous season in lots of ways.  Seven different Irish trainers had winners at the Cheltenham Festival.  Mullins had four and Elliott had three, and Henry de Bromhead had two, which took his total to seven.  Ted Walsh had one, Any Second Now in the Kim Muir, the trainer’s first Cheltenham Festival winner since Commanche Court won the Triumph Hurdle in 1997.  Joseph O’Brien had two, his first Cheltenham Festival winners in his own name.  

Martin Brassil had never trained a Cheltenham Festival winner before he sent out City Island to win the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, and Gavin Cromwell had never trained a Cheltenham Festival winner before he sent out Espoir D’Allen to win the Champion Hurdle.  It was a memorable week.

It has been a memorable season for Irish National Hunt riders too.  Davy Russell bagged another Grand National on Tiger Roll and Ruby Walsh bagged another Irish National on Burrows Saint and Paul Townend landed his first Cheltenham Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo.  Townend will be crowned champion jockey next Saturday, and deservedly so.  He has had a fantastic season, two Cheltenham Festival winners, an Arkle and a Gold Cup, and he has broken through the 100 barrier in Ireland for the first time.

And Rachael Blackmore has been one of the shining lights of the season.  Her first Cheltenham Festival winner A Plus Tard, her first Grade 1 winner Minella Indo, her first Grade 1 winner in Ireland Honeysuckle.  A total of 89 winners in Ireland and counting, and runner-up in the jockeys’ championship.

And still one week to go.

© The Sunday Times, 28th April 2019